Of Funerals and Corporal Punishment

“So what did we agree?”

The boys, still belted in the back seat, groaned their reply, “To be quiet and not cause trouble.”

“And what happens if you mess up?”

The groans were accompanied by a schlumping effect that would have poured their bodies onto the floor of the back seat had the seat belts not been engaged. “No video games.”

“And?”

“No TV.”

“And most importantly?”

#1 took this moment to stake his claim on the leadership role of the younger generation. “We embarrass ourselves, our father and our family in front of the town.”

I caught his gaze via the rear view mirror and nodded approvingly. #1 then back-peddled a bit by rolling his eyes. Completely under-confident in the behavior to come, I turned off the car, grabbed the vase full of flowers I’d just cut from our yard and hoped for the best.

We had this unhappy conversation last week because I’d pulled the boys out of school early to attend the funeral of one of the founders and pillars of this community (I won’t try to convey the depth and breadth of his life, which has already been done here). With my bride back in Texas visiting ailing relatives it was up to me to ride herd during the service.

The funeral, like the man it praised, was Quaker. While I can proudly boast that I once successfully digested the book The World’s Religions, I can also state that there wasn’t a lot in that particular treatise on the Quaker front. The Quaker community is, however, a big part of life here in our little corner of Costa Rica. We’ve learned about their Sunday service — which they call Meeting — and how it primarily involves silent contemplation by the entire congregation. This silence is broken whenever a member (a Friend in Quaker vernacular) stands up to express a thought, idea or emotion. There aren’t any segues and every service is different, with the common denominator being the people involved, and the silence.

I bring this up because quiet contemplation in the Quaker church also extends to funerals. My challenge was to keep our boys quiet during a 2+ hour service so large that much of the seating was outside (in view of the playground and lots of other things tremendously interesting to young boys). The ante was further upped by the fact that many of the comments were in Spanish (which we are all still mangling) and, finally, I should emphasize that they needed to sit still AND be quiet. At the same time (our version of a Yeti sighting).

20 minutes into the service the occasional fidgeting turned into a very real need to go mess around in the nearby woods. I knew there was no realistic way that my boys were going to make it two more hours so I let them go, whispering threats of doom and annihilation should they cause a ruckus. 

During those initial 20 minutes of silence my thoughts had primarily centered on the life of the man we were here to recognize and celebrate. Post the departure of the boys my mind kept one part of itself warily oriented on them and what appeared to be their effort at the impromptu construction of a fort in the woods.

I soon winced at a loud cracking sound my youngest created with a large branch, as well as the subsequent turned heads and looks of disapproval it created amongst the crowd. As #2 made another ruckus I gave up on quiet contemplation and walked over to intercede. My mind went to a George Lopez routine which mocks the non-physical, in his view largely ineffective, contemporary discipline of white people versus what he experienced growing up. 

When I returned I found my seat had been taken so I went to stand behind the last row of chairs. The person now speaking was the son of the deceased, and he spoke about the times his dad had taken him to the barn for a long talk. He’d dreaded those sole-searching conversations more than the spankings employed by his mom.

Even though I’d just thought about it, I had not expected the topic of corporal punishment to arise at a funeral, particularly a Quaker funeral. Now that the topic was out there my thoughts dwelled on my own youth, when both of my parents had freely utilized corporal punishment — as did most parents at the time. I tried to remember ever feeling worse about the words that were spoken to me versus the pain of sitting for days after a solid spanking and came up empty. Sticks and stones…

The paddle wasn’t confined to the house as I and a large percentage of my classmates experienced what was known as “swats” on a myriad of occasions from our gym coaches — one of whom had drilled large holes in his paddle to reduce wind resistance and maximize pain, leaving the recipient with a large, black bruise punctuated by white polka dots which matched the pattern of the holes. We also had a math teacher who stood outside his classroom when the lunch bell rang and hauled in a half-dozen kids from each of the three lunch sessions for running (the catch-22 was that those who didn’t run from the far reaches of the 2nd floor would never make it through the long lunch line of this overcrowded public school with enough time to eat). This self-appointed servant of hallway justice took his victims, which included me on a number of occasions, and lined us up between the urinals with our hands on the wall and our butts extended. His students on the other side of the bathroom wall got to hear the whacking, yelling and sniffling first-hand.

I could’ve opted out of this system had my parents sent in a letter forbidding anyone from spanking me, but that option never even occurred to me. The idea of trading temporary pain in favor of notes detailing my misdeeds which then had to be signed by my parents wasn’t appealing — at all. Swats hurt, but bringing home a note like that just meant I’d instead get spanked by my parents and grounded to boot.

I caught myself pondering all of this as the next speaker got up to deliver her thoughts on the departed and I realized that my boys were nowhere in sight. I eventually tracked them down and had them walk home. When I returned again to the proceedings I realized a few things: 1) I wished I’d made more of an effort to better know the deceased while he was still with us, 2) quiet contemplation can cover a lot of unexpected ground, 3) George Lopez is now a fixture in kids movies and 4) I seriously needed to up my game for my version of the barn conversation.