Published on April 2nd, 2019 | by Jennifer Jordán Schaller


The Wooden Spoon

In my kitchen, I use plastic spoons, rubber spatulas. I have no wooden spoons. My knives are dull, dull, dull. In my mother’s kitchen, when I was a teenager, she showed me how to peel an onion.

“First, cut off what’s left of the roots.” The brown straws splayed out from veiny, crackling skin.  “Cut both ends. Peel, then chop,” she said.

Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

She handed me the knife.  “Try it.”

I chopped the top where leaves once grew. I peeled the skin. I sliced the onion halfway, revealing a layered middle, circling around and around the flower bud, where the roots once spread out, dry foliage, crinkled flowers covering a pond, rippling outward. My mother told me, “There is one correct way to peel an onion.”

If my anxiety opened up like a flower, my petals and leaves would reach toward the sun, searching for nourishment, right down to whorling layers of budding root. But the image of a plant in an ecosystem conveys order, and my anxiety is chaotic, infiltrating everyday objects, singing to me as I fold towels (no not this way, that way) and making me feel shattered, damaged. Anxiety’s voice, coincidentally enough, sounds a lot like my mother’s.


Who knows why we were running through the house, my brother and me, born nineteen months apart, five and six respectively. Maybe we were playing a game, chasing each other, grabbing hold of one another, wrestling like puppies. Tag was not allowed in the house.

My mother yelled our names as one word, “JenniferandAlan. I will get out the wooden spoon.”

At times like these a kitchen utensil morphed into weapon. If I were threatened with a gun, I might never stop thinking about how I need to remember my gun.  Or I might never hold a gun, and that would make sense because guns kill. No one ever vows to stop holding spoons. Spoons lift broth to thirsty lips. Spoons measure. Spoons serve remedies. Spoons mix drinks. Two spoons can drum a beat. You could hang a spoon from your nose. So many things a spoon can do, depending on the person holding it.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

When a parent threatens to hit a child with an ordinary object–a brush, a belt, a utensil–an entire house could be filled with objects a girl associates with pain. Those aren’t just bristles. This piece of leather doesn’t just hold up your pants. That piece of wood wasn’t just carved from a tree. These objects can pierce your skin.

Were my mother to have actually swatted me, I might have feared her less. I might have realized I could survive a spanking, and my mother would have lost some of her power. Yet I was sure a spanking meant death–not only because of my overactive imagination, but also because on more than one occasion, my mother said, “Do not upset me. If I start spanking you, I might not be able to stop. I don’t want to hurt you.”

It’s a two-fold sentiment–I don’t want to hurt you, but I might hurt you if you don’t do what I say; I might hurt you so much I’ll regret it. She never had to spank me, no spankings that I remember. I didn’t want to anger her; moreover, I didn’t want her to feel bad. I sympathized with her plight. Buried under the threat of bodily harm, I believed my mother had good intentions. I was sure she loved me, and I loved her back.

At thirty-six, I stood in my kitchen, and as I loaded the dishwasher with plates, forks, and spoons, I remembered my mother’s words and her intonation: low, hissing, stern. I will get out the wooden spoon. I imagined an adult threatening me the same way, and I shuddered as I loaded utensils into my Kenmore washer. I felt the fear I experienced as a child, and I realized that no one threatened me as an adult. I would have filed a police report had my across-the-street neighbor told me, “If you make me mad, I will hit you. If I start hitting you, I might not be able to stop.”

Up until that day, I acquiesced to and accepted my mother’s authority; after all, she was only threatening a spanking. I had a hard time viewing my mother’s manipulation and threat of violence as abuse. Obedience spawned from fear comes at the cost of a child’s development. I prioritized what my mother needed—control—over what I needed. And what did I need? For starters, I needed my child body to feel like my own body, not an object. The threat of pain hung over me.

It’s inconvenient to have a revelation like this while loading your dishwasher one hour before you have to pick your kids up from school, but this was my life at that point. At thirty-six, I had started going to a cognitive behavioral therapist, and she was helping me to re-frame my past, so I could understand my anxiety, my non-stop shaking hands. During the early months of my self-work, I would have revelations at the oddest times, like the day I loaded my dishwasher and realized there was a discrepancy between how I valued my adult body and how I valued my child body, which led to an overwhelming desire to weep. What mother has time for weeping?  

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

As a child, the image of my mother pummeling me with a spoon rattled me. I was sure it was the worst consequence of all, like death or prison. Re-experiencing my mother’s threat as an adult enabled me to see how fear and violence shaped my brain. The woman I loved most was the woman I feared most. Anxiety took root in the unstable and rocky terrain of my childhood and flourished. I remember, on more than one occasion, my mother ordering my brother and me to behave, and other grownups laughing at how quickly we fell in line: “You really have them trained.”

Did any adult within earshot fathom that violence begat my submission? Would knowing this have mattered? Probably not. As cited in the Washington Post, one national, social survey shows most Americans, 76 percent of men and 66 percent of women ages 18 to 65, believe sometimes a child should receive a spanking.

I have a ten-pound rescue dog, Pepper. He shivers constantly. The first time I tried sweeping the kitchen after we brought him home, he shot under the table, terrified. Brooms are not inherently scary, so I reasoned Pepper’s previous owner beat him with one. I added other observations to my hypothesis: Pepper jumped at the slightest sound, growled at anyone who walked through the threshold of our home, and bit strangers who patted him on the head. It has been four years since we adopted him; he is eight now. I can’t remember the last time he lashed out in anger. It takes years to recover from living in a house filled with dread.

Stirring food in a pot with a wooden spoon used to give me anxiety. Doing laundry used to give me anxiety. So did making dinner, putting away towels, parallel parking my car, traveling on highways, getting a college parking pass, flushing the toilet, flossing my teeth, applying lipstick, braiding my daughters’ hair, talking to strangers, driving a car, cleaning my house, painting my nails, teaching a class, dressing myself, grading papers, fixing my hair, putting on eyeliner, raising my children, driving my car with passengers, driving my car during rush hour, marrying my husband, writing a personal essay, writing checks, writing poems, speaking out loud, raising my hand, volunteering on a committee, everything.

I know the threat of spanking alone didn’t make me this way. I may have been predisposed to anxiety regardless of how I was disciplined as a child; however, I think living under the threat of violence makes it hard to function. Years of research supports the case against spanking, and according to the American Psychological Association, spanking and other types of corporal punishment can lead to behavior problems and mental health issues in children and the grownups they become.

In my early adulthood, I remember sitting in a college classroom when a literature teacher told my class that Jesus was a character and origin stories stretched across culture. I thought I was riding in a Volkswagen Beetle on the highway to hell–hippies, punks, and me, we were all going to hell, weren’t we? Would Jesus forgive me for analyzing his story in terms of its narrative arc or cultural significance instead of as absolute truth?

It was the first time I started to really question, and I worried to no end about who I was betraying by looking at stories from my youth through a different lens. This was my first step toward realizing dread was imprinted on me, a wooden spoon across my backside. I was a willing child who once yearned to be good, and now I am an adult who unearths and examines what I once saw as truth. Realizing I am responsible for the way I see the world means admitting at times I have oppressed myself.  Knowing this uncomfortable reality means that I can start new and learn to parent my children in a way that won’t beget fear.

But my mind doesn’t change willingly. Sometimes I nurture it, like a plant, with water and sunshine. Most times, I take metal grips to my brain, rattle my present tense, crack open my assumptions, and a warm pocket of earth, flesh (my brain, the heart) stumbles out. The shell cups nut and reveals grooves. My fear is more walnut than onion: two hemispheres with grooves and winding symmetry, like a brain. Use too much force upon cracking that shell, and the heart, the brain-looking fruit shatters. When the brain shatters, it’s not clear where the nut’s heart ends, where it begins, yet it all came from the same shell. I expose my thoughts to the fresh air of my present tense, to the life I have created for myself. I think I know what it means to feel safe.

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About the Author

Jennifer Jordán Schaller is a writer and teacher from Albuquerque. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction; Sonora ReviewBrain, ChildAscentNew Mexico English Journal; and NPR’s This American Life. She also has a forthcoming essay in the next issue of Cutbank. She is working on a longer manuscript, from which she take breaks to develop chapters as stand-alone pieces (like this essay in Mutha Magazine).

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