Jessie Raymond, Around the Bend: Parental warnings have big impact
Every time I make toast, a memory comes back to me: that of my father saying, “If your bread gets stuck in the toaster, never try to pry it out with a fork. You’ll get electrocuted.”
My toast usually pops up unassisted, thus giving me no cause to go fishing around in the toaster slot with any metal utensils. But the fork-in-the-toaster warning made an impression that has dogged me, perhaps more than any other parental declaration, my entire life. Even now, I freak out if my bagel won’t eject properly.
What if I forget what my father taught me and, on an impulse, jam a fork in the toaster and fry myself? Or what if I remember, but when I go to unplug the toaster I actually unplug the coffee maker by accident, then jam a fork into the toaster and fry myself?
From a young age, I knew electricity was dangerous in many ways. My mother, for example, was convinced that you could get electrocuted if you were sitting on the toilet during a thunderstorm. I recall more than one occasion when a flash of lightning and clap of thunder were met almost simultaneously by her high-pitched shriek coming from the powder room.
All these years later, I don’t know if you can actually get struck by lightning through a toilet. But I do know that on hot summer afternoons, I check the short-term forecast before I take a bathroom break.
And my grandmother used to tell me how once, while dusting, she had wiped an outlet with a wet rag. The resulting shock had thrown her across the room.
This stuck with me, too. In fact, I blame it for my lifelong aversion to cleaning.
Lots of things I learned as a child, many unrelated to electricity, have lasted.
My mother, for instance, taught me always to ask before petting a dog I didn’t know. Just last week, I saw a young girl with a black Lab puppy on a leash. As I reached out to pat its little head, my mother’s words kicked in, and I recoiled just in time, asking, “Are you sure your dog is friendly?”
My parents told me not to run with scissors, and I never have. Even when faced with a paper-cutting emergency, I remember to slow down. Relax, Jessie, I tell myself, that coupon isn’t going anywhere.
When loading the dishwasher, I point the steak knives down. I never open packaging with my teeth. I make sure my shoes are tied. I use the handrail. I look both ways.
My parents taught me well.
What’s surprising is that I can’t seem to let go of the rules that, as an adult, I don’t have to follow. For instance, my dad warned me never to lick a knife. To this day, I worry that if I were to lick the jam off a dull butter knife, I might cut my tongue off.
If it’s true that the childhood safety rules my parents instilled in me have made a permanent mark, it’s also true that I have failed to develop legitimate fears of a few things my parents didn’t warn me about.
For example, I once installed a ceiling fixture by myself. Not once during the process did I worry about electrocution the way I do when using the toaster. (I don’t blame my father for not cautioning me about home wiring, though; I assume it wasn’t something he expected me to attempt as a five-year-old.)
I find it funny, however, that my parents had such great concern for certain aspects of my physical safety at a time when no one wore helmets for biking or skiing, and playgrounds — constructed primarily of concrete, steel and razor wire — were designed to weed out those of us with fragile bones and a fear of heights.
Seatbelts were a feature my parents considered a little over-the-top, and during long rides I crawled around the car like a hamster while they chain smoked. With the windows up.
How times have changed. Still, though my parents are long gone, the safety rules they drummed into me as a child have somehow endured.
Maybe too much so. Is it normal that, when a bagel or English muffin does get caught in the toaster, I panic? After all these years, I’m worried I might need cognitive behavioral therapy to help me get over that.
Or we could just buy a toaster oven.
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