There I sat, all alone in the dark kitchen, at that black-stained round table, sitting in my usual chair facing the wall, tears streaming down my puffy cheeks. The table was cleared, the area surrounding my plate showed concentric circles from where the sponge had scrubbed away the remnants of dinner and the dishwasher was running to the left of me. Gentle thumps and bursts of water were the only noises that could be heard outside of my sniffling and sobbing.
In front of me sat the same white plate with the cornflower blue design on it that was there two hours prior; on it was a collection of small, beige pencil erasers sitting in some form of goop. Scallops they’re called, seafood that was common in the New England area and for some reason my parents ate regularly. To me, they were pencil erasers, tasting like them dipped in ammonia, with a similar texture only with added slime, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t eat them.
“Mom?” I cried, hoping that my meek, tear-soaked voice would carry down the narrow hallway into her bedroom so that she could hear me and free me from my prison. “Can I go to bed now?”
“Not until you clean your goddamned plate,” she snarled back. Some might imply that memories distort with time; that the good ones become sweeter while the darker ones become more ominous and twisted. The vividness of this memory has stuck with me for the entirety of my life, although I’m unable to say exactly what year it was, what month or what day it was. The actual details of that memory are crystal clear.
My father was at work, he worked second shift at a factory that manufactured seals for airplane parts. To this day I’m not exactly sure what that means or why anyone would want these parts from an outside company and not just manufacture them in-house, yet it was what he spent the entirety of his life doing. That meant that he wasn’t home, or if he was, he was passed out after a few drinks on the couch. To say that my memories of my father for the first fifteen years of my life are foggy would be an understatement, I’ve reflected on this many times since I myself became a father; about how I wanted to be there for them no matter what, how I didn’t want to be missing.
Part of what hurt so bad when he was missing was that he was never there to protect us, to see what we were going through. There were plenty of times when it felt like my sister and I needed to be saved, like we needed a rational voice to be an advocate for us in the face of our terror. Sitting there, in that chair, with a plate full of scallops was one of those times.
All of it was a part of an intricate game that unfolded throughout my youth where I was a much-maligned picky eater; a source of frustration and anger that only compounded all of the other parts of an already difficult home life. No child wants to be in trouble, and I didn’t want to displease my parents or make them upset, yet there I was, on almost a nightly basis having these same events unfold. The problem was, this food really wouldn’t go down. The smell, the texture, the taste and everything about them made everything in my body tremble, elevated my anxiety to a different level and made me feel even worse about myself. I’d try to eat, but my body would reject it, my stomach clenching, my throat not letting it past its defenses.
So I tried. I tried because it felt like it was all my fault, like I was a terrible child. I, the one that my mother would openly call her “favorite” in front of my sister, was the problem at dinner time. Throughout my young life I had learned to work around my mother’s idiosyncrasies. Today they’d be categorized — justifiably so — as abuses, but back then everything was squishier, less clear and the age of Reaganomics, MTV and our ignorant Catholic-guilt-ridden New England culture meant that it was all justified.
The young me tried to parse these events, to rationalize them and compartmentalize them into logical obstacles that I needed to simply overcome. Many of these events have been tucked away into the deep recesses of my subconscious, or remain foggy shipwrecks that will never be explored. Perhaps for the better.
Some memories were clear, though, like this one. This was one of the few, along with the time I was in my bedroom, needing to go pee while my mom watched a movie, and knew that she didn’t want to be disturbed after bed. We were to call downstairs and ask permission to go to the bathroom. Somehow, the idea was that children don’t want to sleep and instead just want to pester their parents to the point of insanity. Her answer broke whatever hope that I had left of being safe that night.
“No, hold it.”
But I couldn’t hold it. I had been holding it, sitting there at the edge of my bed, legs crossed and wiggling, writhing with guilt that I had to disturb her. So I had waited, waited for a time when the movie was softer, waited until she had cooled down from her last outburst and found what I thought would be the perfect moment. Instead, “No, hold it.”
So, deeply ashamed of what I had to do, I gathered up a handful of tissues and laid them out on my ugly, mustard yellow carpet, pulled my pants down and peed as neatly as I could on the tissues before balling them up and throwing them in the garbage can in the corner. All throughout this I was crying, an anxious mess that she’d find out and hit me, that she’d call me names or worse.
These weren’t unfounded fears, but from experience. Experience like that time when my sister discovered a spider in the backseat of the car when we were riding somewhere and began to cry. This was too much for my mother to handle. At her wits end, she screamed and shouted for my sister to stop, to cut it out or she’d pull over and leave her on the side of the road. My sister, no older than four or five at the time, continued to cry over her very real fear of spiders and my mother pulled the car off to the side of the road. She jumped out of the car, opened up the door, unbuckled my sister’s safety belt and yanked her by the arm out of the car, dragging her to where the fence was on Strawberry Field Road in Warwick. I kept my head down as the backdoor slammed shut, she got in and drove off. I felt like I was going to explode, gently sobbing to myself, afraid to even sniffle as to see what would happen next. Would I ever see my sister again?
“You can’t leave her,” I cried. “Please, go back.”
She did, eventually, but there was a lesson that had to be learned. None of this seems to compute with her to this day, we don’t talk and haven’t really since 2001. Last I heard, her explanation was ridiculous, along the lines of “I know you were upset that I ‘Smother mothered’ you and all…” A convenient fabrication of something that I can never remember saying that at least can help her live with herself, a lie that helps her get through her day as opposed to actually dealing with why she isn’t a part of my children lives or mine.
But back to that night, where I’m sitting there, at the table, once again a crying, blubbering mess of a chubby boy who was just screamed at for something that I literally had no control over. A lone scallop sat dangling from my fork, impaled on one long prong and looming ominously in front of me. There would be no help, no reprieve or understanding for me, so I did what I had to do and I put it in my mouth. Immediately things felt wrong, the taste hit my tongue and drove my body to recoil, the texture made it nearly impossible to chew without feeling rubbery and there it was, my gag reflex. In a heartbeat I was vomiting a somewhat clear, sticky fluid, it pouring out and burning on the way up like only stomach acid could, splashing onto my plate and all over my would-be dinner.
“Mom,” I grumbled. “I threw up.”
“I don’t fucking care,” she stomped out of her bedroom in her mocassin slippers and nightgown, the way that she stomped when she had truly lost it, those times when violence wasn’t just a threat, but inevitable. The metal heating grates in the hallway clanged and popped while she stomped over, the hallway that just moments earlier had felt immense was all of a sudden far too small to let me prepare. “I’m sick of this shit, and you are going to eat that!”
The blow never came to me, but I winced just the same, her fist slamming down against the table by the white ring that sat just off the center from the time a casserole dish was on the table without a towel underneath and burned straight through the cheap finish. My dish clanked on the table, the puddle of my sticky vomit dancing on the plate along the small, rubber ammonia erasers while the jets of the dishwasher whirled around.
There I sat, crying, shamed, covered in my own vomit and feeling like less-than-dirt, and I sat for hours. She had slammed her door shut hours prior, but I didn’t dare get out of that chair, didn’t dare sneak up to my room because of fear of reprisal. So hours passed before I mustered up the courage to empty my plate into the trash, rinse my plate and slink off to bed. No, this was not the beginning of my complicated relationship with food, but perhaps was the impetus to shut me off from the world for ages to come.
Reading a book about picky eaters has brought this all rushing back to me, reminded me of a lot of these complicated childhood memories of food, inadequacy, the fear, anxiety and violence that came along with them. Imagine that after almost 34 years you read someone saying, finally, “You aren’t crazy, you weren’t crazy, it’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.” It took that long to hear that, to not feel shame that it took me almost 30 years to start eating spinach, or that eating out at new places or at someone else’s house has sent me into panic attacks in the past.
Obviously, the issues in my childhood go deeper than just food, but there are so many memories that are linked with food, spanning throughout most of my life. From the ones with my mother, to my step mother snidely remarking to my sister that she should get some cake now, because her brother was just going to eat the whole thing, all while I was standing right there like I was somehow subhuman garbage. We’ve made our peace and I’m happy to have her in my life now, I appreciate what we’ve gone through together and all that she did to make my father so happy in the final ten years of his life, but things weren’t always easy. These memories stretch into adulthood, even being misunderstood by people that have meant the most to me, forcing me to obscure most of my issues or at least downplay them.
Yet, here I am. Always trying, always evolving, always wanting to do better. I have a much better understanding now, but most importantly, I’m able to say that it’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. All of this I want to do not just for me, but for my children as well. There are times when I feel overwhelmed, when I can feel that rage boiling over inside of me, the bile that flowed through my mother’s veins invading mine.
Everyone has that fear of turning into their parents and in my weakest moments, the ones where I snarl at the dogs for barking and waking the kids up, or when I need to leave the room because both kids are screaming crying at what feels like absolutely nothing while I haven’t slept in 32 hours to gather myself and take a few deep breaths I’m afraid. I’m not afraid like I was as a child, but I’m afraid of my children being that child. I’m afraid that what lurked inside of my mother is also inside of me; a monster that nobody wanted but is always laying in wait, triggered by the drop of a hat.
I know that I won’t let it, just like I won’t miss these important parts of their lives, but it’s all there and it’s all real. But just as real is the pride I feel when I see my boys gulp down everything from peaches, pears and bananas to green beans, sweet potatoes and mashed peas. Because that’s what matters, that’s what’s real; wanting to do better for my kids and to make their lives better than mine was. If there comes a time when something repulses them, I’ll understand, just like I’ll try my best to understand other issues that are bound to arise and just like I won’t let that latent rage monster consume me and destroy lives like it tried to destroy mine.