I was washing dishes the other day, and I looked down at a large spoon in the sink. An unpleasant memory floated in.
I heard the gagging coming from the bathroom. I was hidden away but not far enough.
My mom was in a hurry, trying to get a meal thrown together. This was the height of having teens with multiple schedules and carting them all over town. I waited until I was dragged to the car, trying not to be in the way.
My brother Bob was first at the table because he had a meeting to attend, so he ate ahead of the rest of us.
I have heard that she was a great cook, but by the time I entered the family, she was opening cans, heating TV dinners, and had gone the way of convenience because it was easier. Good nutrition had been tossed aside, but no one went hungry. We ate our fill of synthetic substances and washed it down with whole milk.
One of the worst meals I had to get through was creamed chicken. A slab of white bread toasted to near burnt was then covered over with a sloppy mess of cream of mushroom soup and canned chicken. This was one of the higher end offerings that cost under $1 per plate. On the side, she dished out canned beets, the ultimate in disgusting. I learned early not to fight the system. You had to navigate around it.
I would strategically chew what I could with my teeth barely coming together and then take a huge sip of milk. Gulp and swallow on repeat.
“Can I have more milk?” This was usually microseconds of sitting down. I would hand her my glass for a refill.
One evening, I asked, and much to my horror, she denied my request.
“No, Chris. You are drinking way too much milk.”
I looked at what I had to handle without any liquid. It was rough, and from then on, I took smaller sips and never asked for a second cup.
You would think that when pizza was on the menu, I would have been thrilled. They managed to ruin that too. Two tiny frozen discs were put in the oven to feed eight people. To add bulk, canned mushrooms, black olives, and onions were smothered on.
Instead of adding shredded mozzarella like normal people, cheese squares were slapped on after they were unwrapped from their plastic packages.
I opted for a sandwich on those special occasions and refused to eat pizza until I realized it wasn’t a garbage pile like they had created.
So to hear someone gagging in the bathroom wasn’t surprising. It was going to happen sooner or later with the atrocities coming out of that kitchen.
There was yelling too.
“Bob! Hold still! Let me do this!”
More choking. If she was killing him, I wanted to witness it. By then, he and I weren’t on the greatest of terms as brother and sister, so to see him go down was worth taking a peek.
I rounded the corner into the laundry room. Things get slightly fuzzy, but I recall a large kitchen spoon shoved down his throat.
“Gag me with a spoon” wasn’t said until the 80s, so my mom was ahead of her time in the 70s.
My presence must have been noticed because the door suddenly shut, so I only got the audio version.
It reminded me of a situation I had been in not long before. I had an outbreak of canker sores that took over every square inch of my mouth. No one considered this a physical manifestation of stress.
A prescription was ordered, and all of them ascended on me. Where I stood watching my brother being assaulted with a serving utensil was where they all held me down. My arms and legs were immobile as someone else put a vice grip on my head. Her job was to pry my mouth open and squirt a paste that tasted like tin onto my tongue and gums.
Once I knew I was trapped against my will, I screamed. This made it easier for her to spray the obnoxious cream that would heal me.
It cleared up the issue, but I was scarred. I recall being afraid after that because I couldn’t trust anyone. Who knew when they would all snap again and pin me down?
From my five-year-old perception, I was under attack, and no one explained the process. Afterward, they left with no comfort or reassurance while I continued screaming. Now, she had set her sites on my brother, who was not cooperating.
My brother Jim saw me there and tried to explain.
“He ate some spoiled food.”
All the commotion was over a can of vegetables that had gone bad, with the fear of botulism setting in. I found out later that my other brother, a Boy Scout on his way up the ladder to Eagle Scout, had gotten out his manual to mix up a remedy to induce vomiting. When someone is out in the woods ingesting tree bark and wild, unknown grasses, they must be ready to hurl it out of the body.
With his magic spell book in hand, he grabbed a raw egg, milk of magnesia, and a host of other ingredients to cook up something that would save his sibling’s life. I think he added a dash of black pepper to make it more palatable.
The poisoned victim drank it like Happy Hour, and no throwing up resulted. My mom took matters into her hands and decided to force the issue. She plucked the largest metal spoon from the drawer and hoped to use his gag reflex as leverage.
I was ushered away from the scene because I have no recollection of what happened, but he lived to see another day to torment me more.
What my mother feared happening was rare and unlikely. After he had devoured his food and left, she detected a foul odor from the vegetables in a pot. Retrieving the aluminum can, she saw it had a dent, which made her panic.
She had read about the unsafe canning practices at the time, and if one was not fully sealed, this could allow in deadly bacteria.
Not on her watch.
To ensure he lived to a ripe old age, she jammed a utensil into his esophagus. We had emergency rooms back then, but she was on a schedule. There were two other people to drive to their activities, so her method seemed the better option.
It was one of those landmark moments in our family where I often heard it said: do you remember when Bob ate that rotten can of beans?
No one wanted to think of it as she assembled our plates. Our life was in her hands.
Being in a large family on a tight budget, she controlled our portions. In other families I visited, the entire meal would be on the table and was passed around to each member to take what they desired. In some homes, everyone fended for themselves. Her dishing it up meant we had to conform to what she thought was best. And there better not be any complaints because she was exhausted from opening all those cans.
She put on a good front, not showing her worry regarding the lack of money. One time she said to me,
“Chris, I think it’s an adventure to see how God will provide.”
She seemed like a woman with great faith, but her actions said otherwise. She wasn’t a giver, and she viewed money as evil. Somewhere along the way, she saw it as an idol that could take God’s place, and her viewpoint caused great suffering for all of us.
She decided to play God by controlling every bite taken and all the details of the house. It was a false sense of reality we all had to abide by. After a while, that way of living starts to seem real.
Like the gigantic spoon, she shoved down my brother’s throat, she forced her will on our lives and blotted out God’s. There were better alternatives for her to take, but she decided what was best.
This mindset spilled over into many areas beyond providing food.
We were all told what to do and how to do it. There was no room for independent thinking even though many times she said to me,
“I have raised all of my children to be independent.”
I’m not sure what the badge of honor was, but when you examine the statement closer, you see the flaws in that thinking. While it’s important to be your true self, it’s also valuable to let others into your life that bring support and love.
She believed her actions were done in the best interests of all, but the outcome was fractured individuals who had no sense of security and unable to make decisions that were for their highest good.
Thrown on top of the control was perfectionism, which added to the constraint of having no freedom. While many kids were happy to be out of school and rest in the comfort of their homes, this was not the way it was. There was always some task to perform or rule to meet.
If you stayed in bed too long on the weekend, you were deemed lazy. If you stayed up too late at night, you “weren’t getting proper rest.” It wasn’t a situation you could ever win, and it wasn’t until many years later that I began to see how much her idea of life was flawed.
She never allowed anyone to be themselves. We were to be replicas of who she was. And when it came time to be on my own, I had trouble making decisions.
I was worried about making the wrong ones due to all the years of having to meet her lofty expectations. On the other hand, I was intelligent and considered myself competent. There was a constant war inside of me where I was trying to please others while sacrificing myself. This way of operating leaves no room for balance.
The dangerous part of living this way is you’re never at peace. If you do this for a long time, you become accustomed to the inner turmoil and don’t see you need to break it off yourself.
Until your world completely unravels, and you have no other choice but to ask yourself what is causing certain patterns to continue that revolve around your low self-esteem. Why are you masking the truth and faking it?
That’s when compassion shows up.
I see situations differently than I did before and this branches into more revelations. It’s not a suffocating confrontation that leaves no room to breathe. There might be regrets or unhappy feelings momentarily, but I know I will be a better person once I get past it.
It’s when you have taken in a spiritual toxin and are unaware God will move in and remove it, so you no longer are endangered. That’s how true love works. It doesn’t come at you threateningly, holding you down while you struggle, demanding its way.
A different approach is taken where grace is given in small doses, allowing you to heal and adjust to each measure.