A long time ago I had a temp job through an employment agency working at a very well-known food company updating their mailing list. This mainly consisted of inputting address changes and new requests into a database to be sent free recipe cards. I’d always been a very responsible goody two-shoes who tried to do everything right on all my jobs, temp or otherwise, but this time I decided to have a bit of fun. In addition to making all the necessary corrections and updates, I also added to the database several names of pets belonging to people I knew. All I did was take the pet’s first name and tack on the last name of the person; hence “Chessie Gibbs”, a cat of my acquaintance, began receiving free recipe cards in the mail. Years later a friend of mine told me her dog was still getting recipe cards. Clearly the company had yet to notice my handiwork.😁
I grew up in a big family. A big family that cast a long shadow. Years ago extended family or family friends would sometimes say my parents had “two families.” This phrase didn’t mean what it does now, referring to when a man dumps/leaves his first wife & kids and goes on to have a second batch, usually with a younger woman. In the old days it meant when there was a noticeable gap in the offspring, a span of years when no child was born, as if the parents took a little break from procreating and then started up again.
What people had either forgotten or never knew was that there was a child inbetween the “two families”, a baby that before age one got sick and died. A baby that had a name, several older siblings, a funeral, and a grave. I didn’t know the baby. I came later. The child, who would have been my sibling, just like my many others, was vague and fuzzy. I was told the skimpiest of information. It was a closed subject and I didn’t understand it. I’d be an adult before I could shake a bit of real information out of anyone in the family.
Death and grief were handled weirdly in my family. I’m certain we don’t own the market on that. Things were not discussed. Grief was not expressed. Drama, rage, anger, theatrics – these were all okay. But grief? Sadness? No.
See, what I have pieced together goes beyond this lost child. In the year prior to the baby’s death, a first cousin, the same age as one of my siblings, and a beloved young uncle died, as well as a grandfather. I knew something about these people but even more vaguely than our baby. As a child and even later I wasn’t even clear on who they were or that they – just names – were related to me. Now I can appreciate that they were all people my older siblings knew and loved. Within a year my older siblings, all under twelve years old, lost a first cousin, an uncle, a grandfather, and a younger sibling.
Instead of dealing with any of this or helping the children, it was business as usual in the household. I wasn’t there but I feel certain of it. I’ve gleaned enough information and have simply experienced enough of my family’s ways firsthand to know. Yes, sure, my parents no doubt had their own pain and were almost likely “handling” death as they had been taught long before, but I still fault them. They could have – should have – done better. I think they were too caught up in themselves to offer their children what was needed. My parents were grown; they had resources if they wanted them. What resources did little kids have? Only each other I expect. To whatever degree.
I am convinced my older brothers and sisters were permanently marked by these deaths, made worse by how they were handled. I think they, with no proper guidance or sufficient comfort from our parents, “stuffed” and repressed their grief and pain and consequently paid for it throughout their lives. I’ll grant you, it’s said not everybody deals with death & grief the same, there’s no “right” way, etcetera – I’ve heard all that – BUT if you either don’t deal with it or do unhealthy things as a result, well that ain’t handling it, Sally.
Figuring this mess out has helped me. These are insights I wouldn’t expect other family members to enjoy, appreciate, or welcome.😕 As a rule my insights or attempts to make sense of my family of origin are best kept to myself or occasionally shared with one other member. It helps me though, to understand. If I understand what went down in my family in the many years before I was born I can understand my own life better.
The “second” family – the kids born after the baby died, including me – didn’t have a grief stew in their early lives. The deaths that we experienced were not like the ones our older brothers & sisters knew. Oh, death was still handled weirdly, but there weren’t so many, so close to home. I think I can say, despite whatever else we had to deal with by being members of this particular family, repressed grief wasn’t among them. By the time a very significant death came again to our family, I was old enough to handle it as I saw fit, to actually deal with it, and to try to learn something. The family, on whole, tried to stick with the old, traditional methods of NOT dealing with it, but as soon as that was dead clear to me so to speak, I was having none of it. Grief needed to be handled and experienced, I knew this intuitively and actively sought out ways of doing so.
I think my older siblings were saddled very young with scary things beyond their control, and what is scarier or more beyond control than death? They adopted my parents’ methods of stuffing away grief. But grief never stays put; it finds its way out – for better and not better at all – and can haunt people for a lifetime.
I should have run after the first time we played tennis and he had a tantrum when I won. But the thing is – and I still feel this clearly so many years later – in the initial seconds I watched his display on the opposite side of the net (but directed at me) I thought he was joking. I didn’t believe he was genuinely acting that way after our fun-spirited game. But he meant it. He was giving me a preview to his character and in time I’d pay for both not comprehending that and not possessing the gumption/forethought/sense to act on it.
When I was a kid girls babysat and boys got paper routes or cut grass to make money. I babysat often. One particular memory remains vivid. I don’t remember the particular people or even what kind of kids they had except that the kid or kids had gone to bed. I perused the family’s bookshelves and noticed a small book that had a racy title, something with the word sex or possibly nudes. I took the book down and opened it, only to get a bad shock, the literal kind. There was no sex or nudes, just a hollowed out space with a contraption to give curious readers (or hapless babysitters) a shock.
When I was a young adult my much older brother physically attacked me at our parents’ house at Thanksgiving. The “reason” is flimsy and bizarre and not worth typing. The event devolved into a huge family fight involving my many siblings (and parents) that had very little, if anything to do with me. Christmas was on its way. My mother made a big point of saying ALL her children were welcome at her home. I knew I was supposed to fall in line as if the incident had never happened and I also knew my pecking order in the family was such that my welfare wasn’t of great concern but there was no way I was sitting down to Christmas dinner with my brother.
When I was a child, there was a neighbor boy who was considered extremely bright. A younger brother followed but he evidently didn’t show the same degree of intellect. My mother commented that his mother must have been glad to have a regular or normal boy. I still can’t decide exactly what she meant. Was my mother merely reflecting a bias of her own? Did she think a high IQ child was a hardship of some kind? (I fail to see how as I had a reasonable, albeit not likely genius, IQ, and nobody did anything special for me, ahem.) Was a high IQ child intimidating to her? Or otherwise off-putting?
You know how you always read heart–warming stories of people’s memories of their mother’s or grandmother’s gardens? About those carefree, never–ending days of summer when they ate fresh, crisp green beans off the vine or nibbled on just-picked strawberries? How they helped their mother or grandmother and were rewarded for their efforts with fresh treats? Well, my mother had a garden but I didn’t do any of that. I thought everything that came out of my mother’s garden was disgusting. She didn’t trust her younger children such as me to participate in the vegetable garden either, relegating them to lesser, joyless yard tasks like digging plantain leaf and dandelions out of the lawn or collecting gumballs by the hundreds. Heart-warming no?
I always remembered my mother having a vegetable garden and I always remember her complaining about it. The terrible soil, the hard work, the marauding birds & squirrels, and so on. Gardening was not about pleasure. Most of the produce was subsequently canned (an arduous process my mother undertook each year in a hot kitchen) and eventually served limp and waterlogged with little or no seasoning. I’ll grant you I was a child and children aren’t typically known for their love of vegetables, but the way they were cooked sure didn’t help.
When one of us kids complained about the taste of the vegetables at the dinner table my mother would invariably, defensively respond,
“That came from our garden!”
“It came from our garden” was supposed to be a conversation-ender, as if everything from the garden was above reproach. Even the family salad, which, by the time it got to you at the table of many, was bitter leaves floating in the heavy-on-the-vinegar dressing at the bottom of the mud brown, chipped, ceramic bowl. Which you had to take.
I would be an adult, one who ate in restaurants and learned to cook, before I could appreciate vegetables, fresh ones in particular. The childhood associations had to wear off first and then I could find out for myself what vegetables were actually supposed to taste like. I simply didn’t know how good they go be. Other people helped. I didn’t know what a green pepper could taste like till a woman I knew offered me some from her garden when I was in my late twenties. I was reluctant, based on the lip-curling memory of the taste of uncooked peppers (why that one was served without the usual overcooking I couldn’t say), when she assured me that I should try it cooked as it became “a different vegetable.” It was true. Proper cooking took the edge off the pungent raw green pepper taste.
Over the years I tried more and more vegetables and was often surprised. Of course, a number of these were never served at our family dinner table, certainly nothing too exotic. I tried okra for the first time about five years ago. Wow! I loved okra. Who knew?
My mother considered me a “picky eater” and it took many years of eating foods not cooked or served by my mother (vegetables may have been a low point but it’s not like the rest of the cuisine was delicious) to discover I was, if not the opposite, definitely not picky. There was a world of food and vegetables to discover and I now consider them one of life’s true joys. I’ve never lived anywhere I could have my own full-blown vegetable garden, but I am delighted by the small amount of food gardening I’ve been able to do. There’s such pride in growing things, food especially.
Vegetables, mostly from the store, have made regular appearances in this blog’s four+ years. Here’s a few.
NOTE: I’m back to sketchy internet access; please forgive any delay in responding to comments.