“M” is for the Mac & Cheese You Made Me
When it comes to family dysfunction, my childhood passed by all but unscathed. Aside from the time my dog killed my parakeet, I might’ve grown up in a sitcom — a sitcom without a single “Very Special Episode.” For that I consider myself quite lucky. Really I do.
No, really. Believe me. I do. I want to make sure you know that before I move forward or you’re going to really, really hate me when I’m through. Okay, you might anyway.
You see, from a writer’s perspective, where does this leave me? This whole thing with having an almost perfect childhood and a saint of a mother. How can I write if I’m not half crazy? How can I be an artist if I’m not tortured? Where will I find that unstoppable drive to succeed without the deep-seeded desire to cleanse my demons, prove my self-worth?
I blame my mother. She hasn’t made it easy on me.
She didn’t glue lashes to my lids, Vaseline my teeth and force me into pint-sized beauty pageants. Though, can you blame her? You don’t want to mess around with perfection.
She didn’t beat me with a wire coat hanger. In fact, unlike Joan Crawford, she was pleased as punch with the way they performed. Nary a complaint about a hanger-caused crease ever grazed her Carmex-coated lips. And she even showed us how to make them into badminton rackets with stretched over pieces of pantyhose (and with some help from Highlights magazine).
She didn’t use drugs. She didn’t hide Jim Beam bottles in her underwear drawer. She didn’t give me her stash of pot to smoke and tell me it would help me sleep. Although she did allow me to chew Aspergum when I had a sore throat. But she didn’t even make me beg* at the street corner to help buy it.
*You should know I had “whore” there first. I replaced it out of sensitivity for those of you who have a lot of sensitivity toward sensitivity.
She didn’t force me to audition for commercials or Disney variety shows. She didn’t push me to perform. Not even piano lessons. She let me quit the trumpet. And she even ignored the fact that I never sang in church.
So in order to someday make it as a writer, if I look to those many great writers who’ve gone before me, I realize I need to come up with some bit of early life suffering to propel me ahead.
That means I’m forced to sift through the trivial mundane of my tender years and hope that there I can find something valuable to mine, some emotional trauma to dig my nails into.
Perhaps my mother can help.
My mom once left me in the lobby of a shopping mall with a box of popcorn and a milkshake while she shopped for jeans in a nearby department store. I was six. Today, that sort of risky behavior could get you arrested. And then, that same year, she dropped me off at the theater with my older brother and his friend and we went to see Poltergeist. I was also allowed to stay up late watching Saturday Night Live. By kindergarten I had already heard Eddie Murphy say damnit.
Children growing up too soon.
But that was the early 80s. Parents were on autopilot back then. They didn’t have today’s news shows to teach them how to worry. Kids walked to school by themselves. Kids practically raised themselves. Big deal. None of this really counts.
My mom used to threaten us with a wooden spoon. Probably because she was often cooking when we were in need of being threatened. I think one time she went so far as to run after me and pretend she was about to use it. But she didn’t. And I probably would’ve deserved it anyway. I was probably complaining about casserole.
She ran over our beloved cat Clyde. She couldn’t see him sleeping on the floor of the garage. It was a bitter tragedy for our family. I was five. I was traumatized. (Now we’re getting somewhere!) Somehow, I had to pull myself together, learn to accept this new normal and move on with my life.
Okay. About that. So I cried for fifteen minutes and then went downstairs to the basement where my grieving brother couldn’t hear me call my dad at work. I told him what happened. I asked when we could get another cat. So scratch that story.
How about my mom’s addiction to bargains? Her thriftiness? Yes. Truly devastating. Coupons are like a cancer. They eat away at the very goodness of families. And my mom had it bad. Ironically, she had it so bad she wouldn’t even splurge on a decent bag to carry around her coupons. Instead she made do with a reused one. And then she organized the coupons into categories with cut up pieces of colored cardboard to separate the cereals from the cleaners from the condiments from the personal hygiene products. That made for easy access during a rushed grocery store check-out.
Sick, sick, sick.
She used to wrap my baloney sandwiches in waxed paper sealed together with white masking tape and then sent me on my way to school. At lunch time my friends would begin merrily reciting the yellow-and-blue-make-green Ziploc bag jingle as I secretly opened my sandwich in my lap where no one could see. It was an awful secret for a young child to bear. That sort of resourceful nonsense would ruin you in the third grade.
She also didn’t like buying store-bought anything. My mom made most things from scratch. With love. And love sometimes tasted like casserole. I hated casserole. I didn’t know macaroni and cheese could be so good until I visited a friend’s house where her mom made it from a box. It was spiral. It was flourescent. And the cheese didn’t taste like the cheese in my mom’s macaroni. That’s because it didn’t taste like cheese. And it came as a foil packet of powder. Just like Tang. It was practically astronaut food.
I thank God for the day I could glimpse how a normal mother behaved. And I vowed to never let my own children grow up without the pleasures of 15-minute meals.
My mom once convinced me I didn’t need to use a store-bought paper plate to display my peanut butter cookies. It was for a 4-H competition. She didn’t want to buy an entire package of tiny plates we’d never use again. (That’s just wasteful!) So she insisted I could make do with a styrofoam plate leftover from a deli sandwich. She cut off the ends to make it look round, to fit the rules stated in the 4-H cooking handbook. I protested but she didn’t care.
Who is the parent in this household?
I lost. There isn’t such thing as “lost” in 4-H, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it means when you get a gray ribbon. And the judges had written in their notes “did not follow the directions” and “next time use a standard store-bought plate.”
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. I should’ve filed this story under Addiction. Obviously the root of this problem was my mom’s crack-addict thriftiness. But, in reevaluating this incident with the help of Past Life Regression Therapy (thank you, Axl Rose, for making this treatment known to the world), I’ve decided there is some real cold-heartedness in this story that makes it fit right here.
You see, my mom was actually trying to sabotage my cookie contest entry. Yes. She didn’t want to see me succeed. That’s right. She wanted me to fail. She didn’t want me outshine her own blue ribbon cookies. So she tried to drag me down.
That was the last 4-H contest I ever entered. I didn’t have the confidence to ever try again.
God bless the child who suffers.
There it is.
And with that — Kapow! — I’m going straight to the top! I can almost taste the Pulitzer right now. I think it tastes something like casserole.
Thanks, Mom. I knew you had it in you. And I’ll be over at five for dinner tonight. Are we having casserole?