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“M” is for the Mac & Cheese You Made Me

January 12, 2012

My mother is a tricky one to bag on.  That’s because she’s two parts Carol Brady with one part Aunt Bee and not even a pinch of Dina Lohan.

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.

Negligence!

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.

Violence!

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.

Addiction!

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.

Horrifying.

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.

Jealous Rage!

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?

XXOO

51 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2012 11:38 am

    This was so good, it tastes like casserole. My mother made hers with Velveeta.

    • January 13, 2012 2:48 pm

      How could people live without Velveeta back then? Today I won’t touch that toxic, waxy substance with a 10-foot pole. Mostly because I’d eat the whole block.

  2. January 12, 2012 1:28 pm

    I so know what you mean! How can I ever be a great artist when I’m not tortured?

    But rising about the crackle of that retrofitted-wax-paper-sandwich-covering of shame, I can hear the drip, drip, drip of your heart bleeding at the humiliation. There’s some good meat left on the bones of the carcass of THAT childhood trauma – enough for putting together some Pulitzer soup, I’ll wager.

    • January 13, 2012 2:50 pm

      You are hilarious, Peg. I never knew boiling down bones could sound as appealing as they do at this moment.

  3. January 12, 2012 1:46 pm

    Wait a sec–didn’t you have a brother? There’s your trauma right there. If he was anything like mine were, you are set.

    By the way, my mom also threatened us with a wooden spoon–she’d chase us out of the kitchen, usually yelling “JUST GO OUTSIDE!” Can you imagine? Kids going outside in this day and age? Oh, the horror!

    • January 13, 2012 2:51 pm

      Of course my brother inflicted trauma on me. Not quite the same as what comes at the hands of your own parents, but tragic just the same.

      Yes, I don’t think anyone should go outside today. I’m certain there are no computer screens built into tree bark and who needs nature anyway.

  4. January 12, 2012 1:58 pm

    I identify with this post so much that it’s making me wonder if my mom had a secret life, another family on the side. Maybe you are a half-sister that I didn’t even know about?

    There’s some trauma for you!

    • January 13, 2012 2:53 pm

      Now that I’ve read your comment, I’m very worried. Quick, what is your mom’s favorite flower? If it’s lilacs, we’re so screwed.

      • January 13, 2012 4:34 pm

        My moms favorite flower is lilacs. Scary. You sure you lived in Nebraska? I think you lived in my house.

      • January 15, 2012 2:05 pm

        I’m really not sure. I actually lived in a lot of states and we might’ve passed through your state a couple of times. Perhaps to visit other “relatives”.

      • January 13, 2012 8:43 pm

        I had a hard time getting her to commit to a favorite but she eventually, reluctantly admitted to Lily of the Valley. So we are in the clear.

        ..or are we?

        If she’s crafty enough to lead double lives, she would be crafty enough to anticipate these kind of questions!

        Dear God. She is a MONSTER.

      • January 15, 2012 2:09 pm

        Lily of the Valley? I think my mom has that flower as #11 on her list! Now this is getting very scary indeed.

  5. January 12, 2012 3:57 pm

    Oh, your mom is so pretty! I’m terribly sorry she’s nice as she looks.

    • January 13, 2012 2:54 pm

      Yes, I always thought my mom was quite the looker, too. And I’m wondering whatever became of that odd looking spider monkey she’s holding in the last picture.

  6. January 12, 2012 4:30 pm

    I’ll see your Pulitzer and raise you a Nobel: My mom made me wear dresses.

    • January 13, 2012 2:55 pm

      There should be a law! I have the opposite problem with my daughter. I have to force her into pants. If I ever get my hands on those damn Disney princesses, I’ll pull out every silky strand of hair on their tiny bobble heads.

  7. January 12, 2012 4:38 pm

    I just read the special episode post: http://childhoodrelived.com/2011/09/16/tonight-on-a-very-special-episode/ you mentioned up there in paragraph two. Excellent as always and so helpful to someone like me whose tortured childhood did not include a television (my mother was a librarian). :-(

    It takes more than a tortured childhood to be a good writer. It takes talent, and you clearly are overflowing with talent.

    • January 13, 2012 3:00 pm

      Oh, I love that idea! Your mom must’ve been great, er, wicked. I tried that (raising children without television) until my son was born. Then I realized that with two children, I needed to find a babysitter and quick :(

      Thanks, WW — super nice of you to say.

  8. January 12, 2012 4:58 pm

    Yes, I’m 99% sure the envelope mom used to organize the coupons was one that holds the pics you get back from the Kodak store.

    The wax paper thing really bothered me too, because all the other kids had plastic baggies for their lunch. And I couldn’t get her to buy me those cool bendy straws with the blue and red stripes. They were called ‘clown straws’ but she told me they were really ‘hospital straws’ and she wasn’t going to waste money on those.

    Now how about the fact that mom cut the fabric softener sheets in half and horrific static cling being the result.

    • January 13, 2012 3:05 pm

      Actually it wasn’t a Kodak envelope (she probably did reuse those for something) — it was this really old plastic ziplock bag (that she most certainly didn’t buy in a box all its own). I don’t think the seal even held together anymore.

      I love your clown/hospital straw story so much. I remember you telling me that one. Also forgot about the dryer sheets. It’s like we were living inside The Grapes of Wrath.

  9. January 12, 2012 5:00 pm

    well, if it makes you feel any better, i think you’re demented. hahaha. but if you do win a pulitzer, you can quote me on that if you think it will help in any way.
    your mom does look really nice (and has great eyebrows)!

    • January 13, 2012 3:07 pm

      I think if I’m demented, I might be better served as an actor. That infliction always seems to be a great fit with that profession :)

      Yeah, her eyebrows rocked!

  10. January 12, 2012 5:11 pm

    The thing is you can have all the torture in the world and no talent and you’ll up a lawyer or a banker (or maybe even a raving psychopath killer – which is basically the same difference and I can say this freely since I’m a member of the tribe – the lawyer tribe not the killer tribe, we don’t dirty our hands). ;)

    You, however have enough talent for multiple-you’s. There is a reason I am considering printing out your gravatar picture and sticking it to my wall like I used to with Nirvana posters and the Backstreet Boys (okay now this might have sounded just a tad crazy, but I guess many kids had Backstreet Boys posters on the wall they kissed goodnight, right?! ;) )

    So, after all your mom must have done something right, maybe it were the underoos? ;)

    • January 12, 2012 5:11 pm

      *you’ll end up …

      • January 13, 2012 3:14 pm

        No need to edit yourself around here. I mean what you know ;)

    • January 13, 2012 3:13 pm

      I would be so lucky to one day end up in Tiger Beat!

      I believe Underoos may have something to do with it. I had the Wonder Woman ones. Now, if I were to be one of the girls who ended up with the Daisy Duke ones, with the underwear that looks like trashy ripped jeans, I would be somewhere else entirely.

  11. January 12, 2012 6:38 pm

    The peanut butter cookies’ story had me weeping and shaking with rage at the injustice of it all. I would also like to share my childhood horror story. …ok, get it together, Speaker7, you can do this…here goes….I always wanted a sit-and-spin, and my mother never bought me one. Do you know who she purchased a sit-and-spin for? My then one-year-old son who had no interest in sitting, spinning or do a combo of the two. At nearly 2, he still could give to sit-and-spins about it.

    Thanks for an amazing post that not only made me giggle like an insane person, but for helping me recognize my own childhood trauma.

    • January 13, 2012 3:18 pm

      Honestly, that peanut butter cookies story still gets me to this day.

      I happened to have a sit-and-spin as a kid (sorry if that brings up painful memories for you). And I had so much fun with it (sorry) that I wanted my kids to have one too. Neither of my kids (much like your son) could give two sit-and-spins about doing it. So now they use it as a springboard/stepstool. They stand on the top of it and use it to launch themselves onto the couch. I’m not around when this is occurring of course.

  12. Janine Edwards permalink
    January 12, 2012 7:10 pm

    I love this story. I KNOW YOUR MOM and she is PERFECT……YA REALLY HAD TO DIG…..

    Kent always tells me that I grew up in the LEAVE IT TO BEAVER HOUSE, (tells all of our friends that). I just thought everybody grew up like we did!!!! YES WE……YOU AND I COULD HAVE “REALLY” BEEN IN THE LEAVE IT TO BEAVER HOUSE.

    JANINE EDWARDS

    • January 13, 2012 3:22 pm

      She is perfect. And I agree completely on my growing up in The Leave it to Beaver household. Up until Ward decides to buy a hardware store in a small town, uproot his family and force them to work in it. The Beav didn’t get along so well in that environment. That was when the network cancelled our show.

  13. January 12, 2012 8:24 pm

    Love the reference to your first encounter with “real” mac and cheese! My five siblings and I can all relate. Wonderful blog, I love your humor!

    momshieb

    • January 13, 2012 3:26 pm

      Thanks, momshieb! I am a gourmet macaroni and cheese chef now. I go all out with the bread crumb topping, four cheeses, baked in the oven until ooey, gooey and amazing. Yet my kids prefer the boxed kind too. And then I have to remind myself that they also eat dirt, playdough, boogers and their chewed-off toenails.

  14. January 13, 2012 2:41 pm

    After reading this post, I feel like you were traumatized by a good upbringing. I will try my best to make your life a living hell inside this comment box.
    Hopefully this helps, White Bread.

    • January 13, 2012 3:28 pm

      Your comment is so damn funny that, when I laughed, white bread shot out of my nose just now.

  15. January 13, 2012 4:27 pm

    Seriously, girl, are we sisters?I could have written the exact same thing about my childhood, literally. Except my mom did buy the plastic baggies. But we had to save them and bring them home. She would wash them and reuse them. Not kidding. She would also reuse our brown paper sacks for our lunch until they had holes in them. Do you know how embarrassing it is to go to school and pull your lunch out of a sack that is wrinkled and soft while all your friends have new crisp ones everyday? My friends never understood how lucky they were to get to throw their lunch sack away at the end of lunch instead of folding up nicely to take home. I bet you might understand. Sigh.
    p.s. Tuna casserole was my moms specialty. It had peas in it. I still gag thinking of it.

    • January 15, 2012 2:04 pm

      Why is the school lunch room so terrifying in so many ways? Wow, are you sure your mom didn’t grow up in the Depression? Mine might’ve too. Yes, I recall peas as a staple ingredient in a lot of casseroles I’ve had.

  16. Davis permalink
    January 13, 2012 6:38 pm

    “Gray ribbon.” I was merely smiling as I read through this post until I got to “gray ribbon.” Then I actually L’ed OL.

    • January 15, 2012 2:07 pm

      Yeah, it was just about the same gray color as the sheep kidneys I had to slice open in Biology class.

  17. January 13, 2012 8:09 pm

    Well, I’m in the same, boring little row-boat as you! Maybe it has to do with Nebraska??
    I got nothing, either. Oh wait, Angie, MAYBE we’re just “blocking it out” because something was really too traumatic! hehehe

    • January 15, 2012 2:09 pm

      I think the Midwest tends to wholesome-ize all the pizzazz out of our memoirs.

  18. January 15, 2012 10:54 am

    I’m definitely going to start finding fault in every little thing my parents did, regardless of whether it was appropriate parenting behavior or not. If they care about my future, they’ll understand.

    • January 15, 2012 2:10 pm

      Don’t be afraid to throw your fist on the table and demand answers. It’s our future at stake.

  19. January 16, 2012 1:13 pm

    “That’s because she’s two parts Carol Brady with one part Aunt Bea and not even a pinch of Dina Lohan.
    She sounds great!

  20. January 16, 2012 4:44 pm

    My mom made me clothes, pretty ones, and did all the home-cooking, but she also left me in charge of my dad’s veterinary office, when she had to run into town. At the age of TEN! She had a lot of confidence in me, and what was the worst that could happen? http://wp.me/p1yCQ6-7H

    Your post reminds me of a Modern Family episode in which Haley complains she has no difficult life experience to write her college essay on, so her mom Claire drives her out to the country to “see something” and then abandons her to walk miles home. “Now you’ll have something to write about!” she yells as she drives away.

    Love your blog!

    • January 16, 2012 4:49 pm

      That is a fantastic story! I love it. I would’ve hoped to be put in charge of a vet clinic at that age, though I’m pretty sure it would’ve ended badly for a lot of animals and me.

      Thanks for the Modern Family reference — that is hilarious! I was recently given the first two seasons on DVD from a friend and have never watched a single episode. So I’m looking forward to getting to know that show. Especially now that you’ve told me this.

  21. January 17, 2012 9:12 am

    So funny.

    • January 17, 2012 9:51 am

      Thanks — I have a lot of material to work with when it comes to my mom :)

  22. January 21, 2012 6:27 am

    What an awesome blog – gladly clicked on follow…keep up the good work!! My mom was your mom’s opposite…in equally wonderful ways! :)

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