Shrinking patriarchs

I want to express profound gratitude to two individuals whose writing and insights have given me enormous comfort and courage as I proceed with the examination of my life story.  They are not alone in the pantheon of the wise and kind, but they are stellar.   Star Fruit 1 Thank you, Brené Brown and Eckhart Tolle.

I will begin with this quote from Brené Brown:

“Our stories of worthiness – of being enough – begin in our first families.  The narrative certainly doesn’t end there, but what we learn about ourselves and how we learn to engage with the world as children sets a course that [may] require us to spend a significant part of our life fighting to reclaim our self-worth…   (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p 216-217)

Here’s one of the first memories that comes to mind.  I’m a preteen, visiting my paternal grandparents.  We spend an evening at the home of their long time friends, people who have known my siblings and I since we were born. After supper we play a game of Scrabble.  I’m enjoying the experience; not exactly a ‘grownup evening’, but special nonetheless.   When there is a debate about the Scrabble acceptability of a word, I am sent to the next room to fetch the dictionary.

The moment I am out of sight (but not ear shot), Mr. G pronounces “It’s a shame Cathy takes after her mother; she could be a very attractive girl.”  My grandfather concurs, deriding my mother’s body size and agreeing that I am not likely to marry well. At the time, I didn’t even notice that their wives did not speak up; I shut down completely and didn’t hear another word all evening.

How or why has this ‘minor’ incident continued to be so charged?  Well, I’ve answered this question before:  I have given it power for years.  I enhanced its strength because I never spoke about it.  I never even imagined telling my parents what I overheard.  Never.  Why?  Did I believe that they agreed?  Was I already so convinced that I was unworthy and therefore had no reason to complain, since they were just speaking the truth?  Was I scared of what my parents might say?

                                                          * * *

Owning my story does not mean making it my life story – creating my reality by perpetuating the story line.  So, I’ve made a museum.  Actually I think I made it long ago, enshrining the incidents and people who caused me to feel pain and shame; those who shamed me.  The central gallery has contained larger-than-life-size images of my father and his father.  That has been the core, the heart of the collection:  Childhood.  There is also an Adolescent wing.

For many years I’ve wandered these halls, having locked myself in; I was trapped inside.  While there, I regularly re-lived these events and the figures of these men grew with each replay, like characters in a tale by the Brothers Grimm.  In silent action clips, I fed their looming shadows, swelling their images for decades.

As I’ve begun sharing these stories, owning them and sharing them, owning them by sharing them, I realize I’m no longer alone in the halls of my museum.  As I stand in and walk through these halls of shame with others, I see the images I’d created of these men are beginning to shrink into insignificance.  They no longer dominate my life story.  Powerful shame-loss.

The tightly sealed doors, now open from the outside, have allowed others to enter and join me in the museum.  As the enshrined figures shrink, the storybook power that had sustained them is broken, triggering the release of the interior locks.  I am able to leave, to exit these galleries built of my stories.  I own them and now I can leave them.  With the shattering of the spell, I awaken, seeing where I have been trapped and discover that I can walk away!  As I take each step, with each bit of distance, my vision clears.  The museum shrinks and I begin to see so many other elements of my life: things that are also and now my life.

on Beauty

Some thoughts on beauty.  Last Friday evening I saw a local production of the play, Hairspray.  I remember seeing the earlier movie version, with cross-dresser Divine as Edna Turnblad, but I didn’t really love it or get it at the time.  The more recent film with John Travolta in that role is a favorite.  The music is fabulous, the teenage take on the 1950’s becoming the 1960’s is fun – and somewhat accurate – and the treatment of the civil rights issues of prejudice and integration are moving.

And then there is ‘the fat stuff’.  From the first time I watched the movie, there were a few lines that just exploded for me; that’s not the best description, but as close as I can get right now.  When the teenage heart-throb sings to the fat girl, “Tracy, I’m in love with you, no matter what you weigh…”, there’s a little pop in my heart and brain.  Just to hear those words spoken.  And I’ve got to admit, the zing is still strong, even after hearing the line multiple times.  I wait for those words.  I do, I wait for them.  It feels rather sad and pathetic to admit it, but I do.

Earlier in the play/film, during the fat girl’s fantasy about winning the heart of the heart-throb, triumphing over the pretty girl, Tracy sings to her ‘rival’, “Amber, much to your surprise, this heavy weight champion takes the prize…”; fat girl triumphant, with a tinge of revenge?  Stirs me up a little.  When the fat mother of fat girl sings about not being seen by neighbors since she was a size 10 (?) and not having left the house in years, I feel a little sick and scared.  I guess I relate to that wish not to be seen.  The daughter’s response “Welcome to the 60’s…things are changing out there…” leaves me wishing that had really been true in the 1960’s, my years of adolescent suffering.  Things were changing in many ways, but fat acceptance was not one of them.  It was the era of Twiggy.

In the rousing, closing musical number, the fat mother shakes ‘it’ on the dance floor, singing: “… if you don’t like the way I look, well I just don’t give a damn!” and my heart rises up at the cheer leading positive declaration.  I wanna feel that way.  But I feel acutely aware that this is fiction.  An internal battle between Yes! and nope, is activated.  Generally I push it aside and enjoy the upbeat passion that wraps up the show.  Those see sawing emotions are too familiar and the battle is never resolved for more than a split second, so why bother?

An earlier scene, which is powerfully delivered by Queen Latifah in the Travolta film, carries the refrain “Big, blond and beautiful”, which led me to begin writing this reflection on beauty.  It’s a rallying cry, of sorts, toward self-acceptance and owning one’s right to take up space, to define beauty for oneself.  I don’t find this number as moving as the integration/civil rights anthem that comes later.  As I ask myself why that is, I wonder if it’s because racial integration and civil rights for people of color are so widely agreed upon.  The wrongs of slavery, segregation and racial profiling are so profound and the path toward righting those wrongs is (and will be) the work of generations.  We are clearly not a ‘post-racial’ society, but many/most of us are cognizant of the issues.

The right to feel beautiful, to believe you are beautiful, even when you are fat, seems trivial and self-absorbed in comparison.  Clearly the writer of Hairspray, John Waters, was drawing some parallels.  To what end, I wonder?  A last note about the stage production, as opposed to the more recent film… the script contains considerably more fat-bashing dialog.  There I was, 60 years old, sitting in the audience and not personally receiving the abuse, but the sneering and mocking was stinging. It wasn’t sufficiently mitigated by the positive messages embedded in the play.  Again, hard to admit, sad and dis-empowering, but I guess echoes of traumatic moments, even second (third, fifth?) hand, carry barbs.

So, it turns out what I have to share right now are these thoughts about the play, Hairspray.  My thoughts on beauty will come another time.

My ‘story’

My story.  The things I hold onto, that I repeat, to myself and to others, have created and continue to create my story.  Right now I am tired of the story I’ve been creating.  I do believe that bringing events to the surface, exposing them to the light of day and examining them is a vital step in the process of releasing the hurt and moving on.  On an intellectual level, I see the necessity and merits of this activity.  I shall continue to de-construct shame.

However, I am also remembering that the more I tell a story, to myself or others, the more solid it can become, the more it becomes my story.  My identity.  “This is who I am.”  Injured party, wronged individual.  Even if I stop short of a full pity party, “oh poor me”, I have contributed to my own pain by claiming ‘the down side’ as my story.  I have an aversion to cover-ups, born of the superficial and controlling  ‘make it look good’ & ‘as long as it looks good’ atmosphere of my childhood.  But I am wondering if a determination not to gloss over the hurts has kept me in a negative headset for far too long.

Can I also claim, as my identity, as my story, the fact that I wrote poems as a girl or that I loved to sing or that for almost ten years we produced real plays in my family’s garage?  Can I claim as my story that I loved the local library and reading was my greatest joy?  Can I claim as my identity the unparalleled bliss of trudging around my grandparents farm, through field and pasture, up the hillside and down by the brook?  May I claim the social and physical pleasures of Girl Scouting:  companionship, camping, hiking, orienteering, canoeing, swimming, archery and tying knots?

Answer: yes, of course I can.  Because those and other positive events, combined with the hurts and indignities, are what shaped me into the woman I am.  You can’t bake using just dry ingredients; you have to add the wet ingredients and stir.  Don’t over mix, there will be a few lumps.  Or perhaps the recipe calls for beating until the batter is smooth and silky.  However you blend the disparate ingredients, combining is required.  Even if you are layering elements in a casserole, it is the magic of the parts co-mingling that makes the the whole thing work.  That is the chemistry of cooking and an apt metaphor for how I wish to re-construct my life, to tell and own my story.


PS:  Check out this wonderful photo a friend took, when she used one of my EAW kitchen towels to cover the resting dough of her Buttermilk Bread!  Love it!


Family, expectations and numbing

grape night.  Returned from with in-laws and step-in-law extended family.  Spent about six hours in the car, several hours in traffic.  Tired.

This morning as we were setting out, and off & on during the day, I found myself reflecting on family, expectations and numbing.  I think we all experience variations of these themes on traditional family holidays.

Who we will spend the day with?  Who cooks & cleans up?  How are we expected to dress and behave?  I understand that it would be/is hard to be alone on this family holiday, but, let’s face it, it’s also sometimes hard to be with family.

Expectations make me think about the 1950’s housewives, home cooks, who perhaps had never learned to cook a turkey.  Suddenly they were receiving a considerable amount of pressure to produce a golden beauty for carving at the table.turkey

This did not play out well in my childhood home.  The bird was always overcooked and dry, because my mother worried that it might be raw.  My father tried to tell her what to do differently.  Honestly, I believe they fought about it every year.  Such a tense and un-festive family gathering. Why?

When I left home and gained a little perspective (and also the know-it-all attitude of a 20-year-old), I suggested that he be the one to cook the bird. No way!  Of course I had also become a vegetarian upon leaving home, which did not go over well either.  My father put turkey on my plate every year, no matter what I said.  Yep.  Expectations.

And finally, for now, numbing.  The most common numbing methods for these quintessential events are:  drinking alcohol, watching football on TV and eating too much, especially sweets.

That’s all I can manage tonight.  I have more to say on these topics and tomorrow I will write more cogently, I hope.

Betty C, part II

images-3 So, Betty was an imaginary friend.  Or imaginary neighbor or aunt for a child like me.  I’ll admit, I’ve never really understood the psychological interpretation of the need for an imaginary friend… something about not feeling alone?  However the marketing necessity of BC’s creation by one of the food industry giants is crystal clear. They needed Betty to sell their products and their ideas.

Why did the women of the 1950’s respond so strongly to Betty?  Were they feeling lonely?  To some extent, I think that was true.  The young couples who married right after WWII (and who produced the ‘baby boom’) moved to the suburbs by the millions. [Pause to NOTE, as Laura Shapiro does, my thoughts are relevant primarily to the white, upwardly mobile working class/middle class to which my family belonged.]

imagesMoving to the suburbs was part of the American Dream, but doing so often contributed to the break down of the centuries-old chain of cooking knowledge.  For many women, their mothers, grandmothers and aunts no longer shared the kitchen, as had been the norm.  In a few fortunate families, this dissolution did not occur.  I grew up with friends who learned to cook from their moms and g’moms.  Some of those moms also taught me a thing or two…and I thank them to this day.

A few years ago, I began interviewing people about their Food Life Stories.  In fact, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, that was an early phase of the circle that brings me to this post today.  I am reminded of one woman who shared this bit of advice from her 1950’s mom:  “Never get good at something you don’t like to do, like cooking, because then you will be stuck doing it.”  This woman hated to cook.  Her daughter, now a mother of three, struggles to find any pleasure in cooking for her family.

My mother’s mother virtually never cooked; which she could get away with because her husband traveled for work and my mother was an only child.  In fact, I am quite certain that my Nanna was an early and enthusiastic embracer of prepared foods, when she didn’t eat out or hire someone to cook for her.  images-1

So, did the housewives who turned to Betty Crocker have nowhere else to turn?  Not really.  Betty and her ilk were easy to access, but there were other sources…

I’m talking about Home Economics.  I’ve been doing a little research about the evolution of Home Ec in public schools.  If you took Home Ec classes in junior high or high school, I would love to hear from you about your experiences and memories.  Thanks.

Ms. Betty

Let’s talk about Betty Crocker, shall we?
Was she a real person?  That would be “No.”  BCspoon

She was a delightful persona, invented by Gold Medal Flour/General Foods to speak for the food industry in the voice of a wise & helpful next door neighbor.

She was a, perhaps the, leading character in the food industry campaign to convince women that they really wanted to use the new prepared food products that were pouring out of factories and into markets in the years following WWII.  Much of her story can be found in Laura Shapiro’s gem, Something From the Oven, published in 2004.

Independent research done at the time revealed, again and again, that women did not hate cooking and were not begging for these ‘ready-mix’ products.  (Shapiro, pp. 44-48)  But in the 1950‘s, the newspapers, women’s magazines and radio shows like Betty’s all proclaimed that women no longer wanted to cook, did not have the time to cook and the industry was there to save the day.

Some factory prepared food products were already a common sight in American kitchens.  “Canned meats, soups, fruits and vegetables, along with ketchup, pancake mix… were among the earliest products [late 19th and early 20th century] to become familiar and then indispensable.”, says Shapiro in her introduction.

The door was open and the American palate was already becoming accustomed to the taste of processed food;  “… a long tradition of using… packaged foods had encouraged Americans to develop a… sense of taste… that tended to perceive imitation [flavoring] as plenty good enough.”  (Shapiro, pp. 56)  The opening wedge of using artificial flavors to mask the offensive tastes of factory cooking.  Salt, sugar and fat to follow.

The industry was primed and began to crank out dozens of new packaged foods (some of which failed dismally.)  In this flurry of innovation, Betty was a reassuring presence, an authority that home cooks could turn to with their questions.  Betty Crocker’s New Good and Easy Cookbook was given to me in the late 1950’s.  Still on my shelf, it is splattered and stained, with notes detailing when I made a dish, changes I made and the response of diners.

Looking at the cookbook today, I am surprised (but shouldn’t be) by the appearance of a prepared food item in virtually every recipe.  Sometimes several canned products and Bisquick combine to make an entree.  Mini-marshmallows and canned pineapple show up a lot.  Fact is, it all scares me a little.  But.

But, what I can’t explain is the sensation of support and encouragement that still arises from these pages.  I am transported back to the seven-year-old child who could, and did, learn to cook with the help of Betty Crocker.  She was not real, she was packaged, just like the food she was created to sell, but…      BCface

Gee whiz

Gee whiz is an old-fashioned Americanism, what is known as a minced oath. We tend to be more explicit in our swearing these days, but here is a link to an entertaining list of  minced oaths.  The reason why I share this dreadfully important insight will (I hope) become clear shortly.

My mother was not much of a cook, bless her heart.  I recall only two dishes that she made, when we were growing up, that were “fancy”.  One was a cheddar and crab meat dip that was kept warm in a chafing dish; the only time the chafing dish ever appeared.  This hors d’ouvre was reserved for adult, New Year’s Eve-type cocktail parties.  We could each have a taste before being sent off to child land and if we were lucky there might be some residue to scrape out in the morning.  It was gooey, good and very rich.

The other dish, which was made for us, was also cheesy and rich.  Welsh rarebit.  OMG, we loved it!  It too was a special occasion food; that is, when we had Welsh ‘rabbit’, as we called it, supper became a special occasion.  Oh my, we licked those plates clean.  On a rare (oh, dear) family trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, we were thrilled to have rarebit in the colonial tavern.  It was heady, cheesy stuff.  It may actually have been a little ‘heady’ for us kids, since it is traditionally made with ale.

While he was researching Salt Sugar Fat:  How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss interviewed hundreds of people ‘who have been closely associated with advancing or critiquing the activities of the processed food industry.‘ (pp. 353)  One man, Al Clausi, was responsible (with his team) for the development of two of the most iconic processed foods of the 1950’s:  Tang and Jello Instant Pudding. (pp. 47-59)  These are great stories, in a  great book.

I’d like to share the story of another man whom Moss interviewed.  His name was Dean Southworth and as a food scientist,

“… he was part of the team that created Cheez Whiz, in the early 1950’s.  The mission had been to come up with a speedy alternative to the cheese sauce used in making Welsh rarebit, a popular, but laborious dish… It took them a year and a half… to get the flavor right…  Southworth and his wife, Betty, became life-long fans and made [eating] it part of their daily routine… So it was with considerable alarm that he turned to his wife one evening in 2001, having just sampled a jar of Cheez Whiz… and said ‘Holy God, it tastes like axle grease!… [He] looked at the label and said ‘What the hell did they do?’
… Not only was cheese no longer prominently listed as an ingredient, it wasn’t listed at all.”

All I can say is gee whiz.        cheezwhiz