Growing up is always interesting. I love it when people tell me they have, cos it’s clear I’ve yet to do so myself.
NOW…that’s been said. I’d like to take this opportunity to touch on what “childhood” meant in our household.
You see, my Father and Mother both were going to school, working jobs, and trying to feed four (soon to be five) of us. My Dad’s kids, Valerie and Eddy, “us” meaning Petra and myself. Shannon came along a short time later.
We had a clean, well-tended home. In fact, we had the cleanest home. While I wore Eddy’s hand me downs (We were six months apart in age, but he towered over me, even back then), Ma made a point of ensuring that every single thing we wore was spotless and in great repair.
I remember, even now, almost a half-century later, my parents going without, well, a lot. There were times we kids whined about not liking our dinner, while they had no dinner, period. Yes, at times, it was that bad.
We had electricity. We had heat. We had running water. And, we had parents that loved us enough to take an inch off our hides if we stepped out of line. Nowadays, some call that child abuse. I didn’t, and I won’t. I call it keeping a good kid, well, good. I can’t say I miss the feel of Hot Wheels tracks connecting with my then skinny arse, but I’m forever thankful that I learned right from wrong, even if it meant a few tears.
We had cars. Paid for cars. While upholstery and interior fittings were often optional on these vehicles, they hauled us to wherever it was we needed to be. One of them once hauled my poor Dad to the hospital to treat a broken femur he blessed himself with on his birthday (that was one very tough time, one of the few times I watched Ma break down crying from the stress of it all).
We also had breakfast, lunch and dinner, on a regular basis.
Now…I was a rail-thin kid. And I mean thin. If you could pinch a millimeter on my hide, you’d have caught me during a “fat” phase.
One of the reasons is that I didn’t love some of the selections offered.
You see, Ma, well, for a while, she had to feed five kids on very little money. Every dime was counted, every ounce of meat was portioned.
Once in a while we got lucky, and it was hamburger casserole, or our “blue plate special” which I loved. Chicken on bread with white gravy, shoe string fries and peas. Still love this as a comfort food to this day.
Most of the time, though, it was fast fry meat, potatoes, and veggies. Turnip night used to make me want to drop my plate. Gawd, I hated them. Funny thing is, now I absolutely love them.
Petra…she was smart. She just wouldn’t eat. No amount of strong arming or cajoling would budge her, either. All three of us, Petra, Shannon and myself had Ma’s stubborn streak. It was clearly evident with Shannon and Petra when they didn’t want to eat or drink something. I just ate it, no matter how much I didn’t want to.
None of us realized at the time just how dire our situation was on occasion. My parents made damned sure they protected us from the uglier parts of life. That’s something that as an adult I deeply admire in the two of them. They knew just how bad bad could get, and did their level best to ensure we grew up sheltered from as much of this as they could.
Well, I digressed.
Lunch, at school consisted of peanut butter and jam, an apple and sometimes a jar with powdered skim milk in it.
I said I was skinny, here’s why.
I could never stand peanut butter “sitting” on bread. Still can’t. And powdered skim milk, well, unless it was perfectly mixed and REAL cold, same deal. As for apples. Well, it’s Canada, and with the exception of a few weeks in September, most of the year, they’re mushy or soft. I, Mr. Picky, still do not eat mushy apples. They have to pop in my mouth when I bite into them, or they end up as so much recycled mulch.
So…as Mama packed us off to school, bread bags on our feet to keep the leaky boots from making us wet (EVERYONE wore them back then), snowsuits which would never die, one for each of us; mitts that had no thumbs in them (drove Mama crazy, I’d rip the thumbs off every last pair I owned), I trudged through the snow. I actually walked miles (we weren’t metric until 1973) to school.
No matter how hard blustery or wet that weather was outside. I’d find a lovely trash can to share my lunch with while dreaming wide awake along my chosen path.
As I reminisce out of sequence; I come to the most important meal of the day. Breakfast.
I’m not a morning person. I have never been a morning person. I will die not being a morning person.
The last thing I want is any sort of food in my face. Coffee, that’s the only thing that matters. Until I’ve had at least one travel mug full, no matter if it’s instant or perked, I don’t want conversation, food, or even a hint either.
Growing up, Ma took on the role as a food Nazi, always making sure we would eat it all up. Eventually she realized that her efforts were in vain.
Petra wouldn’t drink the milk on a dare.
Shannon wouldn’t touch the fluffs or puffed rice.
I would choke down both, but wished I’d have had my sisters stubborn streak when it came to eating things I couldn’t stand.
So, essentially, I ate breakfast lunch and dinner, except on weekends and holidays. Then, lunch was mandatory. Fortunately for me, the bread had fresh peanut butter on it, so I didn’t hate it. And on our off days, we had something called “Freshie”, which was essentially Kool Aid without the sugar added to it. Ma made a POINT of never adding too much sugar, so we never got high off it.
So, did any of us eat willingly you might be asking?
Well, yes, we did. We’d get special meals once in a blue, when Ma found a few extra dollars. Roast was something we all looked forward to, once in a while, baked chicken, and if Dad got an inkling, he’d get himself a big, juicy steak to BBQ for himself. Lord knows, he earned it.
But my favourite things were, and will always be, hot cocoa after playing outside in the cold. To this day, I love a frothy hot mug of it when I come home from being out in -30 temperatures.
I also loved that slice of toast before bed. This one Ma shared with us growing up, because it gave her such deep comfort when she was our age. Sometimes it was just a little margarine. Other times, it was a bit of brown sugar sprinkled on that margarine, with a touch of cinnamon. As we got older, there was some product called “Pizza Spread”. We had that too. I preferred the cinnamon myself.
But the BEST was when Ma made us hot, creamy porridge before going outside to school on the nasty wintry days. It was a rare treat, and I can still smell her slow cooking the oats in the kitchen.
As I grew up, I resented some of the things we didn’t have, as I think a lot of kids do. When I grew all the way up, I started to see just how great things really were.
So, on this rainy Sunday, I’d like to take a moment to thank you both, Ma and Dad, for what you gave up to ensure we had the best you could give us. I know now just how little you had, while making sure we had all we needed.
I’d like to also thank you for the powdered skim milk, fluffs and puffed rice.
Fluffs came in a giant-assed bag, as did that puffed rice. Both went soggy the second you introduced any form of liquid to them. Powdered skim milk was forever lumpy (no amount of stirring ever changed that). and usually warm as it was mixed just before breakfast.
But, as yuck as all of them were, and they were, indeed, yuck, we had food. It was the best you could do, considering the circumstances you both were facing to improve all of our lives, and it was a great gift, as it turns out.
Out of our hated during those lean years, it taught each of us to appreciate when we did get something out of the ordinary. A bowl of Sugar Crisp (fluffs with sugar-coating on them), or for Shannon, her own box of Shreddies (we were read the riot act if we even tried touching that box), and for Petra, on some occasions, actual real milk.
Being this old, I now know how much you gave up to ensure we all had that “something extra”.
At 50, with all those years behind us now, I appreciate the greatest gift of all, to make due, and make wonderful.
From Dad, I learned how to be resourceful, and to face my fears instead of running from them (I can still see that baseball heading towards me, and you sternly trying to get me to actually catch it).
You also taught me the gift of patience. I have none, that’s not exactly a secret, but when it’s down to the wire, it appears I do. That wasn’t something that Ma instilled in me, that I learned from you.
Lastly, the best gift I received is the gift of temperance.
There are times I want to verbally rip the head off people. And I do on occasion, no matter where I am. But, as I grow older, I’ve learned to just bite into my tongue unless it’s something that needs saying. I definitely didn’t inherit that, I learned it, and it’s you that set the example. God, did I have one hell of a father!
I’m still working on that whole social skills thing. Petra and Shannon both possess it. They learned it from the two of you.
I never did master it. In fact, it’s baffling to me, to be completely honest. Still, I must admit, its improved somewhat.
From Ma, I learned the proverbial lesson about “lemons into lemon aid”, “man with no shoes vs man with no feet” (woman was a walking bumper sticker), and an appreciation of the smallest things.
We lost Hydro for a bit a couple of weeks back. At first I got testy (Hydro in this area goes off a lot in the summer), and then, as I sat outside, realized that without the lights, I could see so many stars that I hadn’t been able to see. I was able to actually capture one on my built-in phone camera. With the power on, I’d not have found an appreciation for that discovery.
I also learned how to dig my heels in. Now, this isn’t always a good thing (as Shannon would attest), but it’s served me very well.
Losing Ma has given me a greater appreciation for those I love and call friend.
I guess what I’m trying to say to the both of you is “thank you” for the effort you put forth into making our lives as comfortable as possible. I know we had it MUCH better than either of you did, and I ( I KNOW I speak for Shannon here) appreciate the fact that our comfort came at the expense of yours.
Who we are today is a testament to who you were back all those years ago.
It wasn’t easy for you to see us all looking down our noses at your best effort (kids do, it’s part of being a kid I think). Now that I’ve been through this many years, I not only understand, but have great respect for every last sacrifice you’ve ever made. It was hell on earth for you growing up, and you did everything you both could to make it a better world for us.
I’m sorry I didn’t like the breakfasts. I’m sorry I still don’t like them. But I appreciate the fact that I had a breakfast to hate on, period.
I may not have ever had to chip my socks out of the ice in New Brunswick, or run outside in the dead of winter in PEI when the damper on Ma’s wood stove slammed shut, filling the house with soot and coal.
But I CAN ABSOLUTELY say I walked to school in the worst possible weather, and loved every single second of it.
I also can say with conviction that I truly loved the personal attention you gave me, both of you, when I needed it most. Going to work with you and failing to learn how to drive a standard, the Scholastic book club membership I was allowed to join at school, the little special “extras” Ma would sometimes give me, trying to brighten my day, and she did, more than she ever knew.
For as many pratfalls as I took, for all the dumb lies I told, and the ingrate I became at times, you always loved us unconditionally.
Not living in the past, but learning to appreciate the great things that happened growing up.
I couldn’t have had two better parents.
Thank you both.