by Rebecca Houghton
First, remember that you’re going to have to eat this and be grateful because you’re poor. At least that’s what your mum will tell you. And that as the oldest, you have to set a good example for your brothers.
“It’s spaghetti bolognaise,” she will say as she plonks down the plate on the dented pine kitchen table, covered with a plastic gingham table cloth. The bright fluorescent overhead light gives the food a garish, orange hue, and preempting your complaints, Mum will make sure you know that: “You can eat it or go to bed hungry.”
And even though you’re used to going to bed hungry, you still don’t want that growling empty ache in your stomach keeping you awake, giving you more time to think about what might be scavenging in the dark amongst the old toys and moldy tea mugs under your bed.
But then, you don’t want to eat the ‘spaghetti bolognaise’ because your mum’s put tomato ketchup and Bisto instant gravy in there “for taste,” along with a small amount of gray minced beef she had to use up from the freezer and the can of baked beans (not Heinz, Tesco value—now only six pence)!
Give eating it your best go because aside from being hungry, if you don’t eat enough, you won’t get dessert. And what if dessert is something good like ice cream from a rectangular cardboard box that you have to cut out rather than scoop; or a stale frozen donut, defrosted on the Formica kitchen counter all day, so that the outside is clammy and the processed strawberry jam inside frozen solid? Of course, it could be suet pudding, which thankfully at the age 10, you have no idea is essentially fat from the loins of a cow (you don’t even know what loins are!). Your mother makes the pudding with a dollop of jam in the middle and cooks it in the microwave till it’s tough as old leather. Or it could be bread pudding, which she makes without eggs to save money, so it comes out ashen and dry and you’d rather just eat the stale bread it was made with.
Now this is important. Don’t eat the past their sell-by-date yogurts Mum buys unrefrigerated from the Wednesday outdoor market. They will make you sick, though Mum will deny it. And she won’t stop buying them because they’re cheap and yogurt is expensive and this way “we can eat yogurt like everyone else.”
Dessert aside, the making of dinner will forever be something of a mystery, because from the youngest age you will be barred from the kitchen with a child gate, while Mum has a “bloody moment to herself” with a bottle of wine and her latest culinary creation.
It’s not for another two decades that you’ll discover that your family always had plenty of money for food and other necessities, and that your mother has been siphoning it off into secret bank accounts so that she can feel secure or have the option of escape. She will threaten to leave “you ungrateful lot” on a regular basis because “perhaps then you’ll appreciate her.” Sometimes she will pack her bags and stand at the front door with your brothers crying and grabbing at her skirt.
Also, it won’t be for many years until you realize that during the worst of your childhood, Mum was essentially having, what you will first name as a ‘nervous breakdown,’ and eventually will understand was postpartum depression, brought on by having three children in just over three years, along with untreated borderline personality disorder.
Only years later, looking back, will you see the positives of the spaghetti and baked beans. For one, you will continue to not need to eat much throughout your life and although the jokes in the school playground about being skinny will be hard, your slim figure will be the envy of many of your girlfriends when you’re older. Furthermore, you will find that the bonds of your mealtime ordeals give you and your brothers a camaraderie and a way to support each other as you each work through your childhood trauma. This closeness will in turn help the three of you find acceptance and even a way to have a boundary-driven relationship with your mother, based on understanding that she does not have the ability to be the mother you want to her to be, and that in her own way she was doing the best that she could.
And finally, the fact that the mothers of your friends think you’re anorexic, will bring you much craved maternal affection and heaped portions when you are allowed to visit your friend’s houses for dinner.
Just never, ever, invite them to yours.
Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash
Read all the way through with a tight knot in my stomach. Very well done, Rebecca.
It’s interesting when we begin to piece things together from our childhood and are affirmed that ‘this isn’t normal’. Well done Rebecca.
I love how you told this difficult but hopeful story, Rebecca–as if in a letter to yourself. I imagine your little girl self would be comforted to know how much your adult self has healed and moved on, and learned to express herself so beautifully.