Sunday, December 11, 2011

Father Didn’t Know Best

I suppose the softness in my heart for children came from a place of unmet need, a great emotional hunger that seemed never to be satisfied. I don’t know that you could say I was deprived. I had a mother and a father; I had a roof over my head and food to eat; I had clothes and relatives and gifts at Christmas. But I also had a life with turmoil always swirling all around. It made me afraid. It made me insecure and it made me doubt I would survive. However disloyal it may seem to some, my father was a large source of my insecurity. His life was one of deep disappointments, hurts, and humiliation but that was no comfort to me. Even as an adult, when I learned of the beatings, the abandonment, the physical trials and the financial setbacks he had to overcome, it made little difference. While I understood it intellectually, I didn't emotionally. I needed him. He was never there for me.
Sitting at my friend’s table, admiring her newly renovated kitchen, I noticed a beautiful hand-colored drawing, but without my glasses I couldn’t quite make out what I was seeing.  “It’s an onion,” Esther said, “a red onion. A friend of mine did it for me because it’s my favorite vegetable.” I was stunned. The dreaded onion... nemesis of my childhood. In that instant, I was transported back forty years to a very different table.
My father had some very fixed ideas about what was beneficial for his children. Without scientific back up or any documented proof, he dictated maxims for our growth, convinced he was doing what was best for us. Too many to outline, here are a few of the more questionable.

You must write right-handed.
To him, there was something wrong with being left-handed. My sister was left-handed and my father labored over correcting her of this defect. She was doomed to practice a hundred times everyday after school, “I will write with my right hand.” “Daddy,” I tried to explain, “being left or right handed isn’t a bad thing, it has to do with something in your brain. Look, here it is in my science book,” I pleaded. But he fumed at my textbook and me. “I told your mother not to put the high chair on that end of the table! She was always handing her things from the left side THAT’S why she’s left-handed! But would she listen to me? NO! And what have we got? SHE’S LEFT-HANDED — THAT’S what we got!” It was said as if my sister had leprosy and the blame was all my mother’s.

Musical talent could be instilled.
To that end, I was given an alto saxophone in the fourth-grade because he wanted all his children “to be musically inclined.” Never mind that it was almost as big as I was and clearly not an instrument your typical 4th grader would play. But for all his dictums, nothing equaled the terror of onions for me.

Onions are good for you.
Each night, along with our dinner, we had huge bowls filled with salad. (“Salad is good for you, you need your greens.”) And along with a need for salad, onions held some magical property for your well-being and digestion. The salad was always punctuated with thick slices of raw onion, drenched in dressing. Biting, rings of crunch that made me gag. I loved salad, but hated onions. I would eat my way around the onions until inevitably everything was gone but them. Covering the bottom of my bowl in a sickening layer coated with Good Season’s Italian Dressing, I stared at those onions willing them to disappear. I was not allowed to leave the table until the onions were gone. Presumably (my father believed) until they were eaten, but I spent my childhood finding ways to dispose of this vegetable I despised.
At first, I employed the simple tricks. My father would leave the table and I would dump a good deal of the onions back into the serving bowl or onto a sympathetic someone’s plate.  What onions remained required nerves of steel to swallow, sometimes whole, just to get them off of my plate. The nights when my father sat there with me and I had no chance to unload them, I would sit, tears streaming down my face, until the light darkened outside the dining room windows and it was time to be sent to bed.

When I did eat raw onions, they caused me to choke and it was a struggle not to throw up the rest of my dinner right then and there. Onions permeated every family mealtime and I worked to escape them. Chewing, putting my paper napkin up to mouth and slowly coughing them into it was only good for a mouthful or two. The masticated onions created too much of a mess for the napkin and my pocket. Summer was a good time for me because we used these white plastic glasses set in yellow lattice holders that were perfect for hiding onions. I would pretend to take a drink of water but actually spit the onion inside. These plastic glasses provided hidden transport for the unwanted slices and were a godsend to me until the day my unsuspecting mother, who was “tired of drinking out of plastic,” threw them away.

I couldn’t imagine why night after night, sometimes until nine o’clock, he would torture me so. The onions triggered a hate for my father that rose like bile in my mouth every dinnertime. It seemed cruel and unusual punishment and my ten-year-old mind schemed to have him tried in court in for what he subjected me to.

To this day, I cannot eat raw onions, scallions, chives, or anything remotely resembling them without gagging. If I unknowingly eat something with uncooked onion, an acidic secretion rises from my stomach and I have to abandon the food just to settle me down. An emotional wave comes over me and I am brought back to that dining room table — clenched fists below the surface and visions of hate filling my head. It is not how I wish to remember my father, but it is the legacy he has left me.

My mother was beginning the task of emptying out her home and trying to sell the house they lived in for almost twenty years. I am getting the dining room set. I have always loved the buffet and the ornate Old-World metal pulls that accent each drawer and cabinet door.  But I wonder if the memory of those onions will rise up each time I seat myself at his table.  

1 comment:

  1. At the top of this screen, there's a choice that says "report abuse." Yeah.