While I was walking my dog this morning I noticed a recycling bin filled with frozen family meal boxes outside a rented house where I know at least four children live. The family hasn’t lived in the house long, maybe a year. I remember running into the older boy when I was pregnant and he congratulated me. He and his brother offered to mow our lawn last year and brought a package to our house that was delivered to theirs, but we know essentially nothing about them. Mom drives a van and has a stethoscope hanging from her mirror, while Dad looks like he works with his hands and drives a truck. Before Christmas we walked past while they were taking a family photo on an old pickup truck painted bright red, wearing sweaters in the same color, next to a tree trunk surrounded by foliage. It was probably a really nice card.
We always say ‘hi’ to the kids when they’re playing outside and we walk by. The older boy says ‘hi’ back, but the younger ones just stare at us. I guess that’s what kids do nowadays, social graces having been forsaken by the need for stranger-danger. And we need stranger-danger lessons, unfortunately. Anyway, they know who we are, just as everyone in the neighborhood knows who we are, and we know them in the vague way you know neighbors to whom you’ve never spoken. What struck me this morning, however, was the frozen food boxes in their trash. Frozen lasagne, frozen pizza, frozen burritos…and that was just what I could see bulging out of the blue-topped bin. It would be meaningless to me, but it reminded me how different my childhood had been to that of other kids.
My husband grew up with divorced parents, eating what he describes as old food from the local food bank, while his mother worked constantly to stay afloat without any help from his dad. When he stayed with his father, he ate microwaved sausages on refrigerated bread. He stayed at friend’s houses a lot and ate home-cooked meals as often as possible. It was him and his three siblings, all just trying to navigate a truly depressing childhood, and each did what they had to do. He’s told me stories about being at his dad’s house and his dad hiding food from them and declaring it his food, not theirs, not to be shared. Truly depressing.
In my family, both my parents worked, but there was always food and plenty of it. It was just me and my brother, usually left to our own devices for a couple hours after school, until mom got home and made supper. We had the Schwann’s man come by once a week to order frozen food, but it was always ingredients, not whole meals. It was convenient so mom and dad could get a meal on the table without it taking hours. We had pizza every so often and Taco Bell occasionally, but we ate a lot of home-cooked food. Pork chops with sauerkraut and potatoes, burgers off the grill, steak, spaghetti with meat sauce, microwaved veggies with butter. Sunday breakfast was always eggs cooked in bacon fat with buttered white toast. We had salads a lot and BLTs were a special treat in our house.
My dad always jokes that he taught my mom how to cook and I wouldn’t have believed it were it not for the fact that my grandmother, my mom’s mom, was not that good a cook. They both made over-cooked pork chops the same way and the family special, soup with meat dipped in tomato sauce, was my grandfather’s recipe. My dad’s side of the family has a few family recipes I’ve learned over the years. Old German / Norwegian fare that’s blended together over the generations of immigrants inter-marrying throughout the midwest. I must be a real head-scratcher for my family because I don’t eat animals anymore.
What I’m getting at is that I always believed I would be one of those moms who has a home-cooked meal on the table every night and works full-time. I can’t imagine what I was thinking when I convinced myself that was the only way to be a good mother. I’m staying at home with my daughter now, but who knows how things will change over the next few years? I’m still hoping to go back to school and finish up my bachelor’s degree, and it would be nice to work again eventually. I’m too damn picky, though: I won’t do something I don’t like. Full stop. That’s why the school thing has been so demeaning. I’ve tried and tried to get something done and blam! every time, a road block shoots up. No self-pity here, but come on!? What’s the message I’m supposed to be getting here, universe? Maybe I’m supposed to stay home and have supper on the table every night. Donna Reed did it and far be it for me to fancy myself better than Donna Reed. I guess I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m meant to do something more. What? You got me.