Retrospective 13: 1975 — Pineapple upside down cake and bread board spankings

“Don’t!” someone yelled. “Please don’t eat that.” I don’t remember which one of the four of us it was. It could have been any of us, all of us. We all knew the consequences of the thievery, and dreaded the moment of discovery. But Louise didn’t know. She didn’t care. She had grown up in a house that seemed to us enviably free and joyous. She and her sister (and the baby sister who was so much younger than us that we thought of her as a decoration or a cat or something occasionally troublesome but mostly simply not there) had a house filled with treats. Her mother was always making flapjacks and fudge, and at Lent the two older girls gave up candy and collected it in big baskets on top of the fridge, and then on Easter Day they gorged themselves sick and left the rest of the candy for the rest of the year. There were always Flakes and packets of Rollos available there on the fridge. And not only were they sitting out free in the house, but they were allowed whenever, wherever, however the girls wanted them. The delicacy of Jaffa Cake biscuits wasn’t kept for special deserts and doled out for good behavior. The girls could help themselves whenever they were hungry. And so when they visited us, they took the same liberties with our food as they did with their own, always to our trepidation — though it wasn’t always discovered. Till one day they didn’t just cut a slice off an already cut cake; they dived into a newly turned out pineapple upside down cake and cut a fresh slice, and divvied it up between them, and ate it, laughing at our terror-stricken faces. They just didn’t know.

And sure enough, Mum got back from shopping or wherever she had been, and the grilling began. By then the other girls were gone, unable to verify our account of the matter.

“But we didn’t eat any!” we insisted.

“There’s a slice gone. That was supposed to be for pudding.” (Irish for dessert.)

“It was the Hannety’s. They ate it.”

“You’re responsible for making sure your friends know the rules.” And she reached for the bread board, hanging on the wall to the left of the Aga in its neat little kitchen alcove.

“Mummy, please! We didn’t do it. Please don’t spank us.”

But our pleas went nowhere. Mum was determined to teach us. Down came our trousers and underwear. We bent over her knees. The breadboard whistled through the air and slapped hard on our bare bums, stinging hard, three times. Each precise, carefully placed spank was accompanied by her mantra: “This (spank) hurts me (spank) more than it hurts (spank) you.”

She didn’t know any better. She believed she was doing the right thing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” she said, and she congratulated herself because she was so in control of all her actions. There were clear rules, clear consequences, always carefully carried out. She was always measured when she spanked us. Her voice was steady and not raised. Spanking us was simply what she had to do. As an adult, looking back, I realize how much better our experience was than hers, shaped by her drunken mother’s midnight belt beatings — totally out of control, raising vicious welts on my mother’s pale skin — and I realize how deep and loving her self-control really was.

We became a household of petty criminals. I remember creeping into the freezer room to sneak packets of chocolate-covered McVities Digestives into my bedroom and hide them in the clothes cupboard. Later on, I found my sisters had done the same thing. Did Mum ever wonder why she was always having to buy more biscuits? Or did she prefer to turn away from our pilfering, because to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge her greatest fear, that we were not perfect?

Last year, Rachel admitted that she had chosen not to have children because she couldn’t bear the thought of fighting with them over food. The way we fought, as we grew up, for control over the chocolate biscuits, over what we could avoid eating. I look at Zeke, at her haphazard eating habits, her undisciplined approach to meals, and I realize that unconsciously I chose the opposite path for her than my mother had for me. She could eat when she was hungry, and not when she wasn’t. She didn’t have to “clean her plate.” She didn’t have to force down food that made her sick to think of, as Leah had to eat cooked carrots despite the fact that more than once she vomited afterwards, out of disgust and despair. She still won’t eat them, even in carrot cake. If Mum could, she’d probably come down out of the wild wind spirit where she howls her fury at our insubordination, and she’d spank me for letting Zeke refuse breakfast, for letting her eat dessert even when she hasn’t finished her peas.

Odd, that my father, the man Mum blamed for all the rules, just laughs. “Let her have what she wants,” he says, when I tell Zeke to stay out of the fridge unless she has permission, and then he turns to her. “Do you want ice cream?” he says. “I bought ice cream.”

Continued here

6 responses to “Retrospective 13: 1975 — Pineapple upside down cake and bread board spankings

  1. It’s hard to explain these different attitudes toward food isn’t it.

    I try to follow my daughter’s rules when my grandkids are here, but they both learned about “pop” here since they don’t have any in their house.

    I’m not sure where my daughter picked that up from since I’ve long been addicted to Pepsi, my drug of choice right after coffee. Of course, I’m sure I caught that from my mother.

    I’m pretty sure that being poor affected my father’s attitude towards food, as he would never let anything to waste, and would sometimes even eat what we didn’t want to eat.

    I always told my kids that they only had to eat what they wanted, but they couldn’t eat dessert if they didn’t eat all their dinner.

    I’m wandering here, but your reminisce got me thinking about how different people’s attitudes toward food are.

  2. Hi Loren: It’s all just so complicated, really. I don’t think what ended up being a pretty laissez faire attitude towards my daughter’s eating has worked out that well, really. I did try to have some structure, including the whole finish-your-regular-meal-before-you-eat-dessert, and you-have-to-have-SOMETHING-for-breakfast mantra, but my ex-husband didn’t really believe any of it, so I had no support from him. And eventually I just gave up! I do think expecting kids to eat everything on their plates, whether or not they’re hungry, is problematic, but I actually liked most of my mother’s cooking and was pretty pliable, so it wasn’t too hard for me to just eat whatever was there. The others have different views, though.

    Anyway, it’s so complicated. And what works in one family doesn’t work in another, and in the end we just do our best. I know my dad was affected by the boarding schools where he grew up during the war. If you didn’t grab whatever was in front of you and shove it down before the bullies got to you, you starved. So he always tended to be possessive about food.

    Anyway, despite today’s writing, my mother did teach us a lot about nutrition and eating well, and I thank her for it. I eat reasonably healthily today, as a result. And no pop! I don’t like it at all… ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Whew! Food. Maybe I’ll have to write about it. My birth family was deeply, deeply pathological about food. We don’t do food well, in my house, but at least I think I haven’t propagated the obsessiveness about it to the next generation. I hope not, anyway.

  4. I felt such anger on your behalf not just for the spanking but for the use of a bread-board (!) and most certainly for the pure injustice of this particular event. I’d be interested to know more of your inner journey about your experiences with your mother.

    I also felt sadness for the abuse your mother suffered at her own mother’s hands. Sad that these things are passed on the way they are. And sad that food was such a twisted ’round thing for you and your sisters.

    Blessings to you,

  5. Dale: It’s funny how differently the four of us were affected by the whole food issue. One sister became bulimic (the same one who decided against children because she didn’t want to fight about food). I refused to eat unless I was hungry after I became old enough to make that decision (I left the house at 17). I was somewhat thin for years as a result, although never to the anorexic stage — more the low end of “normal.” I don’t know what Zeke has picked up; although her eating habits aren’t the best, I do see that she eats more fruits and vegetables than most of her friends, and she is becoming more willing to eat whole grain foods as she gets older. I’d love to read about your experience, anyway.

    Stella: My mum did her best. I don’t want her to seem a monster. She was MUCH better than her mother, and she loved us. But she was suffering from her illness at the time at she wasn’t always rational. She was also rather a control freak, and we had to be GOOD all the time (a trait I’m afraid I’ve picked up, so my expectations for Zeke are sometimes hard on her, though I’ve done everything in my power to give her more freedom than I had). The funny thing is, my next sister and I saw her as the loving, controlled parent and Dad as awful, while my baby sisters saw Dad as the loving, steady, kind presence in the background, and Mum as the unreasonable parent. It’s amazed me how four girls can have had such absolutely differing views of their parents.

    In the end, what I see of both parents is that they did their best with what they had and what they knew. My mother struggled under the terrible burden of her illness for years, and it wasn’t till she encountered yoga and meditation, and figured out what was wrong with her without the doctors’ help, that things settled down for her (and us, though I’d left home by then). Dad just tried to hang on for the ride, and he didn’t know how to express his emotions, so he just withdrew. After Mum died, I came to see a completely different side of him, which we kids glimpsed in childhood only on rare occasions. He loved her completely, and I think she loved him in her own way, but they both made mistakes, and neither had good role models for raising kids in their own parents. On the other hand, we’re all OK, and everyone has their own difficult stories of childhood. Ours is really much better than many out there. And it’s WAY better than it would have been if Mum stayed with JD. THAT ideas scares me. (You’ll see why if I finish this retrospective!) ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Pingback: Retrospective 14: 1976 — Half Wit « Tarakuanyin

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