“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.”