Robin Parks
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Robin Parks

Thanksgiving
 
(memoir, from The MacGuffin)

            I answer the knock on the door and my sisters, Jill and Miriam, stand smiling in the threshold. I once again cringe at their matching emaciation. But today my plans are big: I’m going to stuff my sisters full of wholesome food. We pat each other on the shoulders, and Jill produces the Beaujolais.

            “Yummmm,” Miriam inhales dramatically and moans, her almond-shaped eyes squinting in anticipation. “What are we having?”

            “I’ve made lentil loaf. With gravy, look,” I say. My sisters shoot each other a glance before peering into the pot.

            My sisters are both fascinated and afraid of the Thanksgiving dinner I’m about to serve to them. I’ve become a vegetarian, but that’s not why they are afraid. Food is a scary proposition.

            It took me three days to make the gravy, but I don’t tell them this. Three days of kneading high-gluten flour, of washing, rinsing, pulling, baking and simmering. Miriam, who is two inches taller than Jill, would think it insane to spend three days waiting for something to transform into food. Miriam, the tallest one, the thinnest one, the one with the long neck and lush lips, still eats like she did when we lived together, left alone to fend for ourselves. Our mother had been sent to the mental hospital, our father had fled at my birth, but the authorities thought it would be more cruel to split us up into foster care. I was the baby, 12 years old, Jill 14. Since Miriam was a legal 16, the state granted our welfare-dependent selves the right to self-govern.

            Right before I dish up the mashed potatoes, the hazelnut dressing, baked yams, green beans with tarragon, and lentil loaf, Miriam tells me she’s on a new diet.

            “A Der Weinerschnitzel chili dog for breakfast, another for lunch, then a rice cake for dinner.” She seems proud.

            We dig in, silently, slowly chewing the meal made fragrant by garlic and rosemary. I glance at my sisters but I don’t want them to catch me watching them, watching the nutrition and calories and vitamins pour into their birdlike bodies, their bony arms, thin necks, narrow hips. I don’t want them to slink off.

            After a while, Jill says, “You’re a great…chef.” She says this every year, and I can never quite decide how to interpret the pause. Sometimes I think it’s that third bottle of Beaujolais. Or maybe it’s Jill’s attempt to come up with an epithet that would thrill me. Unlikely, I decide. Jill has wanted to kill me since the day I was brought home from the hospital. “You just weren’t what I expected,” is how she put it.

 

            Nothing will pit sibling against sibling quite like a dearth of food. My sisters and I circled like stray cats, tails twitching, at any sign of something to eat. Once in a while, some group—the nearby church we had never attended, or a girl scout troop—would bring to the house a box of food. Jill and I would hang back while Miriam answered the door. She’d carry the box into the kitchen and we’d jostle each other trying to pick out something identifiable and edible. Jill was always quick to grab the Hamburger Helper, though we never had any hamburger for it to help. The shock of a box of food weakened all the resolve I had mustered to get through that day with an aching stomach. I just wanted to eat, and I could barely resist the desire to grab the whole box and run away with it. My greed shamed me, and I’d watch Miriam and Jill carefully, trying to tell if they were on the verge of taking it all for themselves, too. Instead, Jill would pull out a pot and begin to boil water for the salty, noodly helper. Miriam would set the table. I’d put the rest of the contents of the box—cans with no labels, cans of unfamiliar objects like okra and black-eyed peas—up into the cupboard and we’d sit down together and eat in silence.

            Though the incessant churn and ache of hunger made us irritable, depressed and even hateful, there was sometimes a hiatus from hostility. Miriam was frequently generous, carting home on her brakeless bicycle a cardboard box of burnt popovers from Arby’s, where she worked and ate steamed beef before and after school. Jill and I would watch out the window as Miriam careened too fast around the corner, her eyes wide in terror as she dragged her feet, trying to stop the bicycle. More than once she was not successful, and we’d run out to pick her up off the curb. We were eager to get to the popovers. Miriam would flick gravel from her knees and eat two popovers to Jill’s and my one. She even ate the ones black and hard as stone. I felt she had earned the larger share.

            Miriam also made valiant attempts to spend the welfare check wisely, but since we lacked a legal guardian, wisdom was also at a premium. Miriam bought the same things every month: three cartons of cigarettes, a box of macaroons, a jar of peanut butter and a very large box of saltines. We’d rip open the box, divvy up the large sheets of crackers, then scoop out the peanut butter into thirds on a plate. After we’d eaten—a slow, lingering process—we’d try to find a ride to the hospital to give our mother the cigarettes and macaroons.

            Miriam maintained her attachment to crackers for many years, even after she had a stable job as a keypunch operator and could buy real groceries. But by that time, Miriam had become so practiced at deprivation she could not realign her expectations: she binged on whole boxes of Triscuits after work, chewing exhaustedly at the kitchen counter until the box was empty.

            Jill also had moments of largesse that in much later years became a matter of course for her—she became a wealthy and most generous sister. But in those days, we were more like wild animals, so I was suspicious when, one day when I was walking to school, I met Jill coming my way, and she stopped and told me she’d just eaten her fill.

            “Burritos. Yummy. You should go get some.”

            Jill and I rarely spoke directly to each other, and almost never about food. What would be the point? My sisters couldn’t give me what I needed, besides their hand-me-down clothes that hung off my skeletal body like curtains. I missed my mother like crazy, I had few friends because I couldn’t bear their lack of interest in the contents of their full refrigerators, I was ugly, my teeth were falling out, but worse than any of this, I was starving. And so were they.

            Perhaps Jill’s gift of the potential burritos was induced by the calories coursing through her veins. She explained where they were: in a dumpster down the alley. She had come upon one of those trucks that bring food out to worksites just as the hippie owner was jettisoning his expired beef.

            “I’m sure there’s some left,” she said, and tears of gratitude formed in my eyes. Our moment of tenderness came to an abrupt halt, however, when Jill began to heave. She vomited onto the sidewalk, in front of appalled neighbors. When she was able to stop, she ran back to the house. I went inside, too, and pulled the drapes closed. Jill vomited for hours, and I listened from my bedroom, crying. I wanted to help her, but I couldn’t keep my stomach from rolling round and round. And it was Jill, after all, the sister who chased me with a kitchen knife my entire third year of life. I put my pillow over my face and thought about coca-cola, so icy and sweet and good.

            Jill recovered from the food poisoning the way young people can when left alone in their misery, and I was not to worry this hard over her again until much later.

            Food stamps came and went in our lives, not through any fault of our own. We would take turns, though I took the most, at catching a bus or hitchhiking to the welfare office to fill out forms that changed constantly as the nation tried to work out its feelings about Aid to Families with Dependent Children. One month we received a fat packet, the next a few slips. Miriam, Jill and I would sit around the kitchen table wondering what happened, but that only took a minute or two since our expectations were so low. Miriam would sigh and scratch the peanut butter off the list.

            Once, during a flush month, I ran into Miriam at Von’s, the local grocery store, and she slipped me a one dollar food stamp.

            “Here,” she said, shoving the paper into my hand. “Take this.”

            “But—?”

            “What difference does it make?” she responded to my unfinished question, the question being, don’t we need this for food? She turned haughtily on her heel, her chin lifted in defiance, and I felt a fleeting sense of danger as she left the store. My heart beat wildly as I wandered the food aisle in a kind of surreptitious reverie. It was a frightening, giddy feeling, having that food stamp in my pocket. The store dick was following me as he usually did. The week before he had caught me just as I slipped a small yellow box of Velveeta up my sleeve. He chased me through the store, even though I was ingesting the cheesy yellow cube as we ran. By the time he caught up with me, I was outside, vomiting it all up.

            So here he was again, but I didn’t care, because I had a dollar. The produce section was not a particular favorite of mine, since it was all pretty foreign stuff, fresh food being all but nonexistent in our canned-food-drive life. But the dick was close behind and I ended up there anyway, looking up at great pyramids of red apples. He finally passed me, scratching his chin nonchalantly. When I was alone again, I took another look at those apples. The sign said “Special: 10 cents a pound.” I put one of the apples in the silver weight tray, and it registered a half-pound. The shock was great. My mind was in a muddle. Two whole apples for 10 cents? I did the math and quickly filled a brown paper sack with 20. The apples smelled of leaves and trees and plaid skirts and new pencils, things I read about in the books I lived in between desperate forages for food.

            I ran home with the sack and for days my sisters and I bit into the beautiful red skin. The house was redolent with the sweet scent of real food.

 

            If I only knew then what I know now about food, about how the cheap things—grains, lentils, in-season produce—were available to us and we could have afforded them, I would have cooked for my sisters the way I do now, filling them with wholesome, delicious food.

            Jill is still suspicious. “What’s that…interesting flavor?” she remarks at the green beans. I tell her it’s tarragon. “Ohhhhh,” she nods her head, seeming to ponder. Later Miriam tells me Jill called to complain about having gas all night. “She thinks it’s the tarragon.”

            Jill is profoundly carnivorous. She came to this position through her stay in the hospital, which is the second time I worried deeply about her. We were riding in the backseat of someone’s car, having hitchhiked a ride to school, and at some point I noticed that the whites of Jill’s eyes were the color of egg yolks.

            “There’s something wrong with you,” I told her.

            “Yeah, and you’re a moron,” she replied.

            It took some doing to get the driver to stop the car, and we all got out and looked at Jill in the light of day. Her skin gave off a yellowish hue. We questioned her about the overuse of Coppertone while she looked at the backs of her hands. Then she began to cry.

            The driver of the car took us to the only doctor we could remember seeing. Dr. Allison took one look at Jill and told us she had to go to the hospital right away. We asked which one and he told us and we said “okay” and left the office and stood out in the late afternoon heat. We had no money for a cab or even for a bus, so we started to hitchhike. We finally got a couple of rides. Jill checked in and I panhandled for bus fare and went home.

            That night at the kitchen table, Miriam held the receiver of the phone cradled in her neck so I could listen in as Jill described her new life. “They’re going to feed me six times a day!” she said with more gusto than I’d heard her marshal for a long time. “They said I got hepatitis from contaminated food. They wanted to know where I’d been eating.” We giggled at that, then Jill added, “I’m malnourished.”

            Miriam and I looked at each other. That’s what children in other countries were, malnourished. It was a foreign disease, and it made us even stranger in our world than we already knew we were. We wanted to cry, but the news quickly improved. Jill said, “I’m supposed to have lots of carbohydrates.”

            “What…are…those?” Miriam asked slowly. I pressed closer to the phone.

            “Let’s see. It says here mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, scalloped potatoes, spaghetti, toast, cereal, rice, and a milk shake every two hours.” Saliva formed in the corners of Miriam’s mouth; my stomach growled loudly. Then Jill said the magic words:

            “I’m too sick to eat all this. Will you figure out a way to come to the hospital? Write this down,” she ordered, and I ran for a pen and paper. Miriam wrote 8, 10, 12, 2, 5, 7.

            Miriam and I spent the next week showing up at the hospital at meal times. Jill was still jaundiced and sick, and Miriam and I were at once concerned and ecstatic as we sat on her clean bed and shared her starchy meals between nurse visits. Ultimately the nurses found us out.

            “You should be ashamed of yourselves, stealing your sick sister’s food,” one of the nurses said as she shoved us out of the room. We didn’t see Jill again for two weeks.

            During that time, my quest for food led me to say yes when Sondra, an acquaintance from school, asked me to join her and her mom on a three-day trip in their camper to Lake Elsinore. I figured Sondra’s mother would feed us. I was wrong.

            Sondra’s mother was in the throes of divorcing Sondra’s father, who had been seeing another woman. Sondra’s mother needed to get away. Sondra and I were only along for the ride. When I nudged Sondra to ask when we would be stopping for food, her mother shouted, “Don’t TALK to me!”

            We eventually did stop, and Sondra’s mother produced three Jiffy Pop containers and for three days I ate the popcorn, Sondra smoked her mother’s cigarettes, and Sondra’s mother threw rocks into the lake. Then we came back.

            As the camper pulled up to my house, I saw Jill standing on the porch. She looked beautiful! She yelled, “Where’s the food?! Where’s the food, you little bitch?!” Miriam came rushing out to the porch and pulled Jill inside. When I entered, Miriam was following Jill around the house, picking up trash and dirty clothes.

            “I can’t live like this!” Jill shrieked. “Don’t you understand?! I’ve been sick! I need cleanliness! I need white sheets!” Jill was hysterical. She turned on me, clenching her fist in my face. “Why didn’t you bring anything back, huh? Where the hell is the food?!”

            She was right; I could have saved some of the popcorn. It’s just that it was right there, in front of me, and Sondra was outside and her mom was outside, and it was just me and the popcorn and I couldn’t stop eating it. I didn’t know what Sondra and her mother were doing, I didn’t know where I was, and I didn’t know when—or if—I was ever going to get home again.

            But I didn’t tell my sisters that. I was afraid they would be disgusted with me. So I lied and said there hadn’t been any food. Miriam didn’t seem to believe me, but Jill’s hysteria fizzled out and we all draped around the living room, dejected, listless and, of course, starving.

            Finally, Miriam stood up. “We’ll find something, Jill. I promise.” Miriam and I looked through the cupboards at the canned food drive leftovers. We discovered a half-full bag of elbow macaroni in the back of the cupboard and a can of tomato soup. We boiled the macaroni and dumped the tomato soup into it and brought the steaming bowl of pasta out to the living room where Jill had fallen asleep on the sofa. We woke her up and sat next to her and all took turns dipping into the bowl with big spoons. Jill ate a few bites, grimaced, and fell back to sleep. Miriam and I ate the rest of the pasta, and Miriam said, “Thank you. That was good.” I didn’t want to move from that spot, ever.

 

            On this Thanksgiving Day, I watch Miriam and Jill lift forkfuls of aromatic lentil loaf, soft and steaming, into their mouths, and I mimic their behavior. I lift my fork and sniff the rosemary, the herb of remembrance. I chew noisily, but they don’t seem to notice. Even Jill seems in a kind of bleary-eyed reverie.

            “I’m going back for thirds,” Miriam says, heaving herself off the sofa and into the kitchen, and I follow her. I begin to cut the vegan pumpkin pie. Honey, nutmeg, tofu — I hope they like it. Miriam dishes up a spoonful of baby carrots glazed in brown sugar, and another heap of mashers. “Gosh, this gravy is good.”

            I am extremely happy to hear this. I wait for Jill to say something more, something about the meal, about the preparation, about the flavors and presentation. She calls from the dining room, “Have you covered up the leftovers?”

            Jill recovered from the hepatitis, no liver damage. She married the moment she found a possible husband candidate, and moved out so quickly my head spun. She became a nurse, and every morning before work she prepared dinner for her husband and herself, wrapped each dish in Saran Wrap and stored it in the refrigerator. She made Swiss steak and pork chops and meatloaf, and always accompanied her meal with lime jello or fruit salad from a can. She was neat and clean and determined.

            After Miriam and Jill moved out on their own, I became a waitress. I fell in love with the greasy squares of hash brown potatoes I served to ungrateful strangers. After a couple of years of this, I finally admitted how hungry I was, how all I ever thought about, hour after hour, was food. That’s when I began to read about it. I checked out cookbooks from the library and read them like novels, rereading over and over again the descriptions of food. I came upon a vegetarian cookbook, filled with drawings of happy animals. The news in the book was incredible—food could be a source of pleasure, of fun, and most staggeringly, of honor. This news washed over me in waves of remorse and relief: food could change me from the ravenous, unhappy and ashamed animal I was into a moral human being with something to offer others.

            Jill noticed me reading one day, and said this: “You’re such a bookworm. Why don’t you go to college. You can get financial aid.” She was correct. I studied philosophy, ethics, and writing. And I learned how to cook. As I shopped for couscous, garbanzo beans, and yes, popcorn, I imagined all the meals I would make for my sisters. If they’d let me.

            They do now. On Thanksgiving and other holidays, I ply their beautiful reedy selves with a stunning melange of greens and beans and fruits and vegetables. But I still feel ineffectual, empty-handed in the face of my sisters’ weight, their too-light presence in this world. As my sisters get ready to leave, rubbing their bloated stomachs and carrying dishes of leftovers in their scrawny arms, I want to stop them and say, I am so sorry. If we could only start over. Instead, I say thank you.

            People always say Thanksgiving isn’t about the food. They are so wrong.

 

 

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