Thursday, August 9, 2007

Who Feasts and Who Famishes

During the middle years of my childhood, there was not enough food in my family to last the month. Not enough to go around. My father was seldom home, and when he was, suddenly the meals were generous. I have never figured out if this was because he brought money with him or my mother held back money to make sure he was well-fed while he was there. I don't want it to be the latter. I don't have anyone I can ask about it now.

The way my mother managed it, she put together whatever dinner she could and if there was not enough for her to have a share, she stood by the stove, scraping what she could from the sides of the pot after having put down our three plates for us. She stayed in the room so she could talk with us, so it was a family meal. (Yes, I've written a poem about this.) I was the skinny, skinny one whom she was desperately worried about, so I had to sit where she could keep an eye on me, urge me to take another bite, honey. In the middle was my little brother Bill (3.5 years younger than me), and on the other side, not quite in her view, was our older brother Craig. The ravenous teenager.

When Mom stopped to light a cigarette or take a sip of coffee, Craig would steal Bill's food. Grab a piece of meat or a roll or whatever he could gulp down. Since he was always chewing nonstop, it wasn't noticeable once it went into his mouth. Bill knew better than to complain; he shared a bedroom with Craig, and punishment would be, well, unspeakable.

I had to time my moves very carefully, so that neither Craig nor my mother saw them. But I was ever so good at sneak. I'd hide food from my plate, whatever was portable, in my napkin. Whoosh, there's another bit gone. After dinner, my mother would examine my leaving critically -- there were always leavings, I didn't want to eat, not the least of which was that whatever I left on my plate, I knew she would eat. She'd sigh and tell me okay. As I left the kitchen, I'd hear the clank of a fork on my plate. Bill and I would wander off casually to an unobserved part of the house, and I would give him the contents of my napkin, keeping guard while he gratefully ate.

There are many layers to this memory. I've worked on most of them. But here's the question I'm posing today: What was it in the conditioning that Craig and I received, both older siblings to Bill, that caused Craig to steal Bill's food and me to go hungry in order that Bill eat?

Craig was a sick fuck, but it really isn't just him. I have talked with countless women over the decades, and the reality of brothers stealing food from their siblings is rampant. Often, in farm and poor families, it is overt and/or institutionalized by the mothers or fathers. I think it's linked to male and female conditioning. Males are supposed to satisfy their hunger, at the expense of those less powerful than themselves if necessary, and females are supposed to do the feeding.

This observation is not original. During the 1970s, we parsed it out and felt a generation's rage that it was so. We spent a lot of time trying to understand what was being said and done, in the raising of little boys, to give them the message that their needs came first. We were determined to stop this pathology in its tracks. But every time we suggested a change, men screamed that they were being misunderstood, misused, discriminated against, not included enough....the list is endless. And our training to make sure they felt satisfied sooner or later would kick in.

I have read, in the last few years, that double blind studies of infants interacting with their mothers reveal male infants are markedly less able to be self-sufficient or comfort themselves -- at any age, in any race or class group. Perhaps there is a biological difference. But, given the messages we have about gender, perhaps they've already learned their mothers see them as needier and more helpless.

When someone whose job it is to care for you and teach you about the world treats you as if you cannot care for yourself, you will come to believe this is true. When the expectations you are told you will encounter as an adult do not include cooking your own meals, cleaning your own house, raising your own offspring, or finding solace for your feelings on your own, you will feel a profound disconnect from reality because for small children, the only reality is what happens at home. The rest of the world is foggily understood.

So, when in your beloved universe, you are told "Oh, you'll never have to do any of these things", you will wonder what, then, is your connection to the real world and what is your value in it. That would certainly make me ragingly insecure, trying to keep the attention on me, trying to make sure I was loved and coddled even though I wasn't sure what I was bringing to the relationship, and, especially, trying to make sure my lack of skills remained hidden. In much the way white collar managers fill their days with pointless meetings and reports, because deep down, they know they aren't doing the work of the company and they certainly don't deserve the inflated salaries they receive.

It's a shell game. And the backlash against feminism for revealing the ugly truth has been to turn out new generations where not only boys, but now a certain number of girls, are kept isolated from the work that makes a home and family. We tell children their job is to be smart, look good, stay on top of pop culture, and someday somehow find a job that makes them feel valuable. While mom has a job and still does most of the housework, and dad gets praised for doing the laundry on nights when there's no game on TV.

And if a male shows up needy, hurt, not feeling seen for who he is, not being completely included no matter what? Well, then, it's the fault of females. We all agree on that. Except for a few old dykes who clearly cannot keep up with the new order. Hell, let's blame them, no one will stick up for them.

The only ending I can think of for this story at the moment is that Craig choked on his own vomit, alone on the floor, and I'm still alive. Telling the tale.


liza said...

Yeah. Congrats on a new blog. Yippee!

My brother G, the second child, second boy, used to steal my food, too. Not for lack of availablility, mind you. there was always plenty to go around and he could have easily asked for more on his plate. Unlike your brother, mine was always a charmer. Still is. Not a mean bone in his body. Yet steal my food he did. He'd wait until it looked like I was done, which in my case was a pause, and he'd say, "are you finished? can I have this?" and reach over with his fork.

Sort of like a puppy.

I didn't really mind. I could always get more if I wanted it. We were both good eaters, we all were, although our mother only nibbled, so she would stay fashionably slim.

The consequence for me was that I learned to be a really fast eater. G and I sat next to me at our family dinner table and I learned to keep pace with this boy who was seven years older than I.

Maybe because we were an upper middle class family and none of us was really taught to take care of our basic needs like laundry, cooking etc. we all started at ground zero when we had to grow up.

I can't really say that my sister and I are better at taking care of our families than our brother. I eventually learned to cook and do laundry and shop and raise children, as did the brother who snatched food.

But G is as good a mom as I am, or, I am as good a dad as he is. He still steals food off of his now grown kid's plates, but he does it with the same charm and humor as always, so it is just a funny thing.

You can always stab him with your fork, and he'll laugh and fix you or buy you twice as much as he stole.

Maybe it's the difference in class plus personality. All four of us kids were taught - wrongly I might add - that the world was our oyster.

It was just a matter of who got their fork into it first. In the spirit of sibling rivalry, I learned to grab first and never pause until it's done.

Maggie Jochild said...

Thx for the observation, Liza. And you're the first commenter! A new toaster oven will be in the mail to you tomorrow...

Bill used to tell one story over and over, before he died. When he was 11, not yet into puberty enough to have major strength but definitely not a shrimpy boy any more, we were visiting my grandparents in Oklahoma at Christmas. Craig was with us, though he had left home long before. After midday dinner, Bill went into the kitchen to get himself another piece of pumpkin pie. Craig trailed along after him, bored, looking for trouble (he was at least 21 by then). He sat at the table and just watched, silently, as Bill cut himself a wedge, put it on a plate, then turned to put the pie back in the fridge. When he turned back, his pie was gone and Craig was chewing, gloating -- ate it in one bite. Bill went back to the fridge, cut himself a second piece, and -- well, you guessed it, by the time he turned back around, Craig had eaten that piece, too, and was leaned back in the kitchen chair, chortling. Bill snapped. He doubled up his fist and slugged Craig on the chin as hard as he could. Craig slammed over backwards on the floor. Of course he scrambled up in a rage, dragged Bill out to the garage and beat the crap out of him. But after that, Craig never stole any more food from Bill. This was a story of triumph for Bill.

He grew into a huge man, 6 feet 4 inches, wide and combustible. In 1983, after I'd come out to my family about the abuse and incest by Craig, my mother went in for emergency open heart surgery. I flew back from San Fran, not knowing if she would still be alive when I got there. Bill met me at the airport; we were still not talking, at that point, about our shared past. As we got into his pickup, he said Craig was already at the hospital. My heart sank. I didn't say anything. After a while of driving, Bill said "I told him to not even talk to you. I told him if he messed with you in any way, I'd kill him."

He meant it, too. After all those years of me protecting him, he'd found a way to be the hero. When we got to the hospital, sure enough, Craig completely avoided me. And I realized, even without Bill's threats, I was no longer afraid of him. He was pathetic, always had been. But pathetic bullies with power and imagination can do incalculable harm to children.

Liza, the world wasn't your oyster, maybe, in precisely the way you were taught, but I don't think that's a bad message to give kids, I really don't. Not if it's balanced by realistic expectations. I adore your confidence, and look what it's done. (Ditto for your sibs.) Shuck away.