Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Spilled Goldfish - Best Attempt to Pick Them Up

Getting this posting right, or even figuring out in general terms what I want to do with it, has daunted me. I wrote a condensed version of it for a 2002 short story contest (the contest that catalyzed "Blood in New Orleans") but the finished product seemed to me like chunks of the tips of an iceberg - too brief and too scattered to serve the real topic. In one of my recent notes for updating the story I wrote, "love, loss, fear, guilt (joy?)". Yikes! No wonder I get overwhelmed if the story brings up, or should be about, all those emotions. In an effort to break through my webwriting block I have decided to go ahead and slap it online...maybe that will bring some magic to it by way of giving me a fresh perspective.

(The Short Story)

I was very nervous about starting 4th grade, which meant going to my older brothers’ former school and changing rooms between class periods. It had taken me until 3rd grade (when I became one of the older kids on campus) to get used to the elementary school, and now one year later my shyness and anxiety was refreshed with the move to Tomball Intermediate School.

Toward the end of my first lunch period - maybe the bell startled me - I accidentally spilled my sandwich bag full of Pepperidge Farm goldfish. I watched them hit the floor with horror, feeling bereft of a treat from my Mother-packed lunch and blaming myself with harshness - there was a strong sense of loss and a feeling that Mother had given me something I didn’t take good care of. The motherly preparation inherent in my newly purchased, color-coordinated lunch box and thermos (containing milk and ice cubes, my mother was very conscious of food safety) somehow added to the angst of the situation.

My mother died a few years later, and that’s one of the reasons why this spilled goldfish memory has remained powerfully emotional for me - I've never lost the image of myself sitting on the edge of a battered folding chair, holding an empty bag and sadly/angrily/guiltily looking down at the cafeteria floor. Many triggers from my own actions - disappointing a family member, disappointing myself, sometimes even just spilling food - have been effective at poking the bruise of the goldfish memory.

I knew that Mother took good practical care of us but in processing my memories I've struggled with the question of whether she and I had a special mother-daughter relationship - and I don’t even know whether I should define such a thing by 21st century psychology. These relationships weren't explored much in the early 1970s in middleclass Texas, and certainly not by my mother, who although supportive of my sensitivity was a no-nonsense type. I’ve wondered if I was just another responsibility for her?, a sensitive child who at times was probably a lot of work. We were a “Texas German” family (a term I later applied to our habits of not saying Good Morning and not being much into hugging). That label explained, culturally, why outward demonstrations of love (and demands for such affection) weren't easy for us, or valued by us, or... [Already I am getting lost in murky iceberg waters as I try to clarify my original statements here.]

My mother’s lunches were thrifty but not uninspired - I have a vivid memory of a field trip where the centerpiece of my sack lunch was a recycled margarine-tub portion of homemade buttermilk pie. Food was often an escape for my youthful sadness (as evidenced by my chubbiness) but sometimes I felt I didn’t deserve the blessed goodness of it, at least not in the tasty and creative way my mother sometimes presented food. She only gave me lunch things she knew I would eat (nothing yucky, even if that meant the meal was less than balanced) and occasionally would add perks like cheese strips on a toothpick and little notes on scraps of paper. [I would give anything to remember what she wrote on the notes - surely not "I love you," too demonstrative...and not "Be a good girl," that would have been too direct (my parents controlled us with guilt, not admonishments)...maybe simple jokes, like knock-knock?]

The memory of buttermilk pie is especially poignant, since the recipe was introduced to us by a caretaker of my ailing grandmother - and my mother, whose own health began to decline soon after, was very attracted to the ease of the recipe - you stirred simple ingredients together and poured them in a ready-made pie shell, no stovetop cooking was required as for a traditional custard pie. I loved the pie’s high-fat sweetness right away (like a chess pie, but with vanilla instead of lemon flavor), and buttermilk pie fandom was something my mother and I shared during the last two years of her life.

My years working as a secretary sometimes seemed to mimic parent-oriented struggles of guilt and anger. For a while my personal trigger to deflect frustration with my boss was the memory of an instance when I missed checking for an important fax he’d been nagging at me to watch for - so that by the time we noticed it was there, we had almost missed our client’s deadline and I had to cancel a personal appointment I’d scheduled after work, to stay late and finish our proposal. In some weird way I would use my mistake (even months or years later) as a way to excuse the office abuse I experienced. My boss was often a deadline-delayer and would throw various wrenches into the wheels of our day, but in that particular situation I felt the blame was clearly mine - there seemed to be many “should haves” I’d ignored including better checking of priorities and being better prepared. This memory became a deflection tool, handily converting anger toward my boss (over having to cancel a doctor appointment - actually/ironically, a psychotherapy appointment - in order to meet an office deadline) into blame of myself.

In a later and very different office example, my boss’s junior associate C. announced in a peevish tone (he was a redhead and a bit introverted, which meant he imploded sometimes) that he had poured his afternoon can of Diet Coke into a styrofoam cup without remembering the cup contained Pepperidge Farm goldfish (we worked for a professional services firm and our kitchen was well stocked with popcorn and chips - but no bowls, we ate the snacks out of cups or off paper towels). I wasn’t sure why C. had gone out of his way to mention this - he wasn’t exactly angry but he also wasn’t laughing.

I sat quietly at my desk after C. went back into his office, wondering why I didn’t find his goldfish cracker situation more personally poignant, given my own history. This time I felt only a dry memory connection and no bruising pain with the thoughts of drowned goldfish, and I almost regretted the lack of pain response if it meant that mental emotional files had been erased. Surely one should be grateful for the dulling of pain - but a precious family memory is a precious family memory, and did I really want to lose any of them?, even ones that were encumbered with anger and guilt?

I was relieved when I later realized that writing or thinking about my own spilled crackers, in more private surroundings than a busy office, could still provoke a deep wince - and the response is dulling only very gradually, so it will probably be there for a long time. I want to continue to have a visceral reaction to thoughts of my mother and my sadness over losing her, and the goldfish memories remain one way to get to that. [Well, when I wrote this pat ending in 2002 I still had a clear pain response, but by 2008 it is more of a ghostly vibration. Rather than digress into comments about brain cells killed by Chardonnay, I will allow myself to write that maybe I have grown up to the next stage - whatever that might be - of contemplation of this memory.]


Here are more of my update notes that the reader can probably connect to the story better than I could over-explain them:

Mother was a thrifty shopper - she checked the local newspapers for coupons and often drove to all 3 grocery stores (within a one-mile radius, since it was Tomball) to get the best prices. My favorite thrift-complaint (mild parental abuse) story is that when we got hamburgers to-go from the Goal Post, we had to put the cheese on at home to save the 10 cents per sandwich the restaurant charged. (Sometimes we did dine-in at the Goal Post and then it was OK to order a cheeseburger, with the cheese actually melted on a hot patty.) And yes, the name was a tribute to Tomball football - there was a fake goal structure out front wrapped with red & white like a candy cane. I'm a bit fuzzy on the architecture but I think the restaurant might have been a converted gas station. We usually ordered sandwiches...once my brother Dave branched out to fried fish and he couldn't eat it - they had left the scales and fins on and the bones in - that might be suitable in an ethnic restaurant but in a place that served chicken fried steak and overcooked everything to mush, it came across as nasty.

Mother did buy us some special things that were name brands, like Instant Breakfast, Oreos and Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers. She didn't try to make us feel guilty for consuming them but I, and I think my brothers too, always had a sense that these were special items, to be appreciated (not to say we didn't nag for more of them, more often, more flavors, and other brands as well). We didn't know all the details of my dad's childhood deprivation, but from his expression and occasional comments we deduced that he considered any snacks other than homemade and any drinks other than ice water (and not too much ice) to be frivolous. Written in his late 70s, his book "Growing Up in Rosehill: We Were Poor But Didn't Know It" pretty much tells you from the title - they didn't go to bed hungry but they didn't have goldfish crackers either.

And one more note about the lunchbox containing the goldfish, which I think was decorated with daisies...on another day I was upset that the matching thermos had broken and the glass liner had mixed into the milk - but although that was surely the result of my banging the thing around, I was more mad at fate, or even at Mother for not replacing the lunchbox set sooner, so I didn't personalize the incident as much as I had the goldfish. The melting ice thinned the milk to skim milk, and the glass didn't look so strange floating in it (dare I make another reference to icebergs?), but I knew from the odd rattle and altered weight that this thermos was a goner.

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