My sensory impressions of the food we ate when I was a small child feel cold and clammy on my belly. When my mum and dad emigrated to the United States, they had nought.
Most of the food I remember was the the cheap cuts of meat—round steak, and what my mum called “mince meat” but which I know now was hamburger—which could be boiled or baked to make a bit of gravy with it. We always had some variation of potato with our meals—boiled, roasted, mashed, or fried—and boiled vegetables.
The potatoes were often a saving grace because I could mash the veggies into cover up the taste.
I hated the meat. The texture of round steak that was cooked all the way through irritated my tongue, the way the meat slipped apart in little chewy tiles. I could swallow it, as I could with mince meat, although I didn’t enjoy it.
Worse were the veggies that potatoes could not mask the taste of. Brussel sprouts and green beans, the sliminess and sharp flavor set off my gag reflex. I could not swallow those vegetables and each time I tried, gagging made my eyes water.
My dad attempted to adjust. But no matter how small the portions of vegetables heput in front of me—and the admonition that I finish what was on my plate—the meals that involved Brussels sprouts and green beans were eaten cold.
I blame the war. Food rationing during the war, and the ten years after, created an anxiety about food that my parents carried with them to America.
The house shared an outside wall with the neighbors, thus creating a “semi-detached” house—a point of great pride for my grandad, who tended rose bushes in the tiny front garden. I had seen him out there many days, laboring over his plants in the cold Manchester drizzle, spading into the soil a bag of cow dung in order to fertilize the roots.
I didn’t know much about flowers, but I knew not to bugger about near Grandad’s pride. While the Enid Blyton books I read featured kindly grandfathers who offered clean handkerchiefs with which to wipe tears or slightly sticky licorice humbugs during important talks, my grandad defied my attempts to figure him out. He shouted. He swore. At the telly. At Grandma. Sometimes at me or my brother. Never at my mum. No one shouted at Mum. Dad would not stand for it. Mum needed to be protected. Even at nine, I knew that. Mum was shy. Scared of strangers. Dad stood guard over her at all times, and my brothers and I knew that Dad would always take her side, even against us, in case of conflict or complaint. Sometimes, those arguments would take place right in front of her. “Who are you calling ‘she!’” he would shout at me if I complained that “she” had told me not to do something. Mum was never a pronoun. Any reference to her was always to be “Mum.” I never understood why Dad would rage at me if I referred to Mum in the third person. He seemed to think that I diminished her if I did not call her by her name. She was “Our Denise,” and he was “Our Ken,” when referred to by Grandma, and “Nee-see Pam” by my dad. Somehow, calling her “she” was an insult, another way of protecting my mum from a constantly threatening world, but I don’t think Dad realized how much I wanted to protect Mum, too.
Somewhere in Grandma and Grandad’s semi-detached house at 24 A____ Road was a crack that ran up one of its back walls, although I don’t think I ever saw it. The crack had been put there by German bombs, rained down on the street because of its proximity to the Fairey aircraft factory where they manufactured bombers that were destroying German houses in German cities. Of course, in my child’s imagination, I never thought about bombing German children. That wasn’t the stories we had been told. I knew of the rumbling German planes that came in the night, and bombs dropped that destroyed houses one street over but one, and the little British planes that had gone up night after night to face the Luftwaffe. How England had been alone then, everyone defeated by Hitler, and the Americans refusing to get involved, and how never had been so much owed by so many to so few. How different were these stories from the John Wayne-fueled narratives I heard in America where every man had been a hero and America had won the war.
How could you win a war that you hadn’t entered until after the bombs had fallen on England, and Hitler, discouraged by his inability to conquer us, had turned his attention to attacking Russia? What kind of winning was it to enter the game at half-time and then declare yourself the winner?
But I kept those questions to myself—or at least tried to—when we talked about World War II at school in the States. I had already absorbed some of the lessons of the immigrant child. Best not to say anything about the country your parents had chosen when you were two.
And besides, the American soldiers who came to Manchester had been my dad’s mates.
No photos exist of my dad as a boy. In the hardscrabble life of the slums of Manchester, England, extra money for luxuries such as cameras did not exist.
Growing up, I thought that my father had always lived in the semi-detached council house where we visited my grandparents. But one night, after my dad had drunk several beers, he began to talk about what it felt like to be poor. The memory that clung to his skin was about the humiliation that had come when, after the war, his family had moved from the slum dwelling where he had been a little boy to the council house. The people moving them had sprayed my dad down with a delousing agent, and all of their furniture and mattresses had been sprayed down in the street for all the neighbors to see.
I listen to Americans talk about poverty now, and I still hear that association of being poor with being dirty, unkempt. I think about my five year-old father, and the public fumigation of an entire family and its belongings before the human beings that comprise it would be let out of the workers’ terraced houses where poor factory wages had kept them. The assumption that being forced to work long hours for little pay translated into slovenly housekeeping and neglectful parenting. I hear those echoes now. I hear it in the way we elide poverty and ignorance, or poverty and disease. The way we assume that a working-class girl or boy cannot have dreams of being something other than a cog in a machine. How we assume that if the circumstances of one’s birth means that you weren’t born white, middle-class, and living in the suburbs or nice urban neighborhoods, that somehow, your life is “other,” and that these days, the New York Times or Washington Post is likely to send a reporter out to spend a weekend observing you like an ethnographer, but who will still continue to make moral judgments about you as if you are imbecilic and lazy and deserving of your fate.
In 1944, my grandad was fighting in Greece. My grandma had been working at Fairey Aviation since the day she had first gone to work when she left school. She didn’t become the glorified Rosie the Riveter called into duty during the war. She had been working all of her adult life, with brief moments to take time off to give birth to three live children and one who had died at birth.
My uncle Steve was 13, and he was responsible for looking after his 3-year old kid brother, my dad. Steve also had to keep the house clean and make sure that supper was started to help out his exhausted mum when she got home from work. Ken, my dad, had a headful of wild, blond curls. Even at three, he was a tearaway, a scamp who had no fear of strangers and who charmed all the neighbors.
He turned out to be the perfect bait. American military personnel were everywhere in Manchester, and Mancunian kids had a chat-up line known to them all: “Got any gum, Chum?” they’d ask, looking for the chewing gum that was part of a soldier’s rations.
While chewing gum was a treat, it didn’t soothe the yawning pain of an empty belly. Steve sent Ken out into the streets to score food from the American GIs. While my dad occasionally mentioned to me that the GIs had given him chocolate bars, Steve told me after my dad died that he had really needed Ken to come back with something that could be eaten for dinner.
Grandma’s ration books could perhaps provide subsistence calories, but it couldn’t keep up with growing little boys who were perpetually hungry. American soldiers may have turned up their noses at the potted meat that was included with their K-rations, which were formulated for soldiers on the move.
When we moved up to Escanaba, Michigan, which was on the Upper Peninsula, I was in the first grade. We lived a few blocks from my new elementary school, and the first few times I went there, my mum walked me. She bundled up my brother, Steve, who was three and loaded him into a stroller, and then she would walk with me to school. It was 1969. My mum and I wore skirts or dresses every day. Later in the year, when the snow drifts were as tall as I am, I wore stirrup pants underneath my skirts, but I always took those off when I got to school.
After a couple of days of walking me to school, it was time for me to do the walk alone. (Back in 1969, kids still did this, back before parents became terrified that any child walking to school would be kidnapped by strangers.) I always came home for a hot lunch, and my first day, I set out when the lunch bell rang. About half-way home, I realized that I didn’t know where I was. The landmarks I had memorized weren’t showing up, and now, I was lost. I was five. I remember standing on the street corner and the chill of panic creeping up my legs. When I get scared, my arms feel as if spiders are crawling under my skin, and that THUMPJERK as adrenaline is released sickens me. All of that was happening. I wanted my mum. I began to cry. Some big kids—high schoolers—saw me crying and asked me what was wrong. An adult also stopped. She told me she would help me look for my mum since I couldn’t remember my address. I knew my address but panic put its hands over my eyes and wouldn’t let me see what my mum had told me. I got in the back of the lady’s car and we began to drive up each of the neighborhood streets. I saw a small, dark-haired woman. She had her head forward, looking like she was going somewhere to do something important, and her hand was clutching shut the big brown coat with the fake furry collar (my mum hates real fur) as she walked. It was her! Stop the car! I cried and cried as I told my mum I was so sorry … hiccup … hiccup … hiccup My mum just promised me that she would keep walking with me to school until I had the route memorized and she would write down my address on a piece of paper so I could carry it in my pocket.
When I went home for lunch, I was scared of what there might be. If it was a good day, Mum made toasted cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup, the kind that came from the can with the red and white stripes. I loved chicken noodle. And I loved toasted cheese. You laid the cheese flat on the bread and then you put the bread face up under the broiler in the oven. The cheese got all bubbly, and the edges of the cheese were the best part. Crispy in my mouth, they crunched between my teeth; I liked the brown taste of the cheese. I didn’t really like the bits of chicken in the chicken noodle soup, but luckily, the soup was mostly broth and noodles, so I could push the chicken away with my spoon.
On bad days though. Those were the days that my mum served what she called “corned beef” on sandwiches and she served tomato soup. Corned beef came out of a tin that you opened with a key on the side. It had jelly-fat on the sides of it, and the smell made my stomach turn over. When I put it in my mouth, it made my mouth water like I was going to throw up. And tomato soup tasted like tomatoes. Tomatoes were squishy in my mouth.
What I didn’t realize until later was that my mum and dad’s love for corned beef had come from receiving it from American GIs. They loved SPAM, too, another pressed meat product that had been packed into K-rations. And it wasn’t until after my dad died that I came to know that the food I couldn’t swallow had been the same food that my father had charmed soldiers into giving him so that he and his family would be less hungry when they went to bed.