Sunday, September 3, 2023

Adoption Series: Spinach

Read Time: 5 minutes

I write this sitting in bed, remembering captivity.

It was Saturday, and I’d slept in.

“We’ll have peaches and cottage cheese tonight, Teddy.” This at breakfast. Mom liked to start the day on a happy note. I appreciated her intent and the moments we shared. Dad was mowing the lawn. Saturday stretched ahead unfilled, so far.

I needed to make good with Dad. So, when he finished mowing, I hang out with him as he changed the oil in the car, mostly just handing him tools and listening to him telling me stuff about the car. I know he needs to feel in control, and I need to keep up the fiction.

Now, late in the day, it’s turned dark, cold and raining. Our living room is dark. Dad’s reading the paper. The floor lamp beside him was the only light in the room. He seems content in his big red vinal chair next to the fireplace. No fire in the hearth. It’s quiet. The radio was on earlier, but it’s off now. I feel relaxed. The day has gone well. Dad is settled; no need for me to be worried about him until Mom calls us to dinner, which I know will break the mood.

I notice the smoke from his cigarette goes straight up until it curls into a series of swirls just below the ceiling. He stirs, selects another page of the paper, glances at me, picks up his cigarette, breaking the elegant single column into a diffuse cloud, takes another drag, and settles again.

I wonder why he never tells me what he reads like Mom does.

I imagine the carpet as a vast sea with my wooden boat riding out the huge swells. I’m pretty sure only the mighty Pacific can deliver the rollers I’m imagining.

The sounds of pots adjusted on the stove and the oven door opening and closing drift from the kitchen. Mom calls, “Teddy, you can set the table now.”

The kitchen is bright and warm. I switch on the light in our eating nook and turn to the cabinets to get the plates and silver, cups for coffee, and a glass for my milk.

Then I see it. Spinach. Gray-green canned spinach is for dinner. I feel my stomach turn. I know I can’t eat it. Seeing it brings up a sour taste.

Mom calls, “dinner, Ted.” Dad enters the room and inspects the warmed-up noodles with cut-up hot dogs, the spinach, and the potato patties.

“And, Ted, we have canned peach slices with cottage cheese for dessert,” Mom says with a smile. Does she already know what’s ahead? I suspect yes. Now, she’s doing everything she can to make our dinner pleasant.

Pulling up my chair, I wonder how I’ll get through this. Maybe I can mix some spinach with the potatoes, and it won’t taste too bad. I load my fork with a section of hot dog, then remember we had to do grace. Distracted by the impending doom of a spinach confrontation, wishing dinner’s already over, I say grace.

Dad breaks his silence with, “you like Popeye, don’t you, Teddy?” A loaded question, if there ever was one.

It’s all downhill from here.

Dad yells, “you can’t leave the table until you finish your spinach.” Mom cries, and I’m stuck. No way out.

I sit silently, staring out the window at the lights in Rosie’s house next door, picturing her and her boarder having an evening around the warmth of her fireplace. I think reading. Rosie’s place is full of books. Her old doggie, Gino, is lying in front of the hearth. Rosie has her feet up on that low leather hassock while I imagine her boarder is lying on the couch with his book. From time to time, they say things to each other. Rosie always has a smile on her face. Her boarder has always been nice to me.

Rosie told me about her trip from Italy. I’d imagined that it had been on a sailing ship, so I asked and quickly lost interest when I realized she had no idea what kind of ship it was. Rosie and most of our neighbors had come through Ellis Island during that great migration.

I pull out of my imagined world when I see Rosie’s boarder heading out with Gino for her last walk of the day.

Dad comes in to see how I’m doing with the spinach. I have my fork in hand, making small swirls in the spinach, spreading it around to make it look like I’d had some. I feel the fear now. He stands over me and says, “he hasn’t touched it.” This is to Mom, who’s in the dining room, working on the stamp collections.

I’m afraid to look up at him. Hoping against hope that he’ll not try to force-feed me like he did once. The spinach looks even grayer now, if that’s possible. It’s cold now, even more icky than when it was hot. A bad taste returns to my mouth. I’m silent, thinking madly about how to get out of this. Will Mom help?

Dad slides into the seat across from me. “Teddy, if you take three bites while I’m watching, you can go to your room and play.”

I don’t want to take one bite. Three bites, impossible.

I’m afraid to say a word.

“Betty, what will we do with a boy who refuses to eat?” This is a loud voice. I hear the album Mom must have been working on close as she rises to come to the kitchen.

Is it going to be forced eating? His belt? He doesn’t seem mad yet, just determined.

Mom enters the kitchen. I don’t look at her, just hear her steps. Afraid to look up. Afraid to get between them.

Then we hear steps on the back porch, followed by a knock on the back door.

“Oh, it’s Rosie’s boarder,” Mom goes to open the door. Dad rises. I slip silently out of my seat, out of the kitchen, and up the stairs, stopping at the landing to listen. I can’t hear what’s said, but I can hear Mom washing my plate. Spinach gone. I’m flooded with relief and continue to my bedroom, where I see Rosie’s boarder heading back home out my window.

I fall asleep only to be awakened by Dad. Some of the fear returns. But he tells me that I left the garage door open. That’s why the neighbor came over.

Somehow, the spinach contest had been forgotten. Dad relented. I’m not sure why, but I’m relieved.

I didn’t get the canned peach slices with cottage cheese that night.


  • Jim Gerlitz says:

    Hey Ted… My parents were kind of the opposite of yours… On nights that the menu included something I did not like, Mom made me a more palatable alternative. And people wonder how I grew up spoiled.

  • Don Deschenes says:

    Spinach texture was what got me. It was kind of a dry slime.

    I was also forced to eat it. I found if I didn’t chew it and just swallowed it whole I could clean my plate and leave the table.

    We also had cottage cheese and peaches. Peaches were good but I didn’t care for cottage cheese.

    Good story!

  • Frank Denman says:

    My dad, a Methodist minister, once decided we kids were watching too much violent TV. When he caught me watching a Popeye cartoon, he hit me.

    He was also a pedophile, but at 6 years of age I didn’t have a word for it. I realized years later that he was a closeted bisexual.

    He was my model of what I didn’t want to to be.

    I cut off all contact when I left for college, but decades later, realizing what a tormented life he had led, I resumed contact and we talked about everything.

    He had no memory of molesting me, but said that “it could have happened.”

    I wonder sometimes if I would have enjoyed such a good life if I hadn’t had the benefit of my dad’s bad example.

    • Ted says:

      Thanks, Frank; I, too, wondered if my father’s bad example became the model of what I didn’t want to be. And, exactly as you say, I’ve wondered if the life I enjoyed was partially because of his bad example. I wish I’d had the courage to engage my father as an adult as you did. I think why I didn’t have that courage is something I should address in a post.

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