I walked through my house last evening with a friend who had not been here except for a brief stop to retrieve me. I saw the rooms through the eyes of a stranger, and noticed grime that I would not normally see. The shock of observation compels me to clean today, but also sends me sliding into yesteryear. On my counter, a plate of butter melted in the heat; and, briefly, I heard my mother's voice talking about butter.
She walks through the door in her uniform. I am seven maybe eight. She's been working for a year or two at a hospital as an EKG technician, a poor substitute for the nursing career she abandoned to marry my father but better than the register at Famous 'n' Barr. She has eight mouths to feed, not counting her husband's bar bill. She does what she must.
She has a bag in her arms and a weary expression rippling across her face. One of the boys, Kevin probably, will come take her burden. He eases it to the counter in the kitchen while the rest of us crowd around her. We must be hungry but most of all, we crave these few minutes with our mother before the evening can devolve.
She tells us, "Wait til you see what I have," and draws out a large can. It sits on the counter because we will wait. I stare at it, reading the lettering which tells me it is a can of butter. Butter? I know the creamy taste on raisin bread at Christmas, but mostly butter only comes for Sunday, and holidays. It's too dear. Even I know that; and I've never seen it in a can.
Someone puts food in bowls and we gather around the table. Mother has changed out of her uniform. My father eases himself into the chair at the head of the table. I'm used to his moods and cast an eye sideways to see if I can tell what he'll be like. His face looks shaved and clean; I take that as a good sign.
My mother brings the can and a can opener to the table. She works the little handle and the lid pops free. We see it then: Rich, creamy, pale yellow. My mother says, "I took one of the maids from the hospital shopping and then home. She wanted to pay me but when I wouldn't take money, she gave me this can of welfare butter." The maids lived in the city where grocery stores had inferior meat. My mother often drove them to the store out in the county and then made sure they did not have to ride the bus with meat that could spoil during the long trip.
We passed around the tin. My father took none and made a little face which frightened me. I knew what his displeasure could mean; but I could not discern what angered him. My mother saw the grimace. She leaped from her chair and got the coffee pot from the stove to fill his cup. One of the big boys carved a chunk of the welfare butter and slathered it on a piece of bread for Stevie, whose small hands could not manipulate the tin of butter. We murmured grace, "Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts, which we are about to receive through thy bounty through Jesus Christ, Amen." The table fell silent as we ate.
My father put his knife and fork across the top of the plate and cleared his throat. Nine pairs of eyes raised from the hasty gobbling of food to cast down the length of the table. But he said nothing. He pushed his chair backward, stood, and left the room. We children turned to gaze the other direction, at our mother. I'm sure the little boys did not know what had happened or its significance. At 3 and 4, they had not yet learned to fear my father's moods. But the rest of us knew; and my mother knew; and she rose then and followed my father saying to us, "It's all right, finish your supper then clear the table."
Their argument overflowed into the night. It blurs endlessly in the morass of every fight they ever had. Quiet first, then louder. He tells her, "We don't need -- you should not take -- welfare!" and her soothing voice murmurs. I'm not sure what all this means. Then my father's voice grows harsher, heavier, and outside their bedroom, eight hearts stop, eight pairs of lungs suspend their operation. Little hands creep into bigger ones. I know what this means; know it all too well.
And so it begins.
When I left home, I made myself three food promises. I would never again eat liver; I would never again eat margarine; and I would never again eat fast. I've kept those promises, mostly. My son's dicey health in toddlerhood brought "fake butter" into the house because he could not absorb fat or fiber until age 4 or 5. I'm a vegetarian, so the liver's a no-brainer. My snail's pace of consumption testifies to my stubborn refusal to gobble my food. No hungry boys clamber around the table waiting for my leftovers. But I have a secret vow about dinner time which I harbor in my heart and will not violate: No arguing. No fighting. No stalking from the table with a cold and sinister look.
When Jenny Rosen and I went to Colorado for Memorial Day Weekend this year, a wizened older man cooked our eggs at the hotel in Boulder. I asked him how the scrambled eggs could be so luscious. "Love and lard," he replied. "I stir them tenderly, and I cook them in lots of butter." Of course. Of course.