When I wrote this post earlier this morning, I was “enjoying” a hot bowl of delicious oatmeal. Now, it didn’t look as good as the picture to the left, but I’m not a foodie, either, and how it looked isn’t really the point, either.
At any rate, as a child, I developed utter distaste and hate for the hot cereal of champions. I cringed when I heard the sound of the pot clanging on top of the stove and came face to face with the sympathetic and mildly lethargic visage of the Quaker Oats man on the container (unless my mom bought a canister of generic or store brand oatmeal).
My mother used to prepare the lumpy concoction for me and my sister (before my two younger sisters came along) for breakfast on those days when she didn’t feel like preparing a full spread of pancakes or toast, sausage and eggs. That usually meant most of the time, we were eating oatmeal or some facsimile thereof (remember Cream of Wheat? Hated it. Farina? Despised it).
Her strategy for getting us to eat it often involved adding a little milk, butter or sugar, and embellishing it with raisins (yuck), bananas (double yuck) or strawberries (a bit more tolerable). I’d eat it out of a sense of duty and necessity: I was too hungry to complain. My sister, on the other hand, would hold it in her mouth for hours, as a bit of silent protest that often times led to her being the last one at the table and the reason why we couldn’t go outside and play. Over the years, I’ve developed a bit of appreciation for oatmeal, as long as it’s prepared in a manner that my taste buds can tolerate.
To me, when I think about family, I think about a hot bowl of lumpy oatmeal. Why? Because like oatmeal, family can be tolerable; it may not be your first choice but it nourishes a lot better than junk food; it doesn’t upset the stomach as much; and, you can get to your family (and oatmeal) without having to expend a whole lot of personal resources.
Like most GenXers, if we had a choice back in the day, we would have gladly taken a big bowl of Cap’n Crunch cereal, some other type of magically delicious, sugary, candy-coated, addictive breakfast. I mean, I don’t recall oatmeal commercials holding the same sway on Saturday mornings as did the Lucky Charms or Sugar Smacks commercials. Oatmeal isn’t glamorous, and it’s in a lot of ways inexplicable. But it’s necessary.
Just like family.
For me, and for a lot of GenXers I know, the notion of family evokes a flurry of mixed emotions. It is the thing that supposedly motivates us to excel, to succeed, to inspire, to give back. It’s supposed to be the wind underneath our wings, the ground beneath our feet that roots and stabilizes us, nourishes us and activates our sense of duty and responsibility to the larger world.
We learn at a very early age to shoulder, carry forward and be the living embodiment of the legacy, the hopes and dreams of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, in many cases shadows or ghosts of people who have lived in a different era. Theirs is the stuff of daytime television and movies that seem a bit foreign, stiff, unfamiliar, with its subtitles and subtext, making me feel a little uneasy, a bit unprepared, and wondering if I really should have read the book before I watched.
It’s a hefty proposition for me, and I’m sure for others. In many cases, it’s the one thing that has caused many a GenXer to buckle under tremendous pressure, to retreat, to run to a corner licking our wounds. For others, it is the very thing that sustains them, that propels them to excel, to master, to conquer, to overcome obstacles with a strength, a fervor that transcends reason or mere human understanding.
Family has long been is a notion that repels and attracts me, pushes and pulls me in a way that leaves me with a deep, aching ambivalence, wondering what exactly it means to be held sway by the comings and goings and bunch of people whose primary link to me is based on shared genetic material.
I have a big family, and from what I understand, they are scattered throughout the country and overseas. I do not joke when I say that there are a lot of us, many of whom I don’t really know and who don’t know me. And to take it further, not only do we not really know one another, we couldn’t possibly relate (the irony of relatives not relating).
Much of our shared understanding is grounded in shadowy memories of days long past, mere events that have been built up into the stuff of legend…“remember when? Remember what happened at the family reunion??“ Who decided to lug out that indicting photographic or videotaped evidence again?
I always wondered if many of my family members would even know me to be a relative if they passed me on the street? And should the sharing of DNA be the crazy glue that somehow bonds us? It always struck me as strange, mysterious, mind-boggling
I’ve observed or heard tales of grudges held; trivial misunderstandings that over the arc of the years that have led to the weakening of, if not the dissolution of familial bonds; hurtful words said, lies told, abuses exacted, and have wondered, why do family members get a pass at hurting us in ways that we don’t allow or tolerate from others?
Likewise, I’ve always wondered, as much as I hate oatmeal, why do I still eat it? I embellish it, dress it up, add brown sugar and butter to it, hoping to change it and make it more tolerable, but when it’s all said and done, it’s still oatmeal. It’s lumpy, it tastes bland, but I still eat it.
And does this tolerance for family drama in whatever form, whether subtle or over the top, make us more apt to form dysfunctional relationships with others? Does it blind us to the good in others? Does it blind us to the not so good in others? Does it distort our world view? I’ll be the first to say it: family members can hurt us in ways that can permanently cripple us.
Certainly, if someone other than my mother fixed oatmeal in the way that she did, I probably wouldn’t have eaten it. But like a warm bowl of oatmeal, family can comfort us and family members can also uplift us in inexplicable ways. Family, like oatmeal, is comfort food for our souls and for our spirits. It’s always going to be there, in the kitchen cabinet of our minds, when we need a bowl of reassurance, groundedness, connectedness. You take the good with the bad and hope for the best. It may not taste the best, but it fills you up when and where it counts.
So…what comfort food does your family experience remind you of, and why? Speak your piece.