There is a pot on the stove, steam rising. A dry smell emits itself and the children ask, “What’s for dinner?” Potatoes and Chicken. Potatoes and beef. Potatoes and a pork chop. My favorite: potatoes and cottage cheese.

Our house from recent real estate search

My mother is a terrible cook. My father has a sensitive stomach which is always called an “ulcer” but he doesn’t have an ulcer. His stomach churns from being a child in Germany during World War II. His body, mind and spirit are stressed with the instinct to survive, so he works and works, even at jobs that he doesn’t like. He says he is saving all of the money for the next time God forsakes him. He loves boiled potatoes and a plain meat accompaniment. He eats plain steamed vegetables with butter and salt. He loves hard, thick bread which my mother buys at the German butcher which is from a Lithuanian bakery. He likes his coffee weak. The rest of us meet the cottage cheese with resistance but he doesn’t complain. Why are you complaining? There are children in Africa who are starving! In all fairness, my mom made a pretty good spaghetti sauce and a roast chicken. There is a legendary story of when she was going to cook pork chops which had gone bad and her guests had to insist she didn’t.

Dad, Danielle and Katrina
Mom, Katrina and Danielle

The kitchen which came with our old farmhouse in New Jersey was so old, it was kind of falling off of the house. There are old pine cabinets and appliances including a washer/dryer and on the stove, there is always a cast iron pan with bacon fat in it. Often there are mouse tracks in the fat. We never eat much bacon because my mother says you only need one piece each, and she uses the bacon fat to fry eggs. We are allowed two eggs each. I like the Farmer’s Almanac hanging by a rubber band in the kitchen, which I can read while I am on the phone, twisting the chord in my fingers over and over. Eventually mom and dad make a new kitchen (The Addition) and it is brighter and happier. The Addition has no impact on the family. We are still angry and quiet.

Danielle, Katrina and Mom

Really there is nothing wrong with a boiled potato. Mashed up with some butter and salt, the potato is a good food. I can remember thousands of meals with these potatoes, in their skins. We choke them down at the dinner table where no one speaks, where no one tells anyone about their day, where Lucy and Ricky sometimes argue on the black and white TV in the kitchen, where my parents wage the cold war.

If asked today, mom would say that my father didn’t give her enough money to make ends meet and that is why she makes bad dinners. I would agree with her about the money, but she also really doesn’t apply herself. I know people with huge families and very little means, and they eat tasty food. She also buys and serves us powdered milk because regular milk is not in the budget. This is a couple with a house, two cars, and a sailboat who regularly take pretty nice vacations to Greece and Mexico, leaving the kids with the psycho neighbor across the street, Taffy. Eventually the backlash against the powdered milk outweighs the cost and there are now gallons of fresh milk in the fridge.

Left to our own devices, we kids begin to learn how to cook. I learn how to make soups, dumplings, weird recipes with pineapple slices from those terrible 70s recipes on little plastic cards, all sorts of things. My sister’s friends are Italian and she learns how to make lasagna and Eggplant parmesan. My brother learns how to make crepes. We start to cook a lot more often. My father doesn’t love the other foods, preferring the potatoes with some form of gray meat.

My mother has lost her joy by now and raising three kids in the suburbs is not what she signed up for. In her search for more useful things to do with herself, my mother begins to take esoteric and spiritual courses in New York City and finds various groups with which to study. One of these groups leads her to a long course of therapy with a psychiatrist and her sessions with a medium called R.W. who speaks to her from the “other side” and gives advice. Around when I am a sophomore in high school, this advice leads her to separate from my father, move into an apartment in the next town, but still come home for dinner each evening so we can have the cold war, where nobody speaks at the table same as always.

Our dog Belinda (German shepherd mix) had 9 puppies. My Dad sold them for $25 each and then they gave our dog away to “the farm”. No one walked her and she was tied up all day outside. She barked until she got given away or went to “the farm.” I was indifferent about dogs and was already a staunch cat person, but my sister was devastated and she cried for days.

19 Responses

    1. LOL. She DID feed you! Dinner time can be so fraught. Reality sure clashed with the TV messages of Ozzie and Harriet et al. (What the hell did Ozzie do all day?)

      1. I don’t know Ozzie and Harriet but I know Brady Bunch and Happy Days and other 70s staples. They were pretty nice families.There was teen drama but it always got resolved in 22 minutes! No one gave the dog to “the farm” that I can think of! 🙂

  1. Thank you for sharing these memories. I’m sorry I didn’t know/understand your heartaches at the time.

    1. Thanks for your comment Madelyn! I am going to have to write a whole blog about our sleepover parties and watching SNL. I have a distinct memory of you walking down my driveway with a flowered suitcase. My driveway is a whole story. 🙂

  2. I love seeing the pictures alongside your story… your home, your kitchen table, the puppies… Pretty wacky childhood Danielle! I’m so glad you are sharing these memories.

  3. I adore the goofy picture of you as 9 month old with food all over your face. It’s great that you all got creative in the kitchen at a young age, even as a defensive measure. My poor mom had to cook 3 meals a day for eventually 7 people, and she never wanted to cook at all. Or probably have kids, much less 5. I didn’t know until I was in my 30s that she stopped eating much for a few years because there wasn’t enough food to go around, so she lost a bunch of weight. I commented on a photo and she told me why she looked so thin. Ah, the sacrifices some made, others didn’t.

    1. One time in a writing prompt in one of the classes I took, we had to walk in our parents shoes, understand where their heartaches began, like your mother not eating enough because there wasn’t enough, or mu mother moving 3000 miles away from her parents at age 16 and being financially independent. Can’t have been easy. I have to get the stories out. Mary Karr literals skewered her mother and they were friends at the end.

  4. What a lovely set of memories – and we hold dear all of them, the positive and less so – and your fondness now for potatoes and cottage cheese? Thanks for sharing.

  5. This is beautiful. Thanks for sharing this vignette of your childhood, which sliced right through to something familiar and visceral in my childhood as well. It made me smile, and also made me sad. Families are so complex.

  6. Loved the photos and to get to see your mom/dad. Fills in some of the background. My mom was not a creative cook nor one who used spices besides salt/pepper. I remember standing on a chair next to the stove to help her stir and enjoying this process. When my brother entered college she went back to work to help financially and my father took over the cooking duties. What an unexpected surprise plus he baked! Who knew? Never had the TV near the kitchen but always did wonder why in Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet or My Three Sons etc. the wife was always in a dress with pearls! Great story keep’m coming.

    1. My mother was never in a dress or pearls unless she was going to the theater or some hot date. Good food is important. I will write more about how my sister and I became chow hounds and ate entire Christmas fruitcakes together after school. Binge eating before it was called that! Thanks for you nice replies Tom!

  7. I’m slow to read all your posts but they do conjure up such a vivid image of your Baylor house. We did eat some strange meals in that kitchen. We also gave our dog away after a few months — neither of my parents could deal, but strangely all three of us became hardcore dog people as adults. Love you!

    1. love you too Reva! I think the food at Joanell’s and your house was way better, I really didn’t enjoy ours! Luckily we can have dogs and cook better now.

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