Once when I was a kid my mom tried to cook vegetables. Suddenly pots full of brussel sprouts, broccoli and other foul greens appeared in our kitchen on the regular. Thus began my earliest lessons in tragedy, ingenuity, manipulation and the importance of giving to the poor. I was the middle child of three sisters. Before the brussel sprout debacle (as it came to be known), we were just three kids at the dinner table, alone in our individual battle to survive and earn the right through struggle and triumph to leave the table before either poisoning ourselves, or growing old. Things hadn’t reached a point so intolerable that we were forced to conceive of revolt yet. But like many significant battles in history, when the misery of a province reaches climactic levels, rebellion is born. That’s what happened at our home.
In hindsight, I think it started when grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. All the sudden mom became aware of the importance of green leafy vegetables in our diet. Items none of us had ever considered edible suddenly appeared on our dinner table and the battle of wills came into play, pitting parent against child. Mom was never the best cook to begin with, so the first time she forced brussel sprouts on us is etched in my psyche vividly and with detail, as are other tragic memories like 9/11, or when we had to put our first cat Jenny to sleep.
The horror began one night as I was waiting at the table impatiently for dinner to be served. I recall swinging my short legs back and forth in mid air to distract myself from my growling stomach, but everything after that is blurry and trauma ridden. What I do remember, is that we were completely shocked when mother put brussel sprouts in front of us and actually insisted we eat them. At first we didn’t believe she could possibly be serious. Then after we had eaten everything else on our plate and she still refused to let us leave the table without finishing them, we thought, “She might be serious right now, but if we sit here long enough, she will eventually see how unreasonable this is”. We were wrong. That first night after hours and hours of sitting there not eating, I semi-vomited trying to choke one of the nasty beasts down, and this seemed to do the trick. We were excused from the table. We had escaped!
The second day was worse though. My dad, a military man and a fine example off all that entailed commanded a level of respect from us that stopped just short of terror; but then he commanded an army of solders who were all just as scared of him as we were, so that seemed understandable. If he said we had to eat nasty stinkin vegetables, or a pile of steaming poop, the correct response was, “Yes sir”. But what he didn’t understand was, by this point, the only thing we were more afraid of than him, were brussel sprouts. We weren’t going to eat that crap under any circumstance. No amount of threatening us would work this time. So he yelled and threatened to no avail and in the end, the folks decided to wait us out. Once again, we were told under no circumstances would we be leaving the table EVER, until we finished our vegetables. Puking was not an option this time; But since dinner was at 6:00 and my mom liked to go to bed early, we still believed we could win. The three of us got comfortable and prepared to wait them out and hours ticket by. Long after they had left the table we were still there, trying in vain to entertain ourselves until the ordeal was over. Finally when we couldn’t take it anymore, we begged for mercy. They ignored us. They threatened us, we ignored them. Then night fell. Bed time came and went and finally, angry and emotionally spent, our battle weary parents called a temporary truce. “Don’t think this means you won!” we were told. “Dinner will be wrapped and put into the refrigerator with your names on it for dinner tomorrow night! Blah blah (insert various grumbles all ending in “wasting perfectly good food!”)
On the third day, as promised, the brussel sprouts were reheated and shoved in front of us. By this time, they no longer resembled anything eatable. In addition to our original leftovers, our dinner now included creative attempts at disguising their horrendous taste. My big sister Julie tried grape Jelly. Mine had been drown in ketchup and now resembled rotting intestines. My entire plate now looked like a miniature murder scene. There was no way I was going to eat it. I was pretty sure I would die.
Out of desperation, mom tried another tactic. Calculating, she turned to my 4 year old little sister Carrie and went in for the kill. Mother passionately explained that in a country far away called Ethiopia children were starving to death every day. Those children would love to get just one bite of our dinner; It would save their lives. In fact if we didn’t eat it right this second, she might just pack it up and send it to them. How would we feel then? Then we would be the poor unfortunate starving children, with distended belly’s and flies on our faces, who likely wouldn’t live to see their eighth birthday’s; We would be that hungry. How would we like that then? My sister Carrie was notoriously trusting. She once traded Julie 10 penny’s for a silver dollar, because 5 was more than 1. Julie told her so. Carrie was horrified. She didn’t want the starving Ethiopians to get her dinner. The impact of this situation sent my brain reeling. There were too many angles and the ramifications of what mother was saying were huge. Do you want me to send your dinner to the Ethiopians Carrie? “Noooooooo!” My sister wailed panic stricken. “Then you better eat it now,” mom said, “Or I’m going to send it off!”
It was a lose, lose situation. By now Carrie was crying so hard she had the hiccups, (something she got so frequently). Julie and I looked back and forth between mom and our hiccuping sister like shock victims. Carrie didn’t want to be the poor starving Ethiopian kid. She wanted to live. Slowly, Carrie began moving a fork half full of nastiness to her mouth. Her dread was so palpable that her chubby little fist shook with fear. She barely managed to get half a bight onto the tip of her tongue before she started gagging. By this time snot had mixed with the tears of desperation on her face and doom was closing in on all sides. I was so frozen in horror that for a second my wits had completely escaped me. But Carrie’s gagging sent me into a flurry of quick thinking, analyzing the situation desperately for an escape route.
Finally, it dawned on me, nothing could possibly be worse than this; and besides, exactly how bad WAS their proposal? My parents wouldn’t really let us starve. Doesn’t the bible have some sort of insurance policy against that? So this arrangement with Ethiopia could be a good thing. If we sent our food to them we would be rid of it and on top of that, we would save a kid who would be incredibly grateful, for just one taste of this nastyness. So it was a win, win situation for everyone involved! Hope surged in my heart. “Stop Carrie!” I yelled, “You don’t have to eat it!” I knew I had to explain quickly before it was too late. “Don’t you get it?!” I pleaded. Beseeching God, my parents and the universe, I told my sisters, “If they send our food to Ethiopia, we won’t have to eat it and some kid there won’t have to starve! This isn’t a bad thing at all!” Julie’s face still registered shock. Slowly understanding dawned. Carrie looked back from me to mom, not quite daring to believe it yet. Julie nodded her head encouragingly. My mother, just seconds away from victory moments before, had suddenly become a blank slate. I was so excited by the prospect that I was halfway to the garage to select a box for shipping before my mom yelled ” Ursula, STOP IT!”
I froze in my tracks confused. Silence loomed. In one exasperated syllable mother yelled at the top of her lungs in utter exasperation, “Everyone go get in bed! SCAT!! All three of you! If you aren’t going to eat, you can all go to bed hungry! We were confused at the sudden change in our plight, but freedom had just presented itself to us and we weren’t going to question it. The Ethiopians would just have to wait for our next nasty meal. We scrambled like cockroaches caught in the light on the kitchen floor.
At that time, the three of us shared two twin beds that were pushed together and that night we cuddled close to each other. We were no longer alone. The brussel sprout debacle had united us as allies fighting the same cause. From then on, we were the little girl version of the Three Musketeers. All for one and one for all.
Brussels sprouts never returned to our dinner table, but their memory lingered. Other vegetables that were previously major taste offenders, now seemed weak in comparison and Julie soon devised a sneaky solution to their quick disposal and became my instant hero with a plan to hide all sorts of nasty foods in the bottom of a glass of milk, or in a wadded up napkin. The devious survival instinct Julie displayed on a daily basis had Carrie and I blinded by her brilliance. She became the smartest person I knew. I wanted to be just like her.