Gifts of Thanksgiving

Keith looked miserable when he shared his sad news with his smoking buddies. He was a charismatic character who generally livened up the group with his jokes and good humor. He could extract something to laugh at from almost any mundane office meeting. The smoker’s group stood in an otherwise unusable corner of the parking garage in the area defined by building management as ‘The Smoking Area’. It was equipped with a dismal-looking park picnic table with attached seating together with a large trash container. The smokers generally didn’t use the bench but stood looking out onto a patch of green weeds growing along the building’s property line. Today even the sunlit highlighted greenery looked forlorn while the rest of the spot with its hard-grey concrete surfaces made a gloomy back-drop much in keeping with Keith’s mood. The smokers inhaled desperately as they tried to draw calm out of the tobacco. Keith, the saddest looking of them all shared his news.

“Another miscarriage!”

The whole office knew his story; how he, and his wife Kitty, had been trying for years to have a child. Each time that she conceived they thought that this pregnancy would be different. But then their joy would be turned to sadness when she miscarried. Of course, they had been to numerous doctors but all the medical profession could tell them was that sometimes these things happen. It wasn’t reassuring. Everyone offered their condolences but no-one had a pat soothing platitude to offer; they had all been used up in response to Kitty’s earlier miscarriages. Keith dolefully told his colleagues, that although he and Kitty were in their late thirties, they were going to see if they could adopt.

Six months later, Keith blissfully announced that Kitty was now into her second trimester and was carrying this baby longer than in any of her previous pregnancies. The staff shared his happy mood. Kitty got to her ninth month. They staged an office baby shower, and when the baby was born all went to the hospital to view the cute baby dressed in blue, who, all agreed, already looked like his Dad.

When Keith returned to work after his paternity leave, he no longer came the smoker’s corner. Standing in the break-room holding a mug of hot coffee he explained that he had given up smoking in thanksgiving for the birth of his son. He received appropriate congratulations while all secretly monitored his actions to see if his vow was serious. He never faltered. Several of the other smokers took inspiration from his action and also gave it up. General office gossip endorsed his action with the additional rationale that it was a wise action as smoking doesn’t go with small children.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. The miscarriages of the past were in forgotten. Keith was ecstatic. He told the entire office that he, and Kitty had always wanted two children. In due course, a beautiful baby girl was born. After his paternity leave, Keith talked freely about his next act of thanksgiving.

“I want to give my daughter every advantage. I gave up smoking as an act of thankfulness and celebration for the birth of my son. I’ve thought about this long and hard. I know that I have to give up something as an act of thankfulness for my daughter. So, after due thought I am giving up alcohol to acknowledge the blessing of having a daughter.”

He explained that both, he and Kitty were second in the birth-order in their homes and had often felt twinges or resentment that parents become increasingly blasé with each successive child. They, neither of them, wished this to happen to their children. The office gossips discussed this decision of Keith’s. Some rationalized that alcohol also doesn’t belong with responsible parenting, while Keith’s drinking buddies sadly accepted that Keith’s increased home responsibilities would keep him away even if he hadn’t given up booze.

Nine months later, Kitty was pregnant again. Keith’s joy was less effusive as he said that he and Kitty had only wanted two children. However, when he returned to the office, he announced that for this child, his act of self- denial was to give up caffeine. He still frequented the break-room where he took to standing holding a huge mug of iced water and amusing everyone with his wit.

“No more children,” he declared, “We can’t afford three as it is; and besides, I’ve nothing else to give up in thanksgiving!”

The office gossips found it harder to pin an additional rationale onto the ‘no caffeine’ decision. Some observed that three children in diapers meant many sleepless nights, which might make caffeine a morning necessity. Others said that the nocturnal interruptions made anything, which inhibited sleep a ‘no-no” even in the morning.

Life has a way of taking over and about nine months later, Keith announced that Kitty was pregnant with their fourth. He didn’t ask for input on what he should give up in thanksgiving for this child, who he stated absolutely had to be his last. No-one helped him make his decision, although the topic was hotly discussed behind his back. No-one needed to tell him for he knew; of all his children, this child, his last, was to receive the dedication of his most significant act of self-denial.

WHAT A DAY

  I suggest that we let most of the days of our lives pass into blurred oblivion. Of course, some days are remembered due to unusual happenings. Thursday, May 27 1954 is a day from my childhood, which stands out vividly. It was a day packed with events each of which might have slipped into my hazy memories of growing up, but somehow their aggregate marked a day which I recall vividly.

That Thursday was Ascension Day, and as such my Christian School gave it special recognition. We had no classes; instead, we were instructed to go to school later than usual, in order to attend a church service after which we were given the balance of the day off. On a normal day, my father drove my sister and I to school on his way to work. I have vague recollections of these drives with an associated long wait at the Framwellgate Bridge traffic light so that we could drive up winding, narrow, one-way Silver Street. By the time that we got to the bridge Dad was diligently quizzing my sister and I on the dates of the Kings and Queens of England or some other facts which he wished us to memorize. If you look to your right as you cross Framwellgate Bridge going into town you get a stunning view of Durham Castle and Cathedral standing high on their promontory, shrouded in the greenery of the banks of the River Wear. I don’t recall ever having done this on my way to school. Looking back I wonder if it was familiarity or perhaps the view wasn’t good for a child in the left-hand side seat of a car.

For some strange reason, I walked to school on Ascension Day 1954. During my entire childhood, this is the only day that I ever remember walking the two to three miles to school. I was almost nine years old, which explains why my sister, who would have been seven, was not with me. She started at the “Big School” the following academic year. The other odd thing about that morning was that I was accompanied by Robert Mulkerrin. This day is the only day of my entire life that I remember Robert Mulkerrin. He lived with his mother about a block further down our street. Their house always had roses in the garden, but I generally hurried past as quickly as possible because Mrs. Mulkerrin was one of our school teachers. I don’t know why Robert was with me – perhaps it was circumstantial, and he was going to meet his mother at the school or maybe my parents had arranged it; I just don’t know. All I know is that he was there. I recall that we were engrossed in conversation and although only nine I have a vague memory of my being somewhat flirtatious. 

Half-way up Silver Street, crammed onto the sidewalk on the south side of the street, we came to a ladder leaning against one of the ancient buildings. It bridged the sidewalk and had its toe in the gutter. Robert checked the traffic and deftly walked around the ladder. I walked under it.

“Jane, don’t. Walking under a ladder is bad luck!”

“Pooh, that’s just an old wife’s myth.” 

“Maybe,” Robert was staring at me, “but why tempt fate?”

“I’m not afraid. Now if there had been someone up the ladder, I agree that it might not be a good idea to walk under.” I was giggling, thinking of a tool or paint falling down. Today was a propitious day, and I felt exuberant.

My next recollection from that day is when our mother drove my sister and I to go fishing. She had promised to do this as a treat on our afternoon off. It is also a first because our mother had never ever taken us fishing before. She had just learned to drive and drove us in my grandfather’s old red VW. We joked that she bought kangaroo petrol because the car jumped and started every time she changed gear. I vaguely remember the Lake. It was reached by long drive through an avenue of trees and was next to one of the hospitals which my father visited. Apparently, he had obtained permission for us to fish there.

Our equipment was homemade; stakes from the garden, twine, hooks made from hair pins, and bait in the form of chicken parts. We stood on the grass, which I recall is being very green, and cast our lines into the murky water. Within no time, I had a nibble and hauled in a small fish about eight inches long. I hadn’t even got it off my hook before my sister also had a bite. Instead of being a traditional fishing trip, in which one waits and watches the water for hours, the fish rewarded us by taking our bait every time we cast. Within an hour, we had caught twenty fish. By now, I recall that our mother was becoming anxious and declared, “Enough is enough,” and that we needed to go home.

We always ate dinner at about 7:30 PM. That day was not to be an exception. Our mother volunteered to clean and fry the fish so that we would eat them for dinner. My sister and I were becoming boisterous and housebound, and so she sent us out to play on our bicycles in the street. They were always several children outside, and we often played games on our bicycles. That evening Robert Mulkerrin joined us. Of course, I teased him and told him that instead of bad luck the ladder had rewarded us with an incredible fishing trip. He smiled and even then seemed unconvinced.

We played tag. The one who was ‘it’ carried a stick and chased the others to touch someone so that they became ‘it’. Our road was paved for the block near Robert’s house but towards our house, it was narrower, steeper, and unpaved. That’s where I had the accident. I was swerving to avoid being tagged and spilled putting my right arm to the ground to catch myself. It popped. I had dislocated my elbow and was hurriedly driven to the hospital. I remember going in feeling very cold and in pain and being given a sedative. I shall always remember the contrast, for when I awoke I was pain free and cozily warm. To me, it was a miracle.

Mother cooked the fish, but I never ate any. To this day, I wonder what they tasted like. I also wonder if Robert Mulkerrin went home convinced that he had irrefutable proof that walking under ladders is bad luck.

CONFESSIONS OF AN ANOREXIC

If you have ever studied someone on a diet, you may have noticed that they have an uncanny fascination in food. I recall a friend of mine, who would gaze lecherously at the leggy ladies on the underground posters, so much so that I knew exactly, which position his head would be in at any place on the escalator. Then, one day when I was with him, I noticed that instead of nylons, bras and swim wear, his attention was being held by bacon, sausages, and even whiskey advertisements. When I questioned him, as we waited for our train, he admitted that he was dieting, happy in the misplaced belief that I had noticed how much thinner he was becoming. Of course, I did not tell him how I had made my deduction. I have noticed the same phenomena among smokers who are trying to quit. You can often see them, gazing in hypnotic stare at anyone who is smoking, enjoying the inhales in a masochistic trance. They even develop a rhythm similar to the smoker’s, breathing in and out with a sighs as the smoker inhales and exhales his smoke.

When I was an anorexic I developed a similar fascination for food. Sometimes I would take a detour into Woolworths where I would wander along the ‘sweets’ (candy) counter gazing at the toffees, Smarties, marshmallows, fudge, and chocolate;  or I’d stand in a cloud of delight outside the baker’s shop literally eating the odor and image of all those nutritious cakes and biscuits. Once, when I had been hanging around the Woolworths’ counter for over fifteen minutes, my longing got the better of my upbringing and my fear of getting caught, and I stole a toffee. I slipped it quickly into my pocket. I un-wrapped it with my hand, thrust into the pocket. I don’t recall how I manipulated it into my mouth, but it got there. I remember its bitter sweetness and how I hurried guiltily from the store to spit it ungraciously into the gutter. Where, now was the girl who once worried for weeks about a simple little lie at school? She was buried in my subconscious, far distant from the girl I had become.

I parlayed my interest in food into a passion for cooking. I tried to take over from my mother, herself a gourmet chef. It gave me a thrill to be surrounded by the very substances which I needed but would not let myself touch. I created delicious and unusual concoctions which I would hardly taste. I even made sure to spit the morsels which I tasted during preparation into the kitchen sink. I thought of myself as a professional wine taster who swills the wine to get its flavor and then spits it out. I wanted to watch other people eating my creations. I would throw a crying fit if anyone wanted as little as I was eating or if anything was left over. It was almost as though I was trying to ensure that nobody else could rival my emaciation. It was a sacrificial prayer.

I have noticed that starvation also increases one’s senses. Smells become stronger, colors brighter, music more encompassing. It is akin to being on a continuous high. Since I emerged from my starvation period, I have never heard The Water Music played more beautifully or seen a more brilliantly hued Azalea. I theorize that this phenomenon is so that the starving animal is more equipped to acquire food in its weakened condition. I was weakened although at the time I didn’t realize it. I moved slowly, found walking upstairs a burden and was unable to keep up with the rest of the family when we shoveled snow.

If I shut my eyes and let myself fly back through time I become that girl of seventeen-going-on-eighteen. My body shrinks to five-and-a-half stones (77 lbs). I can feel my hip bones projecting through my skirt as they did then. I thrust my pelvis forward in an unnatural stance and glace down at my flat chest to see them sticking out with their angular symmetry. I touch them gently with my hand, not too hard for they are always bruised and any little bump hurts, but hard enough to feel them through the fabric. Then I run my hands slowly up to my sides, randomly counting ribs, and letting them slip across my neck feel my collar bones making a crisscross below my throat. I have an empty gnawing feeling in my stomach, and so I readjust my tight elastic belt, worn today outside my school skirt to prevent it from falling off, but worn on other occasions under my outer clothing to minimize hunger pains. I look forward to tonight’s bath when I will lie in the water and look down my flat front to my hip bones projecting like two mountain ridges with a smooth sunken valley between them.

My mind becomes fuzzy as I think about my next meal, I am always thinking about my next meal. I have a few more hours to wait. I plan how I shall spend the time itemizing the seconds so that I can help them to pass less painfully. I know that if I study and get totally engrossed in something that I will, at least momentarily, stop counting time. As I settle down to my study, I rationalize that I am too thin, that my parents are right, that I ought to stop dieting and eat. I make a resolve to eat at the next meal. With this comforting thought nagging at the back of my mind, I focus on my study.

At last, the next meal time arrives. I had to pass the last half hour outside walking up and down to prevent myself from rushing off and stealing something, anything, to eat. The meal begins. It smells delicious and looks good. I catch my mother’s eye about to announce my big decision, but something inside me snaps. I look down again thinking to myself that if I eat ‘normally’ she will, in some obscure way, score a victory that the ropes of my destiny will pass out of my trembling hands. I need to have control over my destiny. This is my life. I ask for a small helping. After the first ravenous mouthful, I force myself to eat slowly chasing the food around my plate so that it looks, as though I am eating more than I really am. So, here it is the substances which I have been looking forward to for at least three hours, and I am rejecting it. I burst into tears. I am in misery. I want to eat it and cannot as though under a spell. I want someone to comfort me. I feel so alone. I would like to rush and bury my head in my mother’s bosom, feel her arms around me, her hands caressing my hair, her voice gently chasing away my troubles and cleansing me. No-one offers to comfort me. I am spoiling yet another meal. I am blatantly disregarding their explicit advice and instructions. I remain unhappy un-consoled.

Hours later, in bed, I cry again. I cry for the passing of my freedom and the days of irresponsibility. I weep for my parent’s love which my rational tells me is still there, but my distorted mind tells me is lost, destroyed by me. I try to pray to God, someone who will show me a way out of my dilemma. I ask for an escape without making me into a fat idiot who will face up and take responsibility for the damage inflicted on self and family. No-one answers my wet prayers. I curl my cold limbs into a fetal position and turning my pillow to a cool dry spot fall into a troubled sleep. I fall asleep knowing that tomorrow I will make the same resolves, try again, but that there will be no solution and that the day will end just as today had ended. There will be the same battle in my head, the same hot tears pouring down my face.

In the middle of the night I awaken and creep around the house. I like the hidden lonely peacefulness. I go downstairs moving quietly so that I don’t disturb my light-sleeping mother. I go to the kitchen. Everything is silent. I bask in its secret charm and gaze out into the garden, eerie in the darkness. The plants are strangely lit, from the side glow of a nearby street light, and by the sky where a moon plays hide-and-seek with fast-moving fluffy clouds. I leave the window and go into the pantry. I look under the cake dome, under a pie dish lid, into the fruit dish. I leave them all and go to the sink to draw myself a large glass of icy cold water. I boil a kettle to make a hot-water bottle to cuddle. Relaxed in my solitude, I return upstairs hearing my mother turn as I pass. She calls out sleepily to me. I don’t answer and her steady breathing returns. I lie in bed; the hot-water bottle is pressed hard into the burning hollow of my empty stomach. I sleep.

The voyage – a poem

Strange, incomprehensible, relative, time,
Seems, as the sea, eternal.
Bringing together twofold impressions
Without proof of being.

Unseen image of a land,
Soon to become a reality.
And then the hiatus
The linking span is gone.

Of our voyage, we have no proof,
Dare our scattered senses lie?
With a tangible end,
Was the means an illusion?

It was a drop of eternity,
A ripple taken from Time’s flood,
Swelling, to shrink, unrecognizable,
Into oblivion.

© 6/5/13 Jane Stansfeld