Saturday, 12 July 2014

Food memories - and a cautionary tale


A while ago I mentioned writing a post on food memories.

Well, that little idea has been growing and forming and I'm at the point where I've found the direction I'd like it to go in. You see, I love writing about memories in general. I also love food: reading about it, shopping for it, growing it, cooking it, and eating it.

Apparently smell is the most evocative of the senses. And I'd agree with that. But taste... Well, that holds a lot of memories too. I can probably list my ten most memorable meals and where I ate them right now (and that's a good future post idea right there).

But the one which brought this whole thing about? Strawberry jam. Appropriate for this time of year when so many people are picking strawberries and jam-making. I don't like strawberry jam. I never buy it. It's not the flavour per se, it's the whole association thing. It quite literally leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

This blog isn't really a confessional but it is mine and I choose to sometimes include personal things. So, a little glimpse into my family history. Brace yourselves.

My parents divorced when I was five. My dad was a serial philanderer and one day - after a long-term affair - he decided to go and set up home with an old schoolfriend (she was also married). So they did. My dad cleared out the finances and the furniture. When my mum came home from work she was greeted by empty rooms and an equally empty bank account. 

Eventually when the dust settled and my dad got married to my stepmother I would go and visit every few weeks. They'd moved to the Midlands with her two children.

I hated going. Seriously. I'd come out in a nervous rash and beg my mum not to make me go. It was awful; the not-so-happy newlyweds would constantly scream and shout at one another (it later transpired my stepmother didn't want my dad paying any maintenance money out; he duly stopped doing just that). She made no effort to disguise her dislike and contempt for me. I'd go there - so very far from home when you're little - and my dad would disappear to the golf course every day, leaving me with my step siblings and Her.


I'd feel so homesick. I'd write letters and postcards home (even if I was only away for the weekend). I missed all the little details of life with my mum and brother - who, incidentally, is actually my half brother as my mum had been married very young to his dad - so he didn't come along on these visits.

Life at home was relaxed, silly, happy. My mum worked hard but my brother is ten years my senior so he took care of me and took me on his adventures outdoors. It was just the three of us and it was a lovely childhood to have.

Staying in the Midlands felt very alien to me. Arguments and shouting and blame. The children were almost an inconvenience. We three ate together (from plastic plates, which I found odd). And the breakfasts... Oh, the breakfasts! Cereal with warm milk which slowly turned into a mush reminiscent of soggy autumn leaves. It made me gag. Occasionally toast with seedless strawberry jam. I've never eaten it since.

Back at home breakfast was creamy porridge in cold weather or bread with honey or jam (of the apricot, damson or raspberry varieties). Glasses of milk. I wasn't a tea-or-coffee-drinking child.

One day, in desperation, I told my stepmother I was allergic to milk. Anything to avoid the warm Shreddies situation. She promptly concocted elaborate milkshakes for the others. Yes, really. Hard to imagine being quite so petty or spiteful to a five-year-old, is it?

So, there you have it. The first food memory and it's not a very happy one. The rest are though, I promise!

And the story has a happy ending of sorts. At the age of eleven I stopped visiting my dad. My mum had asked a solicitor to deal with his non-payment of child maintenance and from that moment on I received no more birthday cards, no phone calls, nothing. Yes it's horrible to be rejected like that but the end of those traumatic visits more than made up for it at the time. And my stepdad now is, in my eyes, my 'real' dad - he's lovely and he adores Joe.

Amazing what the thought of strawberry jam and sludgy cereal can dredge up.

Oh, and something very important I learned from this whole sorry experience: be careful with the feelings of little children because these things can cut very deeply. I'm glad I know this now I'm a parent. It's a valuable thing to remember.

30 comments:

  1. What a courageous post, very inspiring. I applaud you for it, as well as recognise much of it. (Honestly, the things some parents do to their children!) We can't change our own parents, but we can aspire to be the best parent we can be for own children - in other words, to be the type of parents we would have wanted ourselves.

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    1. Hello! I have to admit, it didn't feel particularly courageous - it's just a recollection of facts and it was a very long time ago. I certainly had it better than many others and was fortunate enough to have a great home life with my mum and brother.
      But yes, that aspect of being little was pretty dreadful and I didn't realise until I was grown up just how badly people behaved - that I wasn't the one in the wrong. It's been a case of moving on and learning lessons.
      You always want better for your own children.
      S

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  2. I am so sorry that this happened to you. I had a similar experience, although I didn't have to go and visit and eat horrible breakfast cereal at least! My stepdad is my Dad and he is a wonderful man. I am glad that you are happy now and that you have your own family and can have lots of happy memories food and otherwise with them. xx

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    1. Thank you! And I must say, there are an awful lot of food memories - the rest of them are good!
      S x

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  3. I will never understand how adults can be so cruel to children.
    My husband was poorly treated by his mother in particular. She fed her favourite son ( known by us as ' The Golden Child') better food, and to this day my husband cannot stand the thought of pea soup. Whilst my husband and his two younger brothers had to do a paper round to pay for a holiday with the scouts, the golden child was taken away on holiday with his parents. My husband was never kissed, hugged,consoled or played with by either of his parents, and when he was knocked down by a car on his way home from school one lunchtime, his mother put him on the settee for the afternoon and didn't bother to have him checked over by anyone, despite him having suffered a head injury ( the dint is still there on the back of his head). It makes me wonder how he turned out to be such a lovely man, and a wonderful father to our daughters. His mother has never really wanted anything to do with our children either - their crime was to be female.

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    1. People are odd, aren't they? I can't fathom how you could want to be unpleasant to any child, least of all your own.
      Many of us have a hard time in one way or another when we're younger. Maybe we just decide to treat others well and move on with our lives.
      Trying to take something positive from bad situations often helps.

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  4. Oh my sweet what a vile time you had as a child, I have similar memories but my parents never had the good grace to divorce & stayed miserably together. To this day I cannot deal with mince of any description apart from quorn! I'm glad like I was able to, that you moved on from such a miserable experience & yes I quite agree with the feelings of little children, some of those cuts never quite heal. I'm pleased you had a lovely 'dad' in the end!

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    1. I did - and a great mum. I have to admit, life was so much better for all of us once my dad had gone. Growing up in a happy house with no arguments was far preferable to if they'd stayed together.
      In fact I get so annoyed when people bash single mothers. Everyone's circumstances are different and my mum worked hard, paid the bills and both me and my brother went to university. Visiting my dad and stepmother was grim but I always had a real home to come back to - which is why I missed it so much I think.
      Plus, my mum did pretty well getting me out of going there as often as she could!

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  5. I'm not surprised you don't like strawberry jam - what a way to treat a 5 year old! I hope my daughter doesn't have any memories like this. Not always perfect mum and there are certainly arguments and reconciliations in our house. Have you read Toast by Nigel Slater which is all about his food memories?

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    1. Hello! Yes, I have (and I watched the TV adaptation which was pretty good too).
      I'm sure your daughter doesn't have bad memories... my situation was probably quite unusual in that I got unlucky with both a biological and step parent getting together. Still, as someone once said to me, two unpleasant people getting married means they 'don't spoil a pair'. Always makes me laugh.

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  6. That is so sad, I can only imagine how awful that must have been for you. Lucky you had your 'true' family back home waiting for you.

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    1. I did. And I can honestly say I had a wonderful childhood. That one bad aspect of it was just that.
      And my mum and I still have a laugh about the milkshake incident and how very ridiculous it was...

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  7. I think my parents should read this post. I have some lousy memories surrounding food too. You're brave to share this and I am glad you took lessons away from the experience, harrowing though it was. Joe is a lucky boy.

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    1. Hi Jennifer! It's odd, I didn't intend to do a hatchet job on anyone or to gain sympathy. It's a memory, an experience which was awful and it did have an impact on my self-esteem (still does).
      But I can now see the whole thing for what it was: some very badly-behaved adults who should have known better. I wasn't to blame and I wasn't unlovable. I do recognise that children's formative years are a very important and sensitive time and we must ensure they're equipped to deal with life's inevitable upsets. That's why I always think about Joe's feeling confident, secure and loved.
      Thank you for your comment - and I'm sorry to hear you have some bad memories. Hopefully you can use them in a good way?
      S x

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  8. I want to say what a lovely post. Not lovely in the traditional sense, maybe. But I see a real thread of healing that ends with Joe. It must have been so awful for you as a little one. I honestly can't understand how adults can be so deliberately petty and cruel to a child. It's the worst form of bullying. You came through this experience a stronger and better person for it, I'm sure. With more understanding and empathy as a result. One more thing - this is your blog. You write whatever you want!
    Have a lovely weekend.
    Leanne xx

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    1. Hi Leanne!
      I'm glad you enjoyed this post. I was a bit wary of writing it not because I found it difficult or sad particularly, but because I didn't want to evoke a pity party! I'm generally a very private person but occasionally I do go a little bit deeper on the blog and this felt appropriate. I didn't wish to start listing grievances or to go into huge detail but simply to explain how I arrived at these emotions around certain foods.
      And yes, the experience all those years ago has made me wiser in some aspects, especially with regards to Joe.
      Thanks for reading - and I hope you've had a great weekend too.
      S x

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  9. What a brave post to write. I still find it hard to believe how cruel some adults can be to children. Pleased things turned out well for you eventually.

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    1. Hi Gina. Yes, things have turned out well. But I was lucky all along because I had a lovely home life with my mum and brother. Being away from that was difficult. I suppose many children don't have the luxury of being in a happy, loving environment and are instead stuck in bad situations which are not temporary.
      And when I look at it like that I can see quite how lucky I was. Because, other than those dreaded visits, I always remember my childhood as being a very happy one indeed.

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  10. Strange how taste and smell is so entwined with memories, and always emotionally charged ones. Yes, you're so right, some children have the worst of times all the time (my whole working life has been spent working either in or for child protection services) and thankfully your periods of unhappiness were buffered by your lovely caring family. As for strawberry jam, I'll eat your share. As long as you eat mine of Cadbury's creme eggs!

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    1. Oh no! I'm not keen on those either - nothing to do with memories, they're just very sickly!
      You must have come across some truly upsetting stories in your career. I hope you manage to 'swich off' from that as much as you can once you're away from work but that must be difficult.
      Back to the Creme eggs thing... there isn't much chocolate I don't eat but those and anything orange flavoured I tend to avoid. Never say never though - we are talking about chocolate after all :)

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  11. What a lovely post Sarah. Although the content is difficult you write with such feeling and lay no blame at anyone's door despite your tender age experiencing it. Your mum sounds like a special person who closeted you in the love and care you needed, your dad lost out on such much which he may not even realise. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for reading! I do like this blog to be a 'happy' place to visit and really hope this post didn't put a dampener on anyone's day... I suppose memories and experiences make us who we are, and I do like to be honest here.
      And yes - my dad did miss out and still is but luckily Joe has a great set of (besotted) grandparents!

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  12. What a lovely post, I'm so glad that you didn't have to keep going to see them in the end, I really feel for that little girl. As you say, there are always things to be learned, and it's nice that you can appreciate the feelings of children so much now. A good reminder to me too. Your home with your mum sounds wonderful, and so does the food. I'd love to hear more of your memories one day. And yay for raspberry jam, I love it!

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    1. Me too! Although I've yet to make some. That could be my next foray into food firsts as I've got my beady eye on some wild raspberries and their progress as they ripen...
      I do enjoy writing about memories but always feel it's a bit self-indulgent. However, I will carry on with the whole food memories thing as they're fun to recall - even the bad ones. I'm quite impressed with my five-year-old ingenuity at explaining the nervous rash as being a milk allergy. It got me out of that awful cereal situation ;)
      S x

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  13. I think you told the story of childhood really well. I glad you were able to stop going and have a lovely relationship with your stepdad now. It sounds like home was lovely and this does carry us such a long way. A great post. X

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    1. Thanks Heather! These things - even after such a long time - can still be quite sad but I'm glad I know to treat children's feelings with care.
      And yes, the good far outweighed the bad. Things turned out fine in the end - as they often do :)
      S x

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  14. Being the mum of two adopted boys, I know only two well how awful some adults treat children. I often wonder what makes my boys do what they do, like what they like, say what they say. They were only very little when they moved into care but even very little children and babies can be scarred for life. I admire you for being able to share such emotional memory with us, Sarah. I am glad I stopped by today to read this post for it fills me with hope for our little ones bright future and with admiration for you, too. x

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    1. Thank you! I admire people who adopt; all children deserve a chance of a happy life and it's a wonderful thing to do. I know (from your blog) you're a great parent so I'm sure your boys will be happy and well-adjusted.
      Sarah x

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    2. Another thought provoking post Sarah, continued into the comments. I was another child who didn't like warm (or worse tepid) milk...ugh, especially not on cereal. Or at school (to drink). Turns my stomach to think of it! Now my two love it!! I'm looking forward to hearing about your happier food memories.

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  15. What an excellent post, thank you so much for taking us with you on that memory-journey. I want to hug the five year old you, how awful it must've been. But I am very happy that you had such love and stability with your mum, brother and step-dad.

    You've reminded me of my own, long forgotten, food memory: when I was about 10 or 11 I somehow got a really nasty infection in my foot through a cut. I was prescribed very strong antibiotics which I just could not swallow, they were about the size of a grape it seemed to me. I got myself in a total state about them, and just couldn't swallow them. but I had to take them. So my mum would cut them open and pour the contents onto a spoonful or raspberry jam which I'd eat and somehow force down. For years raspberry jam tasted like medicine to me. The power of association is very strong, clearly! x

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