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Sweatpants & Soul | Hungering

By Sandra de Helen

Mom cooked, three times a day. I use the term “cook” loosely. She prepared meals. Dad died when I was seven years old. Before his death, our family consisted of Dad, my baby sister, Mom and me. She cooked everything we ate, even though it wasn’t her forte. Even though Mom’s primary seasonings were bacon grease and/or vinegar, the time we spent at the table created lasting memories for me. Dad threw his head back and laughed out loud at something Mom said, or I did, at every meal. As long as he was alive I knew I was loved. These memories sustained me and helped me put our troubles into perspective.

Mom was a homemaker. She kept a clean house. She made clothes for herself, the baby, and me. She used washtubs, a scrub board, and a clothesline. When we had rain or snow, she strung a line in the front room and dried the clothes indoors. Otherwise they hung outside until dry. In winter they froze.

We had enough to eat, and yet I hungered. I starved for affection, for praise, for my mother’s attention. I grew up believing I was no different from the laundry. I was something for Mom to keep clean.

 

You loved me in your own

way, as well as you were able.

Over the years I have learned

the ways in which you loved.

 

You scarred me with your words,

with your hands, with objects,

but I no longer take it personally.

 

You did the best you could.

I am a map of invisible scars.

Your living legacy.

We were poor, but not destitute. We had a four-room house with electricity, and a kerosene stove for cooking and heating. No running water, no indoor toilet. The well was on the back porch off the kitchen, and Mom hauled up the water by hand as there was no pump. We had seven and a half acres of land, with woods, a creek, and a vegetable garden.

Most of the year, we ate vegetables and fruit, which Mom canned. Tomatoes, green beans, corn, pickles, peaches, wild blackberries, applesauce. We had potatoes year round. We ate meat when Dad shot it or caught it in the river. Occasionally we had chicken, but we needed our hens for laying. And we had only a few, so when we had chicken it was an extra rooster, or an old hen, which had to be stewed.

I wake up screaming …

just about every night.

I don’t remember a dream.

There’s never a noise, or

anyone in the room but

me.

I would call the doctor

but

I’m sleeping like a

baby.

I just need my

mama.

Mom fried everything in bacon grease, or boiled it with a bit of bacon grease. We ate gravy made from bacon grease, flour, and water. Then there was vinegar. All greens were doused in vinegar. Fish, swimming in vinegar. I liked the taste so much I would climb up to the kitchen cabinet and drink vinegar straight from the bottle.

We had navy beans, with a piece of bacon fat and cornbread, on Mondays because Monday was wash day. In the winter, Mom made creamed onions. Delicious white gravy made with milk, added to onions that had been boiled and drained. The onions were whole, the size of my small fist.

We didn’t go hungry, and we were fed the things Mom not only prepared, but grew from seeds, hoed the weeds, snapped the peas, stringed the beans, picked wild blackberries whose thorny bushes were full of chiggers and ticks, and ripened in August when the weather was the hottest and most humid. Tiny huckleberries grew in the woods. Mom picked them, stemmed them, and turned them into a cobbler, or a couple of jars of jelly. We ate every day. Three times, at the same times. I helped with the stemming, snapping, and stringing, but I never helped cook before Dad died, and I was five before I helped with the dishes.

My lifelong dream was to sign my

name in books I authored for

devoted readers. As if the

ritual would bestow the

lacking approval.

 

 I sign my books and I

still hunger.

 

May as well kiss a frog as to

trust in fantasy. Nothing can

replace a loving mother.

 

My mother may not have been nurturing, but she redeemed herself by being reliable, dependable, and no matter how bare the cupboard appeared to be, she could make us something to eat.

 

Sandra de Helen’s poetry and essays appears or is forthcoming in ROARThe Dandelion ReviewThe Medical Journal of AustraliaMom EggLavender Review: Night Issue, and other journals. Her chapbook “All This Remains to be Discovered” was published in May 2015 by McCorkle Ink.

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