Authors: Amelia Morris
Tags: #Autobiography / Women, #Autobiography / Culinary, #Cooking / Essays &, #Narratives, #Biography &
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“I feel that I have done everything, absolutely everything wrong, but perhaps something nice will happen anyway.”
—Jane Bowles, in a letter to Libby Holman,
Out in the World: Selected Letters of
Jane Bowles 1935–1970
he movers left less than twenty-four hours ago, so it’s not until I go to toast my Trader-Joe’s-brand Cheerios, Joe’s O’s—perhaps a classy acknowledgment of the fact that they’re blatantly ripping off Cheerios, right down to the bold yellow, oversize cereal box—that I remember I’d decided to put off cleaning out the refrigerator at our old apartment until tomorrow, and so the butter I need is sitting in our butter tray on the other side of town.
Not willing to give up so easily, I search through the previous day’s takeout bag and find eight individually wrapped packets of Darigold butter. I tear back the foil and pop the contents of one unit into the frying pan, turn the burner to low, and watch the molded fleur-de-lis dissolve.
Toasted Cheerios in butter is one of the few snacks I remember my mom preparing for my brother and me when we were kids. I’d all but forgotten about them until a few weeks before, when I was surprised to hear her toasting the O’s as we spoke on the phone; I’d assumed they were a treat she made only for us.
I’m making them now for the first time in my life, partly because I’m hungry for a snack, but mostly because my life is
in boxes; because I’ve never handled transitions well; and I’d love a moment of food-induced nostalgic clarity—something like what Proust’s narrator experiences after tasting the infamous lime-blossom-tea-soaked madeleine, during which “the other states of consciousness faded away.”
I add a solid layer of Joe’s O’s to the melted butter and begin to stir. After a few minutes, I’ve avoided burning them, but they’re not even toasting. I leave the heat on low and stir and wait. I stir and wait some more, and slowly but surely, a familiar nutty, buttery smell begins wafting up from the stove.
Within just a few more minutes, I find that my off-brand Cheerios have toasted up nicely. I slide them into a bowl and hold one between my thumb and forefinger. I pop it into my mouth, followed by another and another. I
remember the taste. But that’s not how I would have eaten them as a child. I pour out an entire handful and throw back my head as I raise my hand to my mouth. And that’s when the nostalgia hits me.
With a mouth full of buttered, toasted oats, I’m five years old, dressed in a loose-fitting unitard-esque pajama outfit. My mom is in a somewhat similar get-up—matching gray sweatpants and sweatshirt. Her short, dark blonde hair is pulled into the tiniest of ponytails with one of her colored cotton hair ties as she stands at the stove, stirring Cheerios in a hot pan. It’s a strangely quiet, calming memory. My older brother, Billy, isn’t anywhere around. My dad’s not there either. It’s just me and Mom, which is the exact opposite of another, much more dominant memory from that same year.
To recall that memory, I don’t need any food.
In that one, I’ve swapped the unitard for a
tard. It’s navy blue and paired with opaque navy-blue tights. And if my white
blonde hair hadn’t been sticking out of my headgear in Beetlejuician tufts or I hadn’t been wearing my older brother’s hand-me-down wrestling shoes, which are a few sizes too big for me, you would think I might be on my way to ballet class, or maybe a Halloween party. But the video makes it quite clear: I’m at a wrestling tournament.
Yes, I guess it helps that I have this specific memory recorded on an ancient VHS tape labeled “Wrestling 1987 (Amy wrestling),” which I recently went to the trouble of transferring to DVD in order to watch it for the first time as an adult, curious to see firsthand what had become nothing more to me than an occasional dinner-party anecdote.
But watching myself wrestle twenty-five years after the fact isn’t as fun as I thought it was going to be. Right before the match, I’m issued a red Velcro anklet, which the referee uses to direct points to the proper wrestler (e.g., two points, red). A green one goes on the ankle of my opponent, a little boy in a black singlet with red trim. Once the anklet is on, my five-year-old, round, pink face wears the expression of a little girl just now realizing what she’s gotten herself into.
A woman whose face we can’t see and whose gravelly voice and unrushed manner of speaking brings to mind so much of my rural Pennsylvanian hometown actually says to my dad: “Your daughter doesn’t look too enthused.”
My dad, perhaps suddenly realizing the same thing, calls out to me cheerfully, “Honey Bun!”
I turn and look at him/the camera with impatience, my young face telegraphing, “What do you want now, Dad?”
. To describe him as “a wrestling fanatic with a day job as an obstetrician/gynecologist” doesn’t quite cut it. His brand of fanaticism went so much further than the relatively
passive act of attending matches and collecting memorabilia. No, Dad’s love for wrestling required endeavors such as buying us a regulation mat for our basement, draining—via syringe—my brother’s teammates’ cauliflower ears in our kitchen, and journeying by train and rented van (Dad doesn’t fly) to Seattle, Washington, from our home in western Pennsylvania in order to attend—as spectators—the wrestling portion of the Goodwill Games held there in 1990.
The tape cuts away so that in the next scene, I’m standing on the mat facing my competitor. The referee blows his whistle and within five seconds, the little boy has taken me down. In another few seconds, I’m on my back.
“Get off your back, Honey Bun!” my dad yells. And I’m trying, but there’s something very sluggish about my movements. I seem dazed. This isn’t how it went when I’d practiced at home on our regulation mat.
For most of the struggle, the referee is thankfully blocking the camera, but for a brief moment, he moves out of the way and you can see my face. I’m still on my back, attempting to bridge by shoving my chin into my chest, my face all scrunched up and red. I’m on the verge of tears. My expression doesn’t say
, but rather a child thinking:
This is annoying. Get this kid off me!
And within a few more seconds, he will be. Because I’m pinned. The match is over.
I wish the story ended here, but it was a wrestling tournament, and for those of you who aren’t familiar with the sport, most tournaments are double-elimination. So, I have to lose one more time before I can hang up my leotard.
When I step out on the mat for my second match, there’s something notably different in my demeanor, in the way I hold myself. I know what I’m in for this time. This time, after I
shake hands with a little boy in orange and before the whistle blows, I squat down as low as I can, my butt inches from the mat, a position that makes it harder for my opponent to take me down. And this time, I don’t get taken down. Well, not immediately. This time, my opponent and I battle like true wrestlers, heads and arms interlocked, and instead of calling at me to get off my back, my dad is shouting, “Crossface! Crossface, Amy!” When I don’t seem to get it, he tries to be more specific: “Cross
In this match, my dad isn’t alone in his coaching. There’s another man, a stranger, shouting advice at me. My brother’s voice is there too, and at one point, he calls out, “Peterson roll!” with a laugh. A Peterson roll is an advanced move where, starting in the bottom position, you manage not only to sit up and roll out from underneath your opponent, but grab his leg in the process and wind up on top, getting back points. My dad laughs a little too. Of course, I can’t hear these laughs at the time, but as I watch now it’s clear that they’re making fun of my rudimentary mastery of the sport.
The match is a tight one. With time running out in the third and final period, I’m just one point behind. “Get mean, Amy! Get mean!” my dad starts yelling.
But I don’t. I lose 3–2, though it was so close that I don’t realize this until we’ve shaken hands and the referee raises the arm of the other kid. Once again, you can see it on my face.
Wha? I lost?
I do well enough that my present-day self momentarily wonders why it is that I quit. But we often underestimate what kids can pick up on. Even at age five, I had the sense that it was silly for me to wrestle. And beyond that, that even if I did well, I would never be able to compete with my brother, whose
budding talent would consume the family. (Eight years later, when Billy threw his competitor to the mat in a move that took him to a fourth place finish at the 1995 state championships, I jumped up with such excitement that I slammed my shin into the seat in front of me, giving myself a nasty bruise that would take weeks to go away, which is all to say: I was deeply invested in my brother’s wrestling career.)
After my second match, the tape cuts to one of Billy’s from that same tournament. And as early as the age of seven, you can tell he’s a natural. He’s smart, self-confident, and at ease on the mat. He’s also constantly looking up at the camera, at his coach, for advice—for approval.
And as I watch, for the first time I notice the electronic date in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen: 2-13-87.
It’s jarring. It suddenly dawns on me that in five short months, reality will hit me with a much bigger blow than the fact that I’m not a very good young lady wrestler.
People say you’ll understand when you’re older.
And for the most part, it’s true. Take the classic film
, which I first saw as a kid. When I watched it again in my twenties, I suddenly realized that what Penny wants is an
, and on top of that, there is this whole class-war element to it, e.g., Penny doesn’t have the money to pay for the abortion, and guess who is
going to help with that? Robbie, the Yale-bound waiter, who casually says, “Some people matter, some people don’t.” I also realize the amazing conflict that’s set up between Baby and her dad, who, in theory, is brimming with pride for his youngest, left-leaning, prospective
Peace Corps–joining daughter, until her open mind and open heart are turned toward Johnny, the blue-collar dance instructor, at which point, he is basically disgusted. (Also, though it may go without saying, adult me is surprised to realize that Patrick Swayze looks very good in his fitted black T-shirt and that I would definitely volunteer to practice the lift in a shallow lake with him, if, you know, I
help the Kellerman dance staff out of a jam.)
People say you’ll understand when you’re older.
But sometimes, you won’t.
In July 1987, five months after my wrestling debut, my dad’s mistress, Dolly, gave birth to my half sister, Margaret.
At the time, my parents were living in separate houses, though they weren’t yet divorced. They were also still working together in the same medical office in Meadville, our small town in western Pennsylvania; Dad as one of the two ob-gyns in town and Mom as one of the two pediatricians. In other words, if you gave birth to a baby at the local hospital—the Meadville Medical Center—my mom was going to know about it, one way or another.
But my mom didn’t find out about Margaret’s birth because my dad and Dolly decided to have the baby at home.
If you ask my dad about it, he will expound on the benefits of a home birth, especially if you have a licensed obstetrician-gynecologist there with you. But my dad was on call when Dolly went into labor—in fact, he was at the hospital delivering someone else’s baby. So, instead of a licensed obstetrician-gynecologist, my soon-to-be stepmom called her neighbor
friend over, and Dad came home in time to clean up. (“The placenta and umbilical cord were still attached,” he tells me years later.)
I remember Dolly handing me the new baby to hold with a soft, “This is your sister.” If we could play back the tape, I think my expression would be very similar to the one I had after losing my second wrestling match: head tilt, confusion.
At this point in the story, after the addition of this new family member, you would think Dad might be ready to confess that he’s been having an affair, that he’s gotten his mistress pregnant, and that actually, he became a father again just the other day.
But you would be wrong.
Instead, Dad asked Billy and me to keep our new little sister a secret.