My early relationship with food was clovers, blue moons, and rainbows magically delicious. I arrived in Yuma, Arizona like a box of Nerds—split in half to facilitate a shot of strawberry followed by a shot of grape. Bright pink in the face from screaming, the doctor flipped me over to reveal a deep purple birthmark covering two-thirds of my bum. Hours later, my pink and purple person was swaddled and riding through the desert heat to start the great adventure of life.
I often wonder what might have happened if my dad hadn’t left the Marines the following summer to start graduate school in Oregon. Would I have become a homegrown girl with roots in the southwestern soil? Would I have attended Arizona State and be posting pictures of my college sweetheart and our five kids on Instagram? Maybe I would have nurtured a simple reality and merrily soared through my twenties and thirties. Such alternate versions of our lives are conveniently filled with the best outcomes. When I look at my past rationally, however, I suspect I still would have fallen into thick cream along the way and struggled for years to churn my problems into deliciously sweet butter. Regardless, at six months I was whisked up north to commence a nomadic lifestyle in the homeland of Nike and Tillamook ice cream.
As a kid, I didn’t realize my dad was a student, experimenting on cadavers by day and working at a funeral home by night to make ends meet. I’d naively inform school teachers he was unemployed and, when I dislocated my shoulder in the backyard, I hollered for my mom to take me to see a real doctor. This tantrum was surprisingly indulged, and, hours later, I was happily riding home with a readjusted shoulder and a cherry Popsicle. Being a mini American in the ‘80s was the bomb. The rules were simple: come home before dark, don’t take candy from strangers (especially those sporting mustaches), and eat the food on your plate. I sustained low expectations regarding the plate I was meant to polish. Meals at our house met the Betty Crocker cheap and cheerful standard. Parmesan clumps in green cans spruced-up spaghetti, vegetables meant canned corn or green beans, and bread crumbs stuck to cheddar cheese uplifted the saddest of casseroles. While I disliked staring down a Campbell's split pea or black bean soup on occasion, I accepted wholesome dinners as my childhood cross to bear.
With my dad in school and three kids to feed, the impact of a sale on canned soups or any packaged foods was felt throughout the household. There was the winter we stocked our freezer with generic chocolate puddings that, once partially thawed, created a layer of skin on top I’d scrape off before plunging in my spoon. There was also the winter where we stored a crate of Captain Crunch’s Christmas Crunch in closets and under beds due to a holiday special. In this case, I was awestruck by my two older brothers’ creation of “swamp mug”. Smashing crunch berries and milk together in the bottom of our bowls, we cheerfully ate our way through a red and green slog into the spring. And then there were the winters we’d sit down to a “Pop! Hiss!” medley at dinner as my mom opened a jar of peaches, bobbing around in their juices like animals trapped in formaldehyde.
Raised in a Latter Day Saint (Mormon) household, my mom gleefully took on board the fruit preservation aspect of our pioneer heritage. Like a Miss Chiquita, but without the Latina flair, she’d boil sugar and spices, simmer berries into syrupy substances, and roll out miles of fruit leather. Although her dried and canned selections were impressive, the aromas of pies, crumb bars, and other fruity bombshells browning in the oven filled my heart with delight. During summer holidays, I became an industrious Strawberry Shortcake, plucking thousands of berries in the wild before dusting their bodies with sugar in our Berry Bitty Cafe. Adhering to the “one for me, one for the pail” policy as I laced my way through strawberry fields, I’d proudly return home scratched, stained, and burnt like Strawberry Crisp.
By August, I was poised for the ultimate challenge in U-Picking: blackberries. I don’t mean the pathetic, six-ounce cartons sold in stores for $5.95! I mean massive amethyst beauties, bursting with flavor after reaching their juice capacity in the hot sun. While local bushes on our poor side of town were plentiful, my main employment occurred at my grandparents’ house, five hours north across the Canadian border.
Sticking rakes, gloves, and a rickety ladder out the back of my grandparents’ car, we’d drive past the outskirts of town and into an enchanted forest of bushes overloaded with gems. Readjusting my baseball cap, I’d race out of the car with my pail swinging on my arm, determined to let no berry in sight shrivel and die. My mom tackled the most dangerous work, leaning our ladder against a sturdy bush and stepping up with a rake in hand to reach the loftiest branches. I understood her willingness to risk her life for the best of the season as I stripped low hanging boughs of heavy clusters, immune to sharp thorns that drew blood beneath the surface of my clothes. Once our pails were filled beyond capacity, we’d return home for my grandpa and I to sift through hordes of scrubbed up beauties in preparation of their final act. My grandpa always opted for a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream overloaded with berries. I preferred to wait as my gram blended cream and berries together into a lavender milkshake. Freshly showered and sucking ice-cold berry bits on their porch, life was unabashedly perfect.
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Winter arrives early in Oregon. Every October 31st, I’d race out the door with my witch costume barely fitting over my parka to scour the neighborhood for SweeTARTS, Laffy Taffys and bite-size Butterfingers. Channeling the Cheshire Cat, I’d exhale circles of breath high into the darkness while keeping an eye out for early snowflakes. Inevitably, thick flakes appeared ahead of Turkey Trots and I’d rush the season by decking our halls with red garlands and festive window stickers. My mom’s canning skills are impressive, but it’s baking where the women in our family triumph, and Christmas was the coup de gras. What our holiday parties lacked in spiked punch my mother compensated for with towers of cookies and bars highlighting the season’s finest fillings, frostings, whipped creams, crusts, and glazes. I gazed in admiration as my mom transformed into a Christmas angel on these nights, shining in glittery dresses and high heels as she rushed to fill this glass and replace that tray of treats. As Andy Williams clicked off on our cassette player and my dad hunted down rogue scarves and coats, I’d watch from the window as my mom embraced departing guests who rushed into the cold moonlight with a rosy, sugary glow. She was the hostess of my dreams and I planned to someday smell, look, and act exactly like her.
Most years, we’d devour scads of my mom’s bakes before driving up the coast to gobble-up my gram’s holiday desserts. With bars and cookies dancing in our heads, we’d cram into Rosie, our loyal station wagon, and I’d sing “Over the River and Through the Woods” on repeat, until an older brother ordered me to cut it out. It wasn’t a sleigh, but I felt the enchantment of a winter wonderland as whirling snowflakes landed on my window. Once we arrived, I’d rush up the steps in pursuit of grandparent kisses and my gram’s Royal Dansk tin that only appeared at Christmas. This was the tin filled with two layers of butter cookies, snugly layered in white, ruffled sleeves. I didn’t realize every cookie—regardless of shape— was made of the exact same dough; consequently, I felt certain the pretzel variety were the tastiest.
Although I flaunted an unbridled love of desserts, I wasn’t blind to bodies and weight. On the contrary, I was frightened by fatness and shied away from chubby family friends who seemed intent on acquiring hugs from small girls. For the time being, however, even without a pair of LA Gear kicks to up my four square swagger, I was a happy and uninhibited superstar. With a sporty side matching a solid set of brains, I quickly realized there are gold stars (rewards and prizes) for being the best, and that I could reach my ponytail high above this bar. Staring at sparkly stars one chilly summer night as my dad pointed out the Big and Little Dippers, my heart was struck by their glorious perfection. I subconsciously resolved to shine bright like a diamond in every facet of life as a perfect daughter, a perfect sister, a perfect student, a perfect pianist, and, someday, a perfect hostess in glitzy dresses and high heels.
Self-Love Gem: See with childhood eyes
As small children we see the world as a wondrous and beautiful place. As we grow older and encounter judgements and stings, however, many of us develop an inner voice that leaks fear into our minds and pushes our essence—our true self—to the fridges. We become stuck in a war with our critic for years, attempting to manifest strength while often feeling like a fraud who is undeserving of Kudos or happiness. Thankfully, with understanding and support (as outlined in the following chapters) we can release our inner critic to once more see the world through our joyful, childhood eyes.