Spinach and Cake

Posted: April 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

As I get older, memories of my childhood grow fuzzier as the not so important things shove off to make room for new memories. Some things remain indellible–the smell of tan bark during recess, the time my fifth grade class sailed a ship in the San Francisco bay overnight, and spinach. I think long after all the other memories become phantoms that elude my grasp, there will always be spinach.

The time I spent with my mom in my youth was tough. She was young and didn’t make much money. Time with my dad, by comparison, seemed like a perpetual amusement park until the insidiousness of alcoholism poisoned it. But with mom, things got tight, like the night with the spinach.

Despite the lack of funds, my  mother did her best to make sure that I ate a balanced dinner every night–meats, starches, and veggies. I can’t imagine the challenges she faced back then, but I sometimes wonder how much she sacrificed to make sure that I had a vegetable every night. Still, despite her sacrifices, it could get difficult. On one night, things were so tight, that the only vegetable in the house was a can full of spinach.

I don’t remember the rest of that meal. It wasn’t important. What I remember was that there was a moment when my mom cooked up this can of spinach, and we sat down at the table together, just the two of us. And she made it clear that we had to get through this can of spinach; we would do it together. It was awful, so awful that at the first taste I remember crying. I remember thinking that eating anything was better than this. Eating nothing might be better than this sickly green sludge I was being forced to shove down my gullet. But mom was right there with me, matching every putrid bite. I remember her face was streaked with tears, and back then I thought it was from the horrible taste. Now, I realize those tears came from a different place entirely.

Decades have passed. I grew up, joined the military, had kids, got out of the military, split up with my wife, and here I am now. I have two beautiful daughters and we make the best of it from my one bedroom apartment; they sleep with their mother, but they live with me. And we do all right. I make a decent amount of money, and being an employee of the federal government is as good as it gets when it comes to job security.

But then sequestration happened in congress. Because a handful of people in Washington DC refuse to compromise, I am one of those employees that could potentially be furloughed, losing 20% of my paycheck for upwards of six months. I’m not happy about this. I’ve even stressed out about this. But I kept calm, looked at where we had to trim sails, strategized the eventuality of such a severe pay cut, and I sat down to have a painful conversation with my daughters.

Not that I believe in being blessed, but blessed seems the only word I could use to describe how I felt having that conversation with the girls. When I told them things would be tight, that we would have to postpone a planned weekend at Great Wolf Lodge, that we wouldn’t be eating out anymore, when I told them this they didn’t cry or complain or do anything but smile and tell me, “It’s okay, Daddy, we’ll help you save money!”

I buy my bread at a discount store; it’s one of the things I’ve started doing to help save money. On our last trip, it was a week before my younger daughter’s seventh birthday. As we filled our cart with loaves of bread, we came across a table stacked high with cakes. My daughter looked at them and I asked her if she would like any of those cakes for her birthday.

“No, Daddy, I don’t really want any,” she said in her small and bright voice.

A child turning down a birthday cake? Impossible, I thought to myself. “Why not, sweetie?”

“Because you need to save money so you don’t need to get a cake for me.”

My vision went all swimmy as I carted our bread over to the cashier, and I had to turn away as I was rung up so other grown ups wouldn’t see me crying. I understood the tears my mother shed all those years ago when we ate spinach. Those are the tears that are shed from the pain of not being able to give your child everything in the world that you think they deserve, the pain of feeling inadequate, that you’re trying your best and that should be enough. But also, at least for me, those tears came from the grace of a child showing maturity and understanding and compassion beyond her years.

In the end, I bought my little seven year old a cake, the same cake she ogled in the bread store. I iced it myself, and she blew out candles. I piled her plate high with ice cream and cake, which she then did not touch because she is my little girl and was too busy playing with her presents to care.

  1. Kayla Muller says:

    Love you

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