As a child, we ate what was put on the dinner table or else. I hate cottage cheese. I don’t like it today and I didn’t like it as a child. It’s not as though I hadn’t tried it … but I literally gag when attempting to swallow it. My mother knew this, but one day she had put oranges (or some other type of fruit) and cool whip in it and wanted me to try it again. I guess, in her mind, the surprise ingredients magically transformed it into something other than what it was … cottage cheese with some shit mixed into it. I refused. Mind you, I did not break the what-goes-on-your-plate rule. Referencing that right afforded to me under this rule, I felt justified in declining to partake of this new concoction, now being marketed as so good “… you won’t even taste the cottage cheese.” An argument I felt was pretty weak, as cottage cheese was, after all, the main ingredient and what would be the point if I couldn’t taste it. Why not just give me an orange? But my mother invoked the infamous I’m-the-parent rule and proceeded to put one huge helping onto my plate. Looking back on it now, I’m sure it was a tablespoon or two, but at the time it might as well have been a shovel.
We locked eyes in silence for a moment. This was a delicate situation. I was old enough to recognize that this could easily evolve into a situation resulting in physical discipline. I decided to try logical reasoning. “… but I didn’t put that on my plate.” To which the response was, “… I don’t care. You’re going to finish what’s on your plate.” Obviously, this was an abuse of power. However, arguing was not going to be an effective response. Instead, I opted for the stall tactic. I silently began eating everything else on the plate, careful not to allow anything to touch the pile of cottage cheese that seemed to slowly expand as the pile of goo settled. I remember thinking that it reminded me of the movie The Blob. My mother, gave it a few moments but I could feel those eyes staring me down from across the table. “… start eating Mr.” It was said with a this-is-going-to-happen lightness. I tried being literal in my response. “I am eating.” Her voice grew lower and she enunciated every word. “… the cottage cheese.”
Like that 10th round in Rocky, where Sly lands a series of punches to Apollo’s ribs and he returns to the corner and Mickey says “ya hurt ‘em Rock.” I knew I was starting to strike a nerve. I continued to eat, but now each bite more slowly than the last. To the body Rock, to the body! My father and sister had both finished and had left the table. My mother cleared the table and stacked the plates for washing, as this was one of the chores my sister and I had. I sat alone with nothing on the table but my plate and a puddle of cottage cheese. My mother, arms crossed, stood at the kitchen sink watching me. “Gary Michael … you’re going to sit there until you clean that plate!” Then she stormed into the living room with my father.
I was really running out of options. I had already been caught on previous occasions scrapping the plate into the garbage, covering up the leftovers with napkins, even trading items with things my sister didn’t like, so none of these were an option. The body Rock, the body! I would wear here her down. I placed the fork down and sat in silence, feet crossed and swinging under the chair.
I’m not sure how long I sat there. Honestly, I was becoming pretty bored. I took the fork and began to re-pile the goo. Maybe I could stack it high enough to make it look like I had actually tried it. Then I slid the fork under the bottom of the pile and it stood outright like it was pushed under a piece of clay. I started to shake my head. This stuff is absolutely ….
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her. She was standing right beside me. There is no doubt about it, back in the day, I would have likened my mother to a panther … quiet, ready pounce without warning and capable of delivering a lethal blow. While pregnant with me, she went through a locked door, complete with dresser in front, at my grandmother’s house to get at my uncle Steven. When provoked, she was a formidable opponent and I was like a baby deer standing in a wide open meadow. There was no place to run and even had I tried, the king of our jungle was in the next room. There would be no escape.
Have you ever seen the original Battlestar Galactic? They used to have robots with one red eye that went back and forth across their heads. This was my mother’s tell-tale sign. When she was mad, and I mean really mad, those eyes would move left to right, right to left, left to right, so fast you couldn’t look her in the eye. It was hypnotic. Sometimes, I wonder if I really had Glaucoma as a child, maybe I just stared too long in those eyes … Hhhmm, My dad had a bad eye also. Rocky even had a bad eye. Years later I would discover a method to combat that look, but that’s a story unto itself. But, at this point in time, to put it bluntly, I was scared shitless. I didn’t know where to look. One of those little paws could spring out without notice … a right hook to the head … a left hook to head. And she was standing on the right side of me … the side I had limited vision on. I’ll let you determine if that was a coincidence or not.
“You put that fork … in your mouth … right now … or else!” Awe shit, the or else. This had a ripple effect as I could hear the rumblings coming from living the room. Dad had also heard the or else … the outcome was now determined. I had pushed her to the line and another word would lead to a beating. She had timed this perfectly, as the fork was now piled high with cottage cheese!
Do it quick Gary … do it quick! I’d like to say that I knowingly twitched my hand to knock off the top half of the pile, but in reality, I think I was trembling. I stuffed the fork in my mouth and swallowed. My eyes began to water. I was dry heaving. I pushed the chair back from the table and bent over waiting for diner to come back up onto the kitchen floor. Now had this been a performance, it would have been Oscar worthy. But I was serious. I swallowed again and again. Looked up and pleaded, “ … I can’t eat this … “ “… Go to your room!” Although I had lost the battle, I did get out of dishes that night. On hind sight, Rocky also lost the first fight.
Now. Let’s examine a more recent event.
Shannon and I have the family over for dinner and, in typical Shannon fashion, she’d spent hours prepping for dinner and cooking. We sit down at the table and the grandchildren are sitting with us … empty plates. “Anthony do want … how about … just try it … how about if I … “ Now inside, I’m thinking “oohhh, I can’t wait to see this!” I walk into the kitchen to bring another dish out to the table. In walks Judy and my mother. “Shannon, do you have any can Spaghetti-o’s for the kids?”
Well, I must have looked like a character in a Jim Carey movie because my jaw was locked open and my remaining good eye almost popped out of my head. “No, I’m sorry Mary we don’t … “ I think Steven might have overheard this as it was shortly after that he started experiencing heart problems. They made them something other than everything else available on the table! Mind you this entire conversation with the kids took place in the time I went from the dining room to the kitchen.
Now wait … it gets better. A couple of days later, my mother pulls into the drive way. No special occasion. No family gathering or anything like that. I open the front door she’s holding a grocery bag with cans of Chef Boyardee “for next time the kids are over”. Honestly, I can’t remember the rest of the conversation because was suffering from some sort of physical reaction brought on by total disbelief, which I was still reeling from the next night. I came upstairs, house full of food, went right for the Chef Boyardee and put it in the microwave. I didn’t even like it, but I “sat right there until my plate was clean.”
Oh, and this is by no means restricted to Judy’s kids. I have seen this type of symptom afflict grandparents and parents alike. Take a moment to ponder if this first symptom of the affliction can be seen in your families.
 Or else: The cautionary phrase once used by an adult to a child pertaining to the inevitable distribution of punishment should a given behavior continue.
 What Goes On Your Plate Rule: This was one of the initial rights granted in our family constitution between parent and child that granted immunity from having to eat something if you did not put it on your plate.
 I’m the Parent Rule: Although not part of the original parent-child constitution, this often invoked amendment allowed the parent to revoke any and all rights guaranteed in the our agreement “as long as I lived under their roof”.
 Physical discipline: An effective method of exerting physical punishment as a form of payment for direct parental disobedience. A topic covered in further detail in the future.
 Chores: A word once used to denote a task performed by a young person in which the expectation was that they would actually help around the house, often times without financial gain.
 Gary Michael: In our family, the use of the middle name was meant to inflect the “I’m serious” emotion with actually saying it.