My father’s job as a railroad fireman and later as an engineer often meant that he couldn’t eat dinner with us. My younger brother and I would forward to evening meals of pancakes doused with butter and warm maple syrup when Dad wasn’t there. But when Dad was home, meat and potatoes needed to be on the table. His long hours as a fireman was a labor intensive job on those old steam engines, loading shovel after shovel of coal into the coal burner that produced the steam that kept the huge black engines going.
Our meals were everyday 1950s fare: scalloped potatoes, ham, canned peas were common. Dad’s rule was that my brother and I clean our plates: “Children are starving in China,” he’d say between mouthfuls of mushy, overcooked peas.
I never did understand the relationship between clean plates and starving kids in China until years later. I learned as the result of my ninth grade English teacher’s assignment to interview a parent, that my father was in Paris during the liberation. He told me in that interview–very briefly–about giving his USO-issued chocolate bars to hollow-eyed children who stood alongside Parisian streets and stared at the soldiers in the US Army trucks who pushed through rubble of what used to be their homes.
Those dinners with the potatoes and ham did not go well with me. I hated the fat on those thick, marbled ham slices. No matter how long I chewed, they stuck in my throat like fibrous hemp. Again I heard the threat: “Eat that! There are kids starving in China!”
“Then send it to them,” was my belligerent reply.
He slammed his fork down onto his plate. My milk sloshed out of my glass as he jumped up, reached across the table, and slapped me. “Don’t you ever let me hear you say that again!” he bellowed.
“Are you sure you want to publish these pieces?” a friend asked over coffee the other day. “Aren’t you worried that family members might resent these stories going public?”
I recalled a writers’ conference I attended a few months ago. Author Patricia Hampl was the keynote speaker to whom I had asked a similar question. Her response struck me as wise and honest: “These are your stories. This is how you remember them,” she said.
The room was filled with writers, all of whom nodded in somber agreement. It wasn’t just me who found comfort–and courage–in her words.