So regular blog readers, this is sort of writing practice for me.  I have just acquired a literary agent and I am working on a memoir.  Not exactly the book I was planning but I am overjoyed by the opportunity.  This wouldn’t go the book, as its subject matter doesn’t pertain to what I am basing the book on.  But this was one of my most popular stories that I performed on stage and I am trying to adapt my style more for the page rather than a stage.  They are after all two totally different mediums.  I hope you like it.  I will probably continue to edit it, as that is what I do. 🙂 

English: A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, m...

One of the reasons I have a complicated relationship with the religion of my youth is that without it, I probably wouldn’t be here.   My parents practiced the 1970’s Catholic version of family planning, most of which consisted of prayer.   My mother didn’t have four children as much as she had a litter.  She basically had two sets of Irish twins.  We weren’t exactly 12 months apart but our births were so close that she had all four of her children in five years.  Having us so close together definitely affected her parenting style–which would be described as passionate, dedicated but foggy.  She would usually get the big picture as we were all clothed, fed and supervised but tended to miss small things.  She was constantly calling each of us by the wrong name, a problem made more difficult by naming us all names that started with the letter J.  And she wouldn’t notice fairly obvious problems.   I wasn’t diagnosed with my lifelong asthma until I was an adult, my sister went an entire day with a broken arm until someone decided to take her to the doctor, and my brothers would come in scraped and bloodied from fights and rough housing and she wouldn’t blink.  We rarely arrived to sporting events or school functions on time and sometimes she would completely forget about them.  Her organizational style was ambitious but her plans never really worked out, it was if she was an architect without a contractor.  She would painstakingly go through the linen closet making labels for each shelf in her beautiful perfect handwriting.

One shelf would say

“Fitted sheets”

And another

“Pillowcases”

The problem was that the shelf labels didn’t correspond to their contents.  Instead of fitted sheets and pillowcases the shelves were full of random items such as 10-year-old sunscreen bottles, the occasional cloth diaper and strange unknown medical devices that I suspect were left over from her multiple pregnancies.  The sheets themselves were all mix-matched and thrown in one on top of each other in great heaps.  Some were so threadbare you could see your hand through them.  It wasn’t that she didn’t care; she was simply in over her head.  My father worked long hours as an auto mechanic and when he got home planted himself in a recliner to watch non-stop television programs while engulfing copious amounts of peanuts and beer. His parenting style was to scream and threaten in loud outbursts and then go right back to watching television.  Not exactly the most effective way to manage children, as all it did was to make us fear him and avoid him at all costs. And children tend to mirror their parents behavior.  So when fighting with each other we tended to scream and terrorize just as we had seen our father do.  It was a small three bedroom home full of four maniacs acting more like a pack of wild dogs than children.  So given this environment, a lot got overlooked.

At the age of nine I got hit with some bad news.  Our dentist informed my parents, that I not only needed braces but serious orthodontist work.  I had inherited the under bite that ran through nearly all the females on my father’s side of the family.  If I didn’t get my bite fixed soon, I was going to need headgear, and not just the kind of headgear worn at night, but the kind of humiliating soul crushing headgear that is worn all day long.  He was so dramatic in his warning that he made it seem that braces weren’t an option, but they were a medical necessity. If they weren’t cemented on my nine-year-old teeth I might as well just resign myself to a life of working as a freak at a sideshow attraction.   X-rays were slapped on lighted screens, hushed tones and dramatic voices used to illustrate his point.  My favorite example was the plaster model cast of my mouth.  He used this for to the most terrifying effect.  When he made the teeth go up and down, with an under bite that I suspect he exaggerated, he was telling my parents with this little puppet show—your daughter’s a monster.   Get this girl braces or else.

I grew fast and early as a kid and had lost all of my baby teeth by age nine, so there would be no extractions involved.  But because of my father’s health plan, they were only going to cover partial braces for the first year and then the rest would follow.  Partial braces might sound better but they were a horror show.  The braces were attached to only my front and back teeth leaving a vulnerable wire connecting everything.  Eating anything hard or tough would cause the wire to shift often cutting into the back of my mouth and the inside of my cheek.

So knowing this was a problem certain foods were to be avoided.  My orthodontist even had a “Tree of Forbidden Foods” in his office.  It was an actual miniature Christmas tree adorned with plastic examples of all of the items a kid with braces was supposed to avoid.  Apples were prominently displayed.  My mother completely forgot about this and would just give me the same sad lunch she gave all of my siblings for most of our childhoods–A peanut butter and jelly sandwich with an apple in a paper bag.  The bread was the extremely inexpensive kind bought from a discount grocery store.  We would buy it in bulk and throw it into an ancient electricity guzzling deep freeze in our basement.  Throwing one in on top of the other caused the loaves to become smashed and deformed.  The peanut butter came out of a huge bucket (sometimes government issued) and the jelly was never better than store brand.  Every day the weight of the apple in our lunch bag would cause the bread to flatten and the jelly to seep through the sides.   The apples were the cheapest kind available, probably intended for applesauce, not to be fed individually to children.  For years I had that same pathetic lunch, sometimes she would mix it up and I might get pickle loaf or liverwurst with mustard but it was nearly the same thing every single day.

My Catholic school had a very Dickens like quality to it.  We had one grade per class and everything was rundown and barebones.  Our lunchroom was the basement of the church and we sat at long dark brown wooden tables with tired old matching benches.  We were each given a half carton of milk, but the rest of our lunch was up to our parents.

So it was my smashed and deformed sandwich with a low-grade apple next to lunches that a child could only dream of eating–hard-boiled eggs, Capri Sun juices, ham and cheese sandwiches made with light fluffy wonder bread, little tins of pudding or canned fruit and the two items I hardly ever ate as a child because they were deemed too expensive, yogurt and seedless grapes.  Even now the thought of both of them send me into a dizziness of expectation yet I still rarely buy them because they are after all expensive.

So when surrounded with bounties like these, I couldn’t even give my lunch away, and since I couldn’t eat the apple without pain and injury, I had to throw it away.  One day while discarding my apple, the school janitor caught me in the act.  He was a large creepy looking man named Mr. Cooper who had a sheen of serial killer about him.  He was tall with fuzzy red hair that only covered part of his scalp, it was messy and seemed to grow in patches.  His belly was enormous and stuck out so much that it was his most prominent feature.  He wore this one piece blue uniform that always seemed to have stains of unknown origin down the front of it and was two sizes too big.  Every day it was always the same uniform but with different stains. Mr. Cooper looked like an escaped hillbilly convict and he smelled like old socks and stale beer.  And he was constantly sweating.  He would sweat even when it was cold outside–we were all scared of him.  When he discovered my crime of tossing the apple he immediately sent me to the principal.

Every kid in elementary school has a principal, but having your priest as your principal is an entirely different matter.  If your principal is your priest and your priest is God then your principal becomes GOD.  My principal was the pastor, or head priest of our entire parish. Father Hogan was a controversial figure.  Father Hogan was a bit of an egotist and refused pretty much all criticism, not that he got that much.  People tended to love or hate him, and I will admit he scared me more than Mr. Cooper.  It wasn’t any one specific thing he just had the aura of a self-important sadist.  It was all about Father Hogan, all the time.  He was bald with a pleasant face, but he suffered from the skin disorder psoriasis and his treatment included lying under sun lamps, so he was constantly sunburned.  His face was usually a bright red, which gave him a slight demonic quality.  I have a photo from my first communion where Father Hogan is half-embracing me, and I remember at the time it was taken I wanted to run away from him as fast as possible.  He was also known to have a penchant for nice cars and fancy vacations, which seemed odd for a priest but as my mother said.

“What else is he going to spend his money on?”

And I guess she had a point.  An example of his inflated ego was in how he treated the school intercom system.  It wasn’t enough that any time he entered a classroom we were supposed to jump up at attention and immediately pronounce in unison.

“Good Morning Father Hogan”

But he used the intercom system throughout the day at random to check in on the teachers.  I think he did it just to strike fear into our hearts

“Good Morning Class!  It’s Father Hogan I hope everything is going well.  God Bless you”

The intercom hand of God even freaked the teachers out.

It was well-known that Father Hogan had a yard stick on the wall of his office and did not see anything wrong with “doing what needed to be done” to anyone foolish enough to force him to use it.  The Tales were wondrous, everything from slaps across the back of the hand to full beatings.  I never knew anyone to personally experience it, but I didn’t want to find out.  I was so freaked out by the tales that I was scared to go to the office even when I was sick.

My trial.  I remember being in the tiny beige office, looking at the yardstick on the wall and both Father Hogan and Mr. Cooper behind the desk.  I was in a large wooden chair and even though I was big for my age, my feet barely touched the floor.   Father Hogan began to scold me on being wasteful, selfish and basically a horrible person.  I had indeed thrown out my apple into the garbage, a perfectly good apple that my working class parents had spent their hard-earned money to buy, the apple that starving children everywhere could be using as nourishment, the apple –  my sin MUCH LIKE EVE revealed.  The truth was I actually felt bad about throwing it away.  I was fully indoctrinated the bloodied and tortured Jesus Christ on the crucifix that hung on the wall behind Father Hogan, scared the living hell out of me and I did not want to get on his bad side.

My punishment.  After berating me for several minutes it was decided what was to be done.  My own personal witch trial of sorts, not only was I going to serve penance for my sins, but I was going to do it publicly.  The large plastic 50 gallon garbage can was dragged out to the corner of the playground/parking lot.  And I was forced outside in front of the other kids during recess to dig into the garbage, find the apple and eat it. I remember trying to plead my case, braces, bleeding gums, pain, not a good idea to eat food from the garbage, but all to no avail. I think they showed some mercy because it didn’t take long to find the apple, I think they must have placed it near the top.

I ate the apple.  Crying throughout as it caused my braces to get caked up and scrape against my gums and bleed, the wire shifting and cutting into the back of my mouth.   The adults just stood there staring at me in disgust.  Hadn’t any of these losers ever seen a kid with braces?  Didn’t they know about the Tree of Forbidden Foods?  I think I had bits of apple in my braces for weeks.  The rest of the kids just stood there frozen.  No one laughed or made the situation worse for me, I think they were traumatized.   When it was done we all went back to class and it was never brought up again.

Now you would think after telling my mother of the apple incident that she might call up the school and complain, or that she would at least try to plead my case with Father Hogan.  Or at least apologize.  I didn’t pack my lunch, she had.  But my mother has always had a difficult time admit fault on anything and she never went against a priest so after a long pause she said simply.

“Julie you should have given the apple away instead of throwing it away”.

And then she just sort of walked away. That was it.  I was publicly humiliated, could have damaged my braces, bleeding, in tears and that was it.  My mother couldn’t stand up to the priest, as at least in our family as in most Catholic families the priest was an extension of God and you just didn’t question a priest.  It was to be the beginning of my loss of faith in the church.  How could I take them seriously after blatant child abuse was not only condoned, but turned into a spectator sport?  I realized that day that adults can be far worse than children.  I had always looked up to adults thinking they had all the answers and they would do the right thing.  But after that day, I discovered the janitor was a petty thug, my priest was vicious and cruel and my mother could inadvertently frame me for a crime.

Eventually my mother forgot about the apple incident entirely and instead of giving me oranges in my lunch the apples came back.  I became an expert at throwing them away, almost ninja like in my techniques.  I got so skilled, I could get rid of them before entering the school building.  For months, flocks of birds and squirrels survived on my discarded fruit.  I don’t blame my mother though, like I said, she had a lot to worry about.  If anything the whole incident taught me that sometimes logic won’t win out, and that it is sometimes better to hide an injustice all together rather than pleading with those who could care less about your plight.  And strangely my situation was the opposite of eve, instead of eating the apple I threw it away yet it still destroyed my innocence.  Adults could be worse than children, I would never look up at them in the same way again.

We were eventually transferred to public school with its fancy luxuries like carpeting, brightly painted walls, art and music classes, playgrounds with actual playground equipment and a hot school lunch program where everyone ate the same lunch and everyone was happy.

2 comments on “The Tree of Forbidden Foods

  1. Anders

    The interiors you describe in this memoir chapter seem as if they took place half a century ago, like the fifties or sixties but from the information about the family planning I’m thinking late seventies or early eighties. Personally I haven’t even been close to a Catholic school never mind attending one. For that I’m grateful. The episode is an account of something I would call evil, either by omission or commission most of it done implicitly or explicitly in the name of God. The amount of evil is contained within the boundaries of ordinary life. The adults behavior it think is prosecutable even in the time, when it happened. No one would ever take anything like this to court, and if it was, a jury would decide that it was the child that brought it on her self. I think you bring to our attention the kind of unkind that makes the world what it is. Much worse than it has to be. By writing this I’m only echoing your sentence.
    ” If anything the whole incident taught me that sometimes logic won’t win out, and that it is sometimes better to hide an injustice all together rather than pleading with those who could care less about your plight. ” This episode got my attention. Good work.

    1. julietjeske

      My school was stuck in the 1950’s even though I went there from 1980-1984 when we all switched to public school. My mother switched us because my brother had dyslexia and they weren’t doing anything about it. So thankfully we only had to go there for afterschool religious classes once a week or so, in order to get confirmed. I had totally blocked out this incident until was in a writing class and it all came back. When I have performed this it is darkly funny until the end.

      This wouldn’t go in the book because the book is about my marriage to a gay clown, but my agent said I should work on making my stuff less bare bones and more visually descriptive, so this was my attempt! When you write for the stage everything is quick and to the point, you can act stuff rather than telling it, so it is a totally different medium. And Father Hogan was notorious. He wasn’t a molester though, that was another priest who refused to admit guilt and caused the whole thing to go to trial some 20 years later. He was convicted and I assume in prison somewhere. What was evil about the pedophile other than his abuse is that he fought the charges, which just made everything so much harder for the families involved. I think it would be interesting to do a book about people and their loss of faith. We tend to glorify religion in this country but for many of us there is such a dark side to it. I can say I am much happier as an agnostic than as a Catholic!

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