A long time ago, my Step-Dad said to me, “You won’t be able to keep eating like that when you get older.”
At the time, it pissed me off. I was like, What does he know? Who is he to tell me how I can and can’t eat?
And, in point of fact, there were a lot of things he didn’t know — which, if we’re really honest with ourselves, is pretty normal even for parents who live with their kids, and my Step-Dad wasn’t living with us yet at the time (in fact, he wasn’t even officially my Step-Dad yet, though he’d been in my life for several years by then). Kids are independent beings — the more so they older they get — and while it’s important to know the important stuff, it’s impossible to know all the stuff.
If I remember correctly, I was working my way through an entire stack of Saltine crackers, rabbit- (or possibly typewriter-)style: gnawing my way horizontally across the cracker, then back the other way, until each cracker was gone.
Basically that’s what I lived on during the day — Saltines, ramen noodles, Chunky soup, sometimes hot dogs, the occasional grilled cheese sandwich(1).
- True story: it took me until I was like 18 to figure out that if you put butter in the pan or on the outside of the bread, your grilled cheese sandwich will taste a bazillion times better. I persisted in not understanding this even though I regularly ordered clam rolls or hot dogs at Friendly’s largely because I loved what they did with the buns. Apparently, I imagined that this was some kind of unknowable Restaurant Magic. Seriously, childhood self: WTF?
I mean this, by the way, more or less literally. This was during a long stretch (read: my entire life) during which I found it nearly impossible to fall asleep before 2 AM and thus rarely woke up with enough time to eat breakfast; during which, to compound matters, I found most of the offerings of my school’s cafeteria singularly inedible (okay: in fact, I had never found school cafeteria food at all edible). Had it not been for the deli cart that sold little sandwiches on Kaiser rolls, I would have eaten literally nothing during any given school day.
So, basically, I would come home and shove Saltines (or ramen, or Chunky soup, or hot dogs, or… and almost always or rather than and, by the way) into my face because I was more or less starving. But, of course, my Step-Dad didn’t know that. He came from a world in which kids eat breakfast at home and lunch at school and maybe a snack in the afternoon. He had no way of knowing that one of those things wasn’t happening at all and the other was happening, but inadequately.
And I had no way of explaining any of this, because it was all just normal to me. I didn’t think there was anything weird about the fact that I never managed to fall asleep before 2 AM, for example — that’s just how it had always been. Your own normal is your own normal, and as a kid it’s not always easy to tell when your normal, like, maybe isn’t.
Normal, that is. It’s still yours.
Anyway. I digress.
So, basically my immediate response, because I’m a hot-headed little prick and frankly it tends to be my go-to, was anger. I did not welcome what felt like unfair and undue criticism from someone who still, at the time, seemed like an interloper(2).
- This wasn’t, by the way, his fault: I think he did a very reasonable job, under the circumstances, trying to integrate into a family in which it is both fair and actually pretty accurate to say that the kids had more or less been raised by cats up until then. In case you’re wondering, cats don’t do a great job teaching you how to human. I love cats, but in some ways they make lousy humans. Anyway, my sister and I weren’t having any of it.
In fact, all I heard was unwelcome criticism. I didn’t hear the part that went unsaid: that this guy, in fact, actually cared about me.
The content of the message, of course, is debatable in 2016, in a world in which we’re beginning to see the question of body diversity very differently than we did when I was 12 or what have you … though I suppose a steady diet of Saltine crackers is probably less than ideal from a nutritional perspective, at any rate.
Even in the last few years, we’ve really begun to rethink the way we approach nutritional issues with kids (if not, sadly, so much with adults). We recognize that, in a world already rife with soul-destroying messages about size and weight, we have to be really thoughtful about how we talk to them about food and body size and everything in that whole arena.
So surely there could’ve been a more body-positive way to have that conversation — one with a little more “Hey, Saltines are great, but you could probably use some hummus or something to go with them so you don’t get scurvy, because scurvy is going to make gymnastics/skiing/horsebackriding/dancing pretty hard,” and a little less, “Whoa, there, buddy — you’ve gotta learn to slow down, or you’re going to get fat when you’re older,” with all its unspoken implications about the validity of fat bodies.
But, at the end of the day, cultural baggage notwithstanding, there was that other, more important message — the one that’s so hard to hear, so much of the time, when the people who love us offer what they very sincerely intend as constructive criticism.
It’s the message that goes, “Hey, I want you to be healthy and happy, because I care about you, and I want you to avoid these pitfalls that I’ve fallen into myself.”
Things have changed a lot in the intervening years. My Dad died when I had just turned eighteen. My Step-Dad was an unexpected ally: he understood my hurt, my anger, and why I wandered around wearing my Dad’s Air Force jacket all the time. My Mom and Step-Dad married when I was nineteen (like so many other important events in my life, including my own birth, that involved a major blizzard: does anyone wonder why I scheduled my own wedding for May?). My sister and my Step-Dad reached a detente, then an accord.
I realized, most importantly, that my Step-Dad makes my Mom happy, and that they work well together, and that, in the long run, that’s what matters.
We are still a family that talks in ellipses; a family in which so much is left unsaid. After a while, you learn to kind of hear between the lines. You figure out that, sometimes, “Hey, you should put something warmer on,” really means, “I love you; don’t get frostbite.” That, sometimes, the Yankee stiff upper lip makes it hard to pronounce the words.
Not to say that everything’s perfect now. On our trip to Marco Island, I was kvetching about my eternal nasal congestion and how it makes sleeping difficult, and Step-Dad piped in with, “Especially when you get older, you should make sure to get checked for sleep apnea.”
From somewhere in the depths of my psyche, my preteen self awoke and bristled and almost said something like, “OMG DAD SRSLY?!!!”
And then I took a breath and realized that I was missing, once again, the thing that went unsaid: “Hey, I’ve had a couple of friends who’ve really suffered with this thing. I care about you, I worry about you, I don’t want you to have to go through that.”
I’m not sure if I gracefully said, “Oh, thanks, yeah, good idea, I will.” I think I said something more like, “Oh, yeah, I know a couple people with sleep apnea, it sucks.” I don’t actually remember, because I was really kind of busy being annoyed at myself for being annoyed in the first place.
But I hope that, whatever words made it out of my mouth, that my Step-Dad heard the things I left unsaid.
That he heard, “Thank you. I love you, too. That means a lot.”