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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Canned Spinach And Other Demons

I mentioned long ago that I have an aversion to canned spinach. Were I a Popeye-type creature, I would have no muscles at all since I loathe the stuff. I told my readers that it was a story for another time, so today is the day.

When my father was put in jail for his attack on my mother, and my mother was suffering her last days in the hospital, my sister Liz and I were placed in an orphanage. It was a Catholic institution with beautiful grounds and the children were cared for by nuns. The children were, of course, separated by gender, and then into smaller units called "cottages." It sounds so charming, doesn't it?

A cottage was a group of girls that were all under the care of one nun. I was only seven at the time, but in trying to remember how many of us there were, I would guess twenty-five to thirty girls. Each cottage, although part of a much larger building, had a common room, large bathroom and bathing areas, and a large common sleeping area.

Every child was assigned a number according to their cottage. It was an identifier of who you were and was inked inside all of your clothing. We were in cottage 43. Liz was number 43-19, and I was number 43-10. Funny what you remember, isn't it? I can't remember the name of the nun who was in charge of us, but I remember my number. Perhaps because we were often called by our number rather than our name. Charming, isn't it?

Although I do not remember Sister's name, I do remember her attitude. Time has allowed me to give her excuses for her behavior. It is not up to me to judge whether those excuses are deserved. I believe she grew up in an era when a lot of Roman Catholic families felt that at least one of their children should become either a priest or nun. It was sort of an insurance policy, if you will, that ensured the family's passage into Heaven.

Sister had grown up in a wealthy family and gave her life to the Church and caring for orphaned children. I never felt any sense of loving kindness from her. I felt it more from some of the other nuns who barely even knew me. Sister made it clear that we were terrible sinners who deserved any and all suffering we had experienced or would experience. Every night as we were falling asleep, she would sit in her easy chair in the corner of the dormitory next to a small table with a lamp on it. She would tell us that we were terrible sinners and that Jesus' suffering on the cross was our fault. Every bad thing we experienced was our fault and our punishment for our sins. Once she went on so much about looking on your own flesh or the flesh of others, that if I caught a glimpse of my arm I was sure I was doomed to burn in Hell.

One thing Sister believed was that we should be grateful that we were being fed. And I was grateful for that. I believe there was more food available to me in the Orphanage than at home. One night, the main course at dinner was liver with a helping of canned spinach. Hey, I have eaten liverwurst many times. The taste does not bother me. But the texture of fried liver still seems pretty gross to me. But what really did me in was the smell of that slimy canned spinach. I was perfectly willing to have bread and water and call it a day, because that smell made me want to throw up. So eating only bread was what I did. Briefly.

The cafeteria was used by multiple cottages at the same time, so there were several nuns present during all meals. Sister noticed I was sinning by not eating my food, so she told me I had to eat it. I just couldn't do it, no matter how hard I tried. I would get the fork near my mouth and start to gag. So a lesson had to ne learned. An orphan was equivalent to a beggar on the street, and she had to appreciate the bounteous gifts that were given to her, even if they were undeserved. So a couple of nuns restrained me while a couple more forced my mouth open and shoved the food down my throat with a spoon. My screams and cries only made them shove harder.

So, my friends, one of the resolutions of my life became this: when I was "big" I would never eat canned spinach again. And I never have to this day. Spinach salads galore, and I love them. But no evil canned spinach, please!