Grandma and the Staff of Life:
Gran was the daughter of a working-class, late Victorian family. In their native Liverpool, in the mid-19th century, the family had at one point been high-prole enough to have run its own bakery. The family’s name was Oxton. I don’t know what they called their shop.
Whether it came from being a baker’s granddaughter, or whether it was simply from being a product of her age and class, Gran was firmly convinced that bread was the staff of life, to be eaten at every meal.
I loathed bread.
Ma was also the product of her age and class, and like many other women who had spent the war years in an aircraft factory, she returned temporarily to the work force while I was small, intending to earn enough to finance a pet project of her own, leaving me in Gran’s care during the work day.
By the time I was six, I had learned that Gran was at least as obdurate as I upon the subject of bread. Our main point of friction was breakfast. Bread at lunch time usually came in the form of sandwiches, to which I had no objection, and dinner was Ma’s province, and the subject didn’t arise at all. But, every morning heralded its unwanted slice of bread, or toast, which Gran insisted that I eat, and at which I invariably balked. Fortunately, for me, although perhaps not necessarily wisely, Gran was inclined to treat children with the respect due to human beings, and did not stand over me until I ate it.
If she had, she would have been standing a long time. I really loathed bread.
In the main, I was a straight-forward child, inclined to meet the world head-on. But like all children, I was also determined to have my own way. Being, also, a fairly law-abiding child, it wasn’t until the age of six that I conceived of the bright idea of getting rid of the noxious slice of bread when Gran wasn’t looking.
Accordingly, a pattern evolved. Gran would set my breakfast on the table, I would begin to eat it, she would eventually step out of the room, I would hop down from my chair and shove the bread under the skirting board of the stove and be back in my chair before she came back, finishing my meal, no bread in sight. Gran was satisfied, I was relieved, and all went smoothly for several months.
Eventually, however, all good things must come to an end. Ma took a day off from work. She was not ill, she had planned this for some grown-up reason of which I was never informed (why should I be?) and had asked Gran about my schedule beforehand. In the morning I arose to find my mother, my breakfast and the ubiquitous slice of bread waiting for me. Ma, however, didn’t leave the room long enough to give me a chance to get rid of it. I dawdled over my breakfast as she puttered about the kitchen.
“Eat your bread.” She told me.
“I will.” I said. Time passed. The bread was not eaten.
“Eat your bread.” She ordered.
“I will.” I countered. More time passed. The bread was not eaten.
Finally, she stepped out the room. Lickety-split, I was off the chair, the bread was under the stove, and I was back in my seat just as Ma reentered the room.
“Where is your bread?” She asked me.
“I ate it.” I replied.
“You haven’t had time to eat it.” She said.
“I ate it fast.” I replied.
This particular contest of wills was not inordinately protracted. Ma, unlike Gran, had no compunction about hitting small children who happened to displease her. Since I disliked being hit rather more than I disliked being forced to eat bread, I eventually muttered that it was under the stove.
“Well get it out.” She told me.
So I got down on the floor and stretched an arm under the skirting board and, of course, was unable to find that morning’s particular slice of bread. This particular little comedy played out for a couple of minutes more, until Ma lost patience and said she would get it herself, and took the skirting board off the stove.
Well, she ended up removing a couple of grocery sacks worth of stale, moldy or mummified bread and declared herself amazed that we hadn’t been overrun by rats. (Or at least ants.)
Oddly, I can’t recall having been whipped for perpetrating the great bread bamboozlement — although I certainly got a tongue-lashing and was very much in disgrace. On the other hand, I was never again forced to eat bread against my will.