When my older sister, Gina, became a high school junior, the house suddenly got very loud. It was time for her to declare her independence from everyone and everything, and that, apparently, cannot be accomplished with an inside voice.
She yelled early and often in a shrill, tenacious soprano that burrowed directly into my head at the left temple and ricocheted off the interior of my skull. (Once a noise like that gets inside your cranium, by the way, it’s very difficult to get it out. On quiet nights I can still hear a faint, echoing “IT’S NOT FAIR!” circa. 1981.) If Gina was the only one making unpleasantly loud noises it wouldn’t have been so bad; unfortunately she inspired similarly loud noises from my parents.
When those three voices filled the house in a hollering harmony, all I wished to do was go elsewhere.
That was when I began to take an interest in the woods.
Sometimes a person can just look at a food and know he’s going to hate it. I’ve had this gift my entire life. It’s sort of a Picky Eater ESP.
Unfortunately, my mom had a blind spot when it came to my sixth sense. She could never wrap her brain around the idea that horrible foods can telegraph their horribleness without ever having to come in contact with my mouth.
“How do you know you hate it if you’ve never tried it?” Mom asked me time and time again.
“I just do.”
“Well I just don’t,” she fired back.
Then she’d say, “Michael. Eat. Now.”
Once Mom started talking in one-word sentences, the discussion was over — if I knew what was good for me.
So I’d grit my teeth and fill my fork with the squash or the asparagus or the green beans or whatever else. As soon as the juices hit my tongue, my throat would shut down and set up detour signs.
“Oh, ya want ta get that outta your mouth, do ya?” my throat would ask with the brassy indifference of a New York Transit Authority employee. “Well, it’s goin’ out the way it come in, pal.”
Then the rest of my body would start to fail me. My tongue would quiver. My head would spin. My ears would sweat. The dry heave machine would switch on.
Sometimes, by sheer force of will, I’d be able to push the morsel past the esophageal gatekeeper, but not always.
“Michael? Did you just spit your squash into a napkin?” Mom asked, her eyes narrowing.
I couldn’t answer her immediately for I was too busy gargling orange juice. When I finally did respond, I found myself hung up on Mom’s choice of pronoun.
“It’s not my squash. Not anymore.”
When my parents forced me to eat a pre-hated food, I was never pleasantly surprised. Never in my life did I say, “Oh! That tasted better than I thought!”
It always tasted exactly as bad as I thought — and if it wasn’t exactly as bad, then it was worse.
Fortunately, Mom did not belong to the Clean Your Plate Club. She was a member of the Eat Three Bites And You Don’t Have To Eat It Anymore Club, which is just about as good as I could have hoped for in that particular parenting era.
Eventually Mom ran out of new horrible foods I had to eat three bites of. As a consequence, the number of times I turned beet red at the dinner table dwindled to zero.
Once this happened, a little something in my older sister died. Gina just loved to watch me gag on food. So, a few years ago, when she took over Thanksgiving responsibilities, she seemed to make it her mission to come up with at least one bewildering, un-Thanksgiving-y side dish that would make me go “Ew.”
“Will you join us for the artichoke course?” She’d ask me with a wide smile. (Not only was Gina serving artichokes — a certified Mike Allegra gag food — she dedicated an entire course to eating them.)
Fortunately I am a grown up. So, in the giving spirit of the holiday, I could tell her where she could stick her artichokes. Then everyone would laugh – with no one laughing harder than Gina.
This year Gina outdid herself. As usual, she put out an amazing Thanksgiving spread. And, as usual, there was a curious new side dish. In fact, Gina so eagerly anticipated the debut of this side dish, she felt the need to call me up the week before Thanksgiving to tell me about it.
“I’m making Brussels sprouts!” she announced.
“You gotta be kidding me.”
I had never tasted Brussels sprouts — Mom wouldn’t have ever dreamed of serving them — but I knew I hated them. I knew I hated them more that anything else in the world. I could tell. They were evil. It was obvious.
“No, Michael, listen,” Gina went on. “I don’t like Brussels sprouts either, but a few months ago I made this new Brussels sprouts recipe with honey and cranberries and, I swear to God, Michael, we fought for the last serving.”
“That is something,” I said.
“I swear to God,” she replied. “We fought over it. Swear to God.”
“That is something,” I repeated.
“Promise me you’ll try it.”
“You gotta try it.”
“I don’t gotta.”
“You’re gonna love it.”
“I’m not gonna.”
Gina and I went back and forth like this for a little while longer before moving on to other, more pleasant, non-sprout-related matters.
After I hung up, I remained a bit unsettled by Gina’s call. This wasn’t Gina’s typical culinary abuse. This was a different Gina, one I hadn’t seen before. She really, sincerely, wanted me to give the sprouts a try. Not because she wanted to see me gag, but because she genuinely thought I might like them. I didn’t know what to make of this.
Gina crowed about the Brussels sprouts to other family members, too.
“Did you hear about the Brussels sprouts?” my Auntie Susie asked me a few days later when she called to wish me a happy birthday.
“Yeah,” I replied. “You gonna eat them?”
“I don’t like sprouts,” she said, “but I promised Gina I’d try them.”
“Well, I didn’t promise,” I said with smug defiance.
“She really swears by them. So who knows?” Auntie Susie always had a “Hey, why not?” quality to her, a trait both charming and — at times like these — irksome.
Gina had also persuaded my wife, Ellen, to give the sprouts a try. Ellen, unlike me, actually knew what Brussels sprouts tasted liked – and she hated them, so this was no small achievement. My parents also were willing to give the new side dish a go.
What is going on here? My brain bellowed. Why is the entire family thumbing their nose at common sense? When are these sheeple gonna wake up?
The night before Thanksgiving – and I swear I am not making this up – I dreamed about Brussels sprouts. I didn’t eat them in the dream, instead I dreamed that I refused to eat them. I sang my refusal to the melody of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
“But I stiiiiiiill will not eeeeeeeeat…
Your damn Brussells sprooooooouts…”
Clearly this sprout business had crept its way into my subconscious.
Thanksgiving arrived. Ellen, Alex and I watched the parade on TV and marveled at the ugliness of the Paddington Bear balloon.
“There should be a Sarah Hale balloon,” Alex announced with indignation.
I love my son.
Ellen made her famous corn casserole and baked brie and then, at the last possible moment, we all changed out of our jammies and drove off to Gina’s house. Gina knows how to throw a great dinner party — and this day was no exception. The choices were plentiful, the drink options vast, and even the white meat on the turkey was moist and in need of no gravy support system.
But, sitting there in the center of the table, was the metaphorical 600-pound gorilla. Peering up from their glossy cranberry glaze those infamous sprouts stared at me. It wasn’t long before a reluctant ladle dug into it. Auntie Susie was true to her word; she was going to try them.
Auntie Susie is one of the louder family members, so her surprised, delighted, “Ooh! This is really good!” attracted some serious attention.
This lively exchange encouraged more ladle activity. More plates welcomed sprouts, which led to more praise, which led to more ladling.
One by one the number of sprout converts was growing. I was beginning to feel like a heathen at a tent revival.
With each new wave of kudos, came a new round of pressure for me to give the sprouts a try.
“Mike, you have to try these!”
“They’re really good!”
“You’re gonna love them!”
Ellen knows me well enough to realize that this type of peer pressure might make me uncomfortable, but it will never persuade me to try anything. She took a different tactic.
“Oh, just eat it, you baby.”
I turned to face her and found a way-too-large forkful of Brussels sprouts poised an inch from my mouth.
I sighed. And she shoved it in.
The normally raucous Thanksgiving table grew silent as the family watched me chew. There was not a person present at that table who was unaware of my picky eating habits. Everyone there had either seen or heard about the infamous Green Bean Incident of 1981, when Mom and Dad were convinced I was about to pass out.
I chewed and chewed and chewed some more.
Then I swallowed.
There was a long pause. The family awaited the verdict.
“Oh!” I said at last. “It tasted better than I thought.”
And the people around table did everything short of giving me a standing ovation.
And I have to be honest; for the first time in my life one of my pre-hated foods was better than I had thought. Because I thought I was going to die.
But, just to be safe, I am never, ever, ever taking my chances with another forkful.
Years ago, when my niece, Lauren, was about two years old, she coughed.
Perhaps the cough was a bit louder or longer than usual. Maybe it was a tad phlegmy. Perhaps it was followed by a hiccup. I’m not sure, but something about this cough made it more special than other coughs. The cough’s significance, however, did not escape my sister, Gina.
Gina proceeded to feel Lauren’s forehead, press her ear up against her chest, and look in the child’s mouth, ears, and nose.
My grandmother and I watched this do-it-yourself doctoring with fascination. When Grandma and I weren’t staring at Gina’s antics, we glanced at each other and chatted telepathically:
“Lauren just coughed, right? We didn’t not see something, right? Is the kid bleeding out her eyes? Is her skin sloughing off? Did she cough up a less essential internal organ – like a gall bladder or a meatball-size chunk of liver?”
Eventually, Gina completed her examination and declared that an appointment with the pediatrician would be necessary. “Just to be safe,” she said with an assertive nod.
At that, Grandma turned to me, sighed and said, “That sister of yours takes those kids to the doctor if they fart crooked.”
I then laughed for the next three days.
That line, in my view, is the quintessential Grandma quote, a fine example of her crass and caustic German humor. But the writer part of me digs the line, too, because it does such a good job in describing who the speaker is. It’s a line with a built in backstory.
First off, doesn’t that line seem tailor made for an elderly person? It’s a great zinger, but the zinger doesn’t sound modern. “Fart crooked?” There’s a sort of do-it-yourself old-fashioned construction to the phrase. (It reminds me of a bon mot from an older woman I used to work with; she described her old car as a “turd boiler.”) Someone who says “fart crooked” (or turd boiler) probably also says “clicker” instead of “remote” and “ice box” instead of “refrigerator.”
“Fart crooked” suggests a working class background to me, too — though I’m not exactly sure why. I’m stereotyping, I suppose. “Fart crooked” just doesn’t seem to be a natural fit for The Lord of the Manor.
Also a line like that can only be uttered by a parent, I think. It suggests a certain type of parent, too – one who says, “Get outta my house and don’t come back ’till supper.” Such a parent does not take a kid to the doctor because of a cough – and is more than happy to mock a parent who would. Grandma’s line declares, “I speak from experience. And you know nothing.”
See why the writer in me loves that line? It’s not just a fart joke. It’s a fart joke with subtext! When I write characters for the stage, I love to discover lines that not only show a character’s personality, but also suggest a character’s life story.
Like most writers out there, I have a file filled with Story Ideas. I also have a binder ring of Meaty Quotes. In it are dialogue snippets that I hope to use in a story someday. I recommend this technique highly. Even if you never use any of the quotes, the file will always be good for a few laughs.
Most of the quotes I have accumulated have been uttered by members my family — so my file doubles as an instant fond-memory generator.
My Grandma has been dead for many years now, but her smart remarks live on. And I still can’t help but laugh.