Did your Mom ever break her own house rules?

Cedar Rapids metropolitan area. From left Bent...

Cedar Rapids metropolitan area. From left Benton County, Linn County, and Jones County. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was in second grade, seven years old.We almost never had dessert in our house. Years later I learned, though she never talked about it, my Mom was always on a diet.

I never quite figured out why. She served healthy food. Nothing was fried. We never had gravy.

We had a home-cooked meal every night, with a glass of water. Dad, and only Dad, had one slice of Wonder bread with dinner. We only had bread in our lunch-bag sandwiches for school.

Food was portion-controlled. Mom divided dinner servings among five plates in the kitchen. We never had food on the table. There were no left-overs. I never ate seconds until I was in college.

We always had a vegetable for dinner. Milk, for the most part, was our only other beverage. A bowl of fruit was always on the kitchen counter for after-school or between-meal snacks.

A pitcher of water was always in the refrigerator, filled with celery sticks and peeled carrot sticks, for more snacks.

Junk food, like sodas and Fritos, were a rare, once-a-month or so, treat, just often enough so we wouldn’t feel deprived and crave them.

Up until I was seven, my Mom made peerless pies when various fruits were in season in our back yard. Her piecrusts were so delicate and flaky I’ve never been able to  make them. Rhubarb pies in Chicago. In this house, it was cherry pie from the cherry tree.  I fell off the ladder picking cheries.

When she went back to work, even the pies stopped. In Junior High and High School, I learned to bake and made the family brownies, cookies and cakes

But, dessert was never a course after dinner, just an occasional snack.

House rules about food were spare.

  • You don’t have to eat everything you are served, but you have to try it
  • You don’t have to clean your plate, but if you don’t, you can’t have anything to eat until the next meal.

Mom claimed that having had three children in five years slowed down her metabolism. I was a year later than planned, because of World War II. My younger brother was a year earlier, because of a miscalculation about breast-feeding and when you can get pregnant.

There was no peer support for exercise in my parents’ day. Though my father stayed thin with golf and yard work most of my life, my mother was a secretary, sitting in an office all day and running a household at night.

Years later, our son revealed from visits to Grandma’s house that, though my Mom didn’t serve us dessert, she was not above eating a bag of chocolate-chip cookies on her own, which might have explained her life-long struggle with weight. But, the habits she taught gave the rest of us a role model for healthy eating.

And, then there was the night she served tapioca for dessert.

We spent a year in that rented house, between the summer in another rented house  behind the Bre’r Rabbit Molasses factory, when my brother and I both got chicken pox and discovered Victrola records in the attic and the four years we were to live in the house they built. We had moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa for my father to take an opportunity with a rising electronics company, Collins Radio.

I was never a defiant child. My parents’ rules were reasonable and I followed them. So, I tasted the tapioca Mom served that night. I didn’t like it.

And, then, for some reason I can only guess at now that I’m an adult, my Mom said I had to eat it all. Was she frustrated because she was in a new city and had left all her friends behind? Her family had moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan when she was only a few years old and she had lived there until she married, a couple of years out of college.

By the time we got to this, the second of three houses in Cedar Rapids, she had lived in Philadelphia after she and Dad married, returned to Ann Arbor where my older brother was born and they stayed when Dad was shipped overseas in  World War II, to Palos Heights, Illinois, where I was born, Indianapolis, Indiana, where my younger brother was born 13 months after me, back to Glenview, Illinois and now, Iowa.

Had she hoped to start working before we left Chicago and now had to start all over making new friends and looking for a job? Once we were settled in the new house they built, Mom set about to start interviewing employers and laying out her conditions.

She had a degree in Journalism from the University of Michigan. At least one employer recognized what a deal they were getting when they hired her as an Executive Secretary, so they agreed to her conditions. She would only work from 9 to 3 because she wanted to be home when we left for school, home before we returned and home if we got sick.

When I wrote my third book, profiling computer employers in the Midwest, Mom suggested I contact her old employer and profile them in my book. I did. They remembered my Mom. Her boss, son of the owner, was now the owner of the insurance company where she’d worked.

“Did you know we tried to hire your Dad?” he asked me.

“No,” I said, surprised.

“Yes, your Mom was so valuable that when we found out your Dad had been offered a chance to move to Texas, we told your Mom we’d hire him so we could keep her.”

“He was an accountant. It would have been easy to find a place for him here.”

I asked my Mom about this story. “Oh, yes,” she told me, casually. “Your Dad and I talked about it.” “But, he was being offered such a good position that it didn’t make sense for him to just take a job they could find for him at my employer’s when he had this opportunity in Texas.”

On that night, was Mom feeling cooped up because we were in the second house in a few months and still not yet settled? Was she having a dispute with the contractors who were building our new house?

I have no idea what was going on that day. But, she took a stand.

Over tapioca.

We were not allowed to leave the table until we’d finished our tapioca. Everyone else did. I sat stubbornly in front of the bowl of tapioca.

When everyone else left the table, I dumped it in the trash. No word was ever said about the tapioca and it was never served again.

I still hate tapioca.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers



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