It was a normal, everyday childhood summer moment: my son Arie’s first freeze pop. When I handed it to him, his eyes got huge; he’d never before seen anything you could eat this amazing shade of electric blue.
As he tasted it, my heart began to pound.
He beamed. “I like this!” he said, overjoyed, leaning his head back to suck down more of its shocking, sugary goodness.
I puffed like a locomotive and began to see spots. “I have to leave,” I said to my husband Jan. I staggered outside, fighting tears.
“What is the matter with you?” he asked when I returned.
“I just gave my child poison,” I whispered. “My god, I have poisoned him.”
I’ve seen similar reactions from friends who have left strictly religious childhoods: a former Baptist who feels deliciously naughty if she goes dancing, an ex-Presbyterian who tries very hard not to shudder at the sight of saint icons, a recovering Catholic who still—bless his heart—feels guilty about premarital sex.
We try to embrace modern rationality. But certain things we can’t help but feel deep down in our bones.
I was, you see, raised by a Fundamentalist Crunchy Granola.
That’s right: earnestly dry whole-wheat cookies, sweetened with ground-up hope. Plain yogurt. Unhomogenized, unpasteurized organic milk bought secretly from the farmer’s back door. Whole wheat pasta, which is sand held together with brown glue. Fruit juice with the skin and pulp ground up and swirling smugly in the bottle. Enormous handfuls of vitamin pills every night. Carob.
Carob, incidentally, is child abuse. The scars never heal.
We ate these things because they were Good For You. We did not eat sugar, artificial flavors or colors, white flour, meat with sodium nitrate, or preservatives—because they were Poison.
These were the only two categories of food: Good For You, and Poison.
Why, you may ask, did I accept this so calmly? Why did I watch with perfect aplomb while my friends’ parents tried to kill them with Wonder Bread and Twinkies and Kool-Aid?
(Well, I didn’t, completely. Confession: I once shouted in fury and threw rocks at the ice cream truck, because he sold artificially flavored and colored orange Push-Ups and Bomb Pops to unsuspecting, innocent children. Luckily he thought it was funny.)
Besides this one act of outraged fundamentalist violence, I kept my mouth shut. After all, these were the same parents who let their children watch commercial TV and forced them to wear shoes, so I was already hardened to the horrific, ignorant cruelties of the world.
Did it never occur to me to doubt my mother? After all, on more than one occasion growing up, I witnessed a friend take a lick of a Jolly Rancher without curling up and dying of cancer right then and there. However, like any frothing-at-the-mouth fundie, I was unfazed by this evidence.
No, the only rebellion we attempted was in our imaginations. At night, my littlest sisters used to lie in bed, staring at the ceiling and describing in intimate detail the mounds of imaginary candy lying beneath their beds: Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Now-And-Later, Starburst, Milky Way, M&Ms. They listed off their naughty mantras most nights, drifting to sleep to the murmur of blasphemous contraband.
Although I appreciate this rigid adherence to a healthy diet in some ways (I got my first cavity at age 26, for instance), I have decided for many reasons to try a more relaxed, moderate approach to food with my boys. Although others would find our nearly totally vegetarian diet restrictive, compared to how I grew up, it’s shocking heathenry.
So I try to relax when Éiden has the occasional candy bar, whistle in nonchalance while Arie tries a few sips of Coke from someone’s can at a yard party, smile benevolently, even if I have to grind my teeth, as they both have birthday cake made from a mix. With frosting from a can.
But we can’t completely escape our dark pasts. For instance: You know that truck that makes its way through neighborhoods playing tunes and driving very slowly and hopefully past groups of children?
In our house, when Arie hears the music, just like every child he races happily to the door. But he doesn’t ask us for a dollar; he just waits. Then, he smiles and waves at the very baffled driver as he goes by.
“The Music Truck came, Mommy!” he yells. “Yay! The Music Truck!”
Haddayr Copley-Woods is a Minneapolis writer and mom whose spouse believes she is doing her readers a grave disservice by not mentioning the tree sap “gum,” but she knows no one would believe her.