Whatever you want, Mum said.

Growing up, my mom’s style of parenting was a rather interesting one. Unorthodox you might say. I had a library card with endless scope, the library being very close to my primary school, and I simply selected and read whatever I wanted. Whatever I wanted, that was the general order of the day when it came to keeping myself entertained. The librarian certainly never interfered either. And my mother, busied with her art, or day job, was simply content that I was keeping my mind active and perhaps most of all, that I was quiet. Thinking back now, it was a little odd that a 10 year old, having read all that Roald Dahl had to offer in the way of children’s books, turned to his adult writing. His dark and twisted short stories left me captivated, not to mention a little collection of his I stumbled on called Switch Bitch which were of a decidedly sexual nature. And how, oh, how did I love his depraved but charismatic Uncle Oswald!

My mom’s partner for many years, and something of a stepfather to me, also had a wide selection of rather macabre books, from tales of Jack the Ripper to the true life story of the Tsavo Man-Eaters, the two lions who devastated a colonial campsite in Kenya (a book that was later the inspiration for the 1996 film, The Ghost and the Darkness). No doubt I left many of my school friends puzzled with my orals and school projects at the time, so influenced as they were by the bizarre stories that filled my young mind.

Thinking back on it, my mother indulged many of my strange ways, leaving me to all of my imaginary ‘friends’ and ‘pets’, when I was well past the Appropriate Age for such things. She once even pretended to make a birthday cake for my imaginary purple kangaroo, aptly named Raspberry. Then there was my steadfast belief in faeries, and that maybe just maybe, one might find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow after all… (Still working on that one!) Never mind my insistence on dressing up every Halloween for the entire day in a costume of my own design… A particular black bag as witch’s garb with a broomstick and pointy hat with painted stars and moons springs to mind.

At birthday parties, when the other children became simply too much for my finer sensitivities (for a sensitive thing I was and still am today!), I would lock myself in the pantry whereupon she’d eventually find me and receive simple instructions through the keyhole to tell my friends that the party was decidedly over and that they should unceremoniously bugger off elsewhere. I was certainly not unlocking the pantry door and with that, its sanctuary, until they’d each and every one made their exit, stage door left.  Embarrassed, my mom would do my bidding all the same. Bless her cotton socks.

Dinner time was a separate matter. She’d prepare whatever the hell she wanted, oftentimes whatever was the least demanding of her time. Now I’m not saying my mom is a bad cook. That would be a lie. And while I might tell a tale with some creative licence after a few drinks in the local pub, I’m no liar! In fact, she was a pretty darn good cook, if I’m honest. It’s just that she didn’t care for it much. To this day, I’m yet to have a chicken cordon bleu better than hers. And it’s been too long since I’ve tasted her pumpkin fritters… A real treat when she whipped those up!

But now and again, when I was little, she’d tell me dinner could be “whatever you want.” I think, in hindsight, this was her way of giving herself a break, too fatigued from a long day of work, knowing all too well what my answer would be: a big ol’ bag of Jumpin’ Jack Cheddar Popcorn. So it was and off she’d send me to the local corner caf, money in hand for my dinner. And me, pleased as punch, to eat a dinner completely devoid of any nutritional value.

Time for a movie, I’d sit as close to the television set as I could, with my bag of popcorn, and munch happily away, fingers dirtier and dirtier with the fake flavour of cheddar after each and every handful. Absolved of her parental obligations for the night, my mom would later join me with a plateful of Bovril and cheese on crackers. Her exhausted, me goggle-eyed and engrossed by whatever the hell was on telly that night. In its own way, it was something of a little ritual we shared, these nights when we could each eat simply whatever the hell we wanted.

In the end, I think that the older me, well I think she’s come to learn a beautiful lesson in all of this. It is a lesson nudged along a little further in some ways by a book that I adore dearly, Appetite by Nigel Slater (something of almost biblical status on my cooking shelves!)… And that is to choose your days, your moods, to spend hours in the kitchen some days turning a slow-roasting chicken, or lovingly attempting to make pasta from scratch… But then other days, to deem them days that demand as little effort as possible, with a helping of red wine and a bag of store-bought flavoured popcorn, or Bovril and cheese on crackers… For you? I couldn’t say… It could be a jar of pickled onions. It could be a tin of pimento olives stuffed with anchovies or red peppers. Perhaps a delectable selection of cupcakes from your favourite bakery. On those days, it’s just you and the soapbox and really whatever the hell you want.



Featured Image: Scary Movie by Lucia Heffernan 

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