During divorce, home-life rituals are disrupted. Cooking and regular sit-down dinners are often the first things to go. It's harder to meal-plan, shop and cook when you're overwhelmed. It's also hard to sit down at the table, since it forces you to notice who's missing.
When my parents split up, my life changed radically. I now had two houses, two kitchens instead of one. But neither of them resembled the kitchen my parents used to share.
Before family court sorted out child support, my mother signed up for welfare and food stamps to keep food on the table. Before the divorce, I had been used to my parents' arguments about money, and an atmosphere of frugality, but we had never been poor.
I began to fear the supermarket.
Whenever it came time to pay--with food stamps--the register was inevitably staffed by an older classmate of mine. I told my mother I'd meet her by the car. I just couldn't face the humiliation. It was already embarrassing to be twelve, and at the store with a parent. (Later I would realize that everyone I was afraid of running into was also there with at least one parent.)
I knew enough to avoid giving more ammo to a peer. Recently while walking to my bus, a smoking, class-skipping girl with lacquered hair yelled, "I saw you buy those socks at Cheap Johns!" (Cheap Johns was a closeout store with a hip assortment of urbane merch. The socks in question were pastel, argyle, $1. Like I was going to pass those up.)
My mother's kitchen now contained government cheese: a long, solid brick of uncut processed American cheese--think generic Kraft, but less yielding. To engage with it was to be reminded that you were financially disadvantaged. Pre-sliced, cellophane-wrapped cheese slices suddenly seemed like the height of bourgeoise splendor.
We perilously hacked away at the cheese block, because of course we didn't have the right knife, a knife sharpener, or a cheese slicer. Poverty consciousness put those items in the "nonessential" category--way too high up on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Our lumpy grilled cheese sandwiches melted unevenly, but they got the job done.
My mother's cooking, which had been of the hearty stew with home-baked bread variety, ceased to be a presence. For the last eleven years, she'd been in charge of dinner--back when going out to eat was saved for very special occasions. Suddenly, those galley chains were cut. On the nights that she got dolled up and went to Christian singles mixers at area churches, I was the one in charge of dinner. It made me feel grown-up, even though I was inept. One night, I heated up frozen fish sticks, and served them with chocolate-covered Entenmanns doughnuts to my three younger siblings and my friend Laurie.
"Fish sticks and doughnuts?" she asked.
"What?" I replied.
"Nothing," she said. "I've just never had fish sticks and doughnuts for dinner before."
Laurie had an ornate room out of an Ethan Allen catalogue, and a collection of pewter figurines. Her parents worked late every night, but her premade dinners were the height of frozen yuppie fare--remember Le Menu? Or her mom took her out for sushi, something I wouldn't encounter for ten more years.
A little light bulb went on in my brain. I stared at the table--greasy, cardboardy fish sticks, smears of ketchup, and doughnuts, on cheap white paper plates. Not even the plump, log-like, upscale fish sticks. Not even the sturdy, flower-printed paper plates.
We weren't just on welfare. We were getting trashy.
At my father's house, things were different. He worked long hours and was suddenly faced with feeding himself. Boxes of croissant sandwiches filled his freezer. Feeling lonely, he called the customer service numbers on each box to give detailed, thoughtful feedback about each concoction. These customer service ladies, thrilled that they weren't being chewed out, sent him piles of coupons, which led to more feedback, and more coupons.
We spent the weekends with Dad, and he stocked the pantry before we arrived, with brownie mix, chocolate chip cookie mix, and cans of frosting. My mother had insisted on healthy homemade desserts, made from scratch. No more. He sensed that I was being pressed into a lot of new duties back at the other house, and so he insisted that I relax. I was encouraged to bake cookies and brownies, but breakfast, lunch and dinner were his department. It was a wonder that we didn't get food poisoning and die from all the chicken he served medium-rare. New to anything but osmotic parenting, my dad rented piles of videos each weekend and popped them in, one after the other, which pacified us, as did the bags of chips and frosted brownies.
Dad began using the crock pot, probably after the legal fees started rolling in, and the coupon sources dried out. Frozen sandwiches were replaced with pea soup that cost mere cents per bowl. Luckily, soon after that he began dating women who jumped on domestic duties with all the verve of women auditioning for a Stove Top commercial.
My mother's husband hunting paid off in record time, and we soon bid welfare, and its trappings, adieu. She was back in the kitchen. I was free to spend more time doing homework and paging through Teen Beat.
But the lessons stuck. If there was a time that I learned to soothe my emotions with junk food and media, and how how to improvise meals with random ingredients, it was then. I am still unlearning the first skill, but the second continues to serve me well.