Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Rats Crawl All Over Them

The way we live today is very different than the way we lived when I was a child in the 1960s. I’m old enough to remember when people got dressed up, or at least dressed better when you went places, be it your grandparents or the Heinen’s Grocery Store on Chagrin Boulevard and Avalon Road.

In those days you just didn’t jump in the car and go someplace if you needed something, because “What if someone sees us,” as my mother would say. To a child’s mind, this made no sense, but what it meant was “People are going to see us as we are and they will talk about us, so get inside and let me wash your face and give you a fresh shirt to put on.”

Then when we got to the store, and my mother would hoist little me into the cart seat, we would shop, until someone saw us, then we had to stop and my mother would have polite conversation, which usually started by saying something like “I’m half ashamed that you see us like this…” I never understood what she was getting it because we looked like everyone else in Shaker – clean, wearing nice clothing. But what she was really getting at was the coded message that we could look much better than good – we could look fabulous if we needed to.  And if we look just a shade under dressed, then people will know that we've got it all going on.

The comment by my mother was usually met with a “You look fine…I must look a wreck, but I had to run out to the…” and so it went.   The coded message being sent between them was that "I keep a clean house" and "If you're not telling anyone you saw me, I'm not telling I saw you.  And my house is just as clean as your house."

Today, if you need something at the store, you go out and you get it; none of this game playing “oh I must look a wreck.” You’ve been working in the yard for hours on a hot sunny day and need to run to the hardware store. You’re dirty, sweaty, and you bump into a neighbor and its “yard work – you too?” Of course you can clean up. But life is too short sometimes. People understand that these days.  Things, and what we say are more direct.  We are less likely to use round about methods - we go for what we want.

So life was full of coded messages that adults said to one and other.  But they also told those coded messages to us. Whether you call these Mommielies or something else, our parents, and other adults, back then would tell us things to keep from doing things. Sometimes the code harbored a lesson we needed to learn. Other times adults didn’t know what to say to us so they invented terrific lies to scare us into doing (or not doing) certain things.  If the boogeyman wasn't going to get you, then gypsies would, if you survived running with scissors.  Life - they wanted us to know - was full of dangers, both real, and imagined.

My Aunt Miriam was a master at telling these types of tales to us, and above all, she loved “the rat story” and used it as often as she could.   Miriam was born in the “Old Country” – what is now Latvia – and she came to the United States with my grandparents as a very young child, probably around 1907, so I think the rat story had something to do with her upbringing over there.  Maybe she saw a rats on the streets of Dvinsk as a toddler, or maybe on the ship during the crossing. Or maybe it was something my Grandparents told her.  Whatever the basis for it, if she could, Miriam would rely on tales vermon to keep us from doing things that we were not suppossed to do. 

Miriam was my father’s eldest sibling – I think Miriam was around fourteen or fifteen when my father was born.  Since I was a late in life baby, by the time I was born, Miriam was a grandmotherly age.   Her daughter, my Cousin Joyce, had children that were a year or two off me, so this was a case of a slipped generation.

Aunt Miriam was very particular.  As my mother tells the story, George and Miriam hosted  well wishers after my parents were married in downtown Cleveland in the courthouse.  The afternoon before the wedding, Miriam called my mother asked if my mom if she could pick up the cookies for the reception at Hough Bakery and drop them off, which my mother did.  That night, it was the sister of the groom, not the bride to be in a panic on the phone.  "You didn't have them wrap each butter cookie!" she stated to my mother.  "George and I will be up all night dusting the crumbs off each cookie!" 

"Let me get this straight - you're the one getting married and she's complaining because you screwed it up and she's going to be up  all night, dusting cookies?" I asked.

"She wanted everything to be perfect, and you can't fault a person for wanting to do what's right," my mother replied.  "And to her, making sure the reception was important.  Times were different then."

"Would you stay up all night dusting crumbs off cookies?"

"I'm not your Aunt Miriam," my mother pointed out. "And its not 1960.  People had different priorities back then."  Still I had in my mind this tableaux of both George and Miriam, hunched over their kitchen table, squinting in the bad light from the ceiling fixture, each holding specially made brushes, and each gently flicking crumbs from the surface of the butter cookies.

Aunt Miriam's house was highly decorated, and all of the upholstered furniture was encased in protective plastic to preserve it, much like Lenin is preserved in his coffin. The decorating went all the way to the candy in living room bowls.  The candy matched the decor as well – it was part of what Miriam called “the total look” of her house. The thing was, that candy looked good, but it was off limits to anyone because if someone ate it, it would spoil the total look.

This is where the rat story gets deployed in my father’s family.

At one Passover Seder Miriam bought something other than the usual Brachs Sourballs - which we were not allowed to eat because it was a sure ticket to chocking to death - an exotic candy to Jewish kids: Jordan Almonds. We’d never seen anything like them – pale blue and green – and this was a time when there were no blue candies. Jordan Almonds are a staple in Italian Catholic households at Christmas, but to us, the were unearthly.  What did blue taste like? For that matter what did that color of green taste like? And what was under the candy coated shell?  We were drawn to then like flies to honey, but Miriam would sense that we were too quiet and like a psychic, she knew exactly where we were and what we were about to do.

“DROP IT!” she commanded to her grandson Chip.  Seeing that I had already had one in my mouth, she held out her hand in front of my face. “SPIT!” I did as I was told.

“THESE,” she said to me, and Chip, in a tone reminiscent of how someone speaks to being that they suppose is the village idiot, “ARE STORED IN BULK – THE RATS CRAWL ALL OVER THEM!  THEY ARE DIRTY.  WE DO NOT EAT THESE.  THEY WILL MAKE YOU SICK.”

The code had been deployed. It never dawned on us that it was highly improbably that rats had wallowed in these candies before Miriam loaded them into the gold ceramic dish. Nor did it occur to that one day we would be faced with Sinclair Lewis’ “The Jungle” in English class, or that the FDA had guidelines for what levels of insects parts are acceptable in processed foods.

All we knew was, that according to Aunt Miriam, that rats crawled all over the candy. And we found that fascinating. So fascinating that I adopted that phrase and carried it with me to nursery school the following week, where I used it at afternoon snack time.

“You’re not going to eat that cookie, are you?” I would say accusingly to one of my school mates at Jewish Day Nursery School. “They are stored it in bulk and the rats crawled all over it.” This went over the schoolmates head – we were all too young to understand that rats carried all manner of disease. Still I persisted and by the end of the week, I must have said it to the wrong thing to the wrong kid because my mother got a call from the woman who ran the school and I ended up being sat in a seat in her office and I was in big trouble.  Parents were hysterical that rats were intermingling with the food, according to their children. The health department was coming for an off cycle inspection.

“Why have you been telling people that?” the head of the school demanded.

“My aunt Miriam said so,” I replied – too young to lie and seeing no reason to anyway. “She said that the rats crawl all over food that is stored in bulk. What’s bulk?” My innocence worked in my favor and I was off the hook, but I was told never to repeat the story of the rats again.

My father had a different take on this situation.

“Do NOT let your Aunt know that you told this 'rat story' to anyone. The candy was fine. She just didn’t want you eating it because it wasn’t put there for you to eat in the first place,” he yelled.

Something in my mind clicked. Adults would tell you things that weren’t really true to keep you from doing stuff that they didn’t want you to do. Why not just tell you to stay away from it? Why not just say “no”? What other lies were they telling us?  Were they lying about babies?  What about Santa Claus?  And were all those people who purported to be my Aunts and Uncles really who they said they were?

Sometime after that I was caught sitting too close to a color TV and my mother yelled at me to get away from it. “It will make you sterile and ruin your eyes.” I moved. Not because I was worried about becoming sterile – whatever that meant to my eight year old mind – or about my eyes, but because the veil of smoke and mirrors had been lifted and I knew what she meant was I was too close to the TV.  Why she just didn't say it remains a mystery.

“Don’t eat that sugar cube,” my grandmother admonished me one day in sixth grade as I tried to take a cube from the sugar dish. “The rats,” she made whiskers of her fingers trying to emulate a rat, “crawl all over them.” But she was using them in her coffee, I pointed out. That got me a smack for being flip. I got in big trouble for use of logic on that one. The code was the code, and no one likes a smart code breaker.

The rat story stayed in the family a few more years, but by the time my grandmother died, it was pretty much a non-issue. And as I got older it became less plausible, less probable.

"Stu, Honey," my Aunt Nan said to me one day when I was in college.  I was 20 and had just popped a red Brach's Sour Ball into my mouth and and had an idea what was coming. 

"You're going to tell me that these are stored in bulk and that the rats crawl all over them, right?"

"Its awful, isn't it," she said.  "And then they sell it to people like us."

"If these things are so dangerous, why are they always around?"  I was 20.  I could ask the question.

My aunt thought about it for a second.  "I don't know.  They just are."
Years later when I actually got to eat a Jordan Almond, it was a let down. First of all the candy coating is just that - a coating of sugar and water and food coloring.  Its sweet, but beyond that its plain. It didn’t taste blue – it just tasted sweet. And you have to like almonds, which I don't. Feh!

Still, whenever I see Jordan Almonds, the first thing that comes to mind is that somewhere, in some warehouse, a cunning rat is doing his best to make sure that a mother, somewhere, someplace is able to tell her children something close to the truth.

1 comment:

  1. oy stuart, you and your stories! finally got a few minutes to read this. you were quite the handful...i'm surprised they didn't encase you in plastic (or a blue sugar coating). i never liked eating jordan almond either, but they look great.