The smell of buttery peas hits me like a sock-full of nostalgia to the face. I’m seven, in Uncle F’s gloomy manor house in Virginia, and I’ve just discovered that salty, buttery peas make you warm from the inside on a cold day. I then proceed to eat a kilo of them.
Last night, I dreamt of cheese. There was cannelloni the size of actual cannons, lying artlessly strewn through what I think was a lumberyard. I came down to find mine, which had been lying in the middle of an altar – had been. I threw my hands up in the air and asked Patrick where it was. He threw his hands up too and informed me, in the most patronizing, Captain-Obvious-tone, that he’d eaten it.
I woke up feeling quite resentful of this.
Food is a theme I will probably never be able to tackle in a healthy way. Bursts of eating and lack of self control piggyback very comfortably on eating disorders that you haven’t shrugged off yet. I hardly blame my dreaming of cheese on this. The guilt lies far more squarely at the feet of The Bastard, and his flying monkey minions.
I remember, when I was still five or six, my similarly aged cousin Miriam would make a small swoop through the backyard whenever they visited us. A cursory shuffle through the trash bins would be enough to tell her if there was imported cheese in our house. The information would then be passed onto her mother, my aunt. Obviously, then it would be mentioned at teatime, and half the cheese would find a new home, before the day was done.
I saw an old picture of Miriam last night, us at a family wedding event. She was sitting next to the bride, looking absolutely scathingly at her. It made me think of the last time I saw her without a cold, bone-chillingly calculating look on her face. Or a conversation that had not involved some supposedly ‘subtle’ attempt to get family or financial information out of me.
I couldn’t actually think of a time, though. Couldn’t even think of a time that I wasn’t afraid of her, or her mother. The things they did in our house, the things they did to us… the word family seems to be a catch-all for the horrors of what humans can be to each other. Or to other people.
I remember Reshma, the little seven year old orphaned girl who used to work in their house. She had no one to take care of her, back in her village, and had been left with my aunt’s family so that she received shelter and food in return for cleaning my aunt’s house. There was either an uncle or a sick father in the village, who was supposedly given some money as reimbursement for her labor.
I remember Reshma only vaguely. She was a skin and bone, dark, jumpy little thing about our age. every few months my aunt would shave her head. She claimed it was to make sure that Reshma didn’t get lice. I know now, from experience, that shaving heads is some power move that each of these Bastard brothers and sisters like to pull.
Reshma would fill up my aunt’s water supply, from a tap in the courtyard. She would lug metal pots of water half the size of her body up the stairs, which would be the family’s drinking, cooking, and cleaning water. She’d run errands. fetching groceries, doing the meal prep so that my aunt could flurry about the kitchen and wind up cooking in the little time she was home. She would iron clothes and school uniforms, and polish school shoes for my aunt’s children. She’d wake up and not be allowed to rest till it was night. She’d sometimes sneak over to my house between errands, where my mother would hurriedly feed her as fast as she could, so that the girl had at least something.
When my aunt found out, they all beat Reshma to an inch of her life as punishment. Then they made her eat a fistful of chilli powder, to teach her a lesson. So Reshma ran away from home. Somewhere between her village and the city, she was caught and brought back. They declared her a thief and punished her again. In a few months, she ran away again. This time, they didn’t find her. Sometimes, I wonder if she made it somewhere safe, and is happy. Other times I wonder if anyone except us remembers her at all.
Buttered peas remind me of cold, rainy afternoons, high up the mountain, that year with my Uncle F’s family. The few peaceful weeks before my father joined us there. My uncle’s children grew up practically white, sheltered from their uncle,/my father’s penchant for cruelty. They knew him as the happy, jolly, loud uncle that visited their family with gifts, idolized their mother, and was coddled stupidly warmly by their father.
I wonder what they thought the first time we all met as family, and they soon found out, the noises coming from the basement were not the TV, but their uncle beating his family as often and as hard as he could. I wonder if they remember, because they certainly saw. And I wonder how much they understood, because they still treat The Bastard with affection and adulation.
Meanwhile, I resent their father for having died before I could confront him. Did he – the doctor, the brother, their father- regret, for even a moment, encouraging the monster who destroyed my childhood?