Archive for February 15th, 2012

As in, “Planet of the Onlies” and “Planet of the Apes.”

I was cutting up some leftovers to augment tonight’s supper of Shepherd’s Pie, and was reminded of recent conversations between me and my husband, having to do with meals and meal preparations.  I’d known, because he mentioned it many times, that his super-thrifty mother had a habit of purchasing a five-pound pot roast for Sunday dinner (for three people) because it was Cheaper to Buy in Bulk – then serving pot roast for dinner every single night until Friday, when, as good Catholics, they’d have fish.  MIL-zilla didn’t like to cook, so pot-roast-every-night killed two birds with one stone.

But recently, the subject of our own leftovers came up.  Often, my husband won’t finish an entire meal, so saves the scraps until they’re almost at the point of rancidity, then cooks up a stir fry or soup out of them.  This is something I cannot get my own head around – when he was working, I used to eat the leftovers for lunch, but now that he’s home, he wants them saved for his own concoctions.  I was commenting on the difficulty I have with the concept of leftovers when he innocently asked, “What did your mother used to do with leftovers?  Didn’t she make soup?”  And it dawned on me:  At our house, “leftovers” was an alien concept.  Five kids, three of them boys?!  If you weren’t careful, food would disappear off your plate while you were still eating it!

This isn’t the first time the differences between only children and a posse has come up.  Another time, I was talking about what I used to get for lunch when working as a secretary before our marriage:  “Usually a hamburger, or some kind of fish.”  And again the question, “Didn’t you used to pack a lunch?”  Well, no.  And that was a good question, because money was always tight at our house, and a packed lunch would have been much thriftier.  I thought about it for a minute before it hit me:  “Anything I had brought into that house to make for lunch the next day, would have disappeared by morning.”  Well, maybe not liver, and even I draw the line at liver.

Only children just don’t grasp this.  In the house of an only child, you put something down, it’s still there when you return for it.  Nobody else comes along and says, “Oh, hey, I was looking for a pen/a dish/five bucks,” and that’s the last you see of it.  Let alone food.  The first time we had this conversation was one evening when visiting the in-laws.  We had eaten dinner and put the baby down for the night, and that was when my father-in-law brought out his Ultra Special Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies (I like chewy better), and gave my husband and me two each.  As I was crunching mine down the hatch, DH put his at his place.  “We’re going for a walk,” he announced, “and I’ll have mind when I come back.”  This was too good an opportunity to miss.  “Boy, you can tell Jim’s an only child,” I remarked.  “He’s going to leave those cookies there, and he actually expects them still to be there when he gets back.”

MIL-zilla also having been an only child, she and DH exchanged puzzled glances:  Why wouldn’t they still be there?  My father-in-law, who not only had had a sister and a stepbrother but also had worked as a fireman, burst out laughing.  He knew!

Then there are the “luxuries” you can afford yourself, when you only have one child, not all of them material.  I’ve mentioned MIL-zilla’s super-thriftiness.  The odd thing about it was:  She and her husband only had the one child.  The house they lived in had been MIL-zilla’s parents’ – she grew up in that house.  She was employed as a nurse by the City of NY, and her husband, as I’ve mentioned, was FDNY.  As City employees, they had benefits the rest of New York could only dream about.  Yet – DH was convinced that they lived on the thin edge of poverty, because of all the cost-cutting measures she took.  The one that sticks in my mind was the washing machine, an old-fashioned wringer-washer that involved a lot of manual labor.  She hung onto it because It Still Worked, and her motto was, “Use it up, wear it out, make it last.”  You can afford luxuries like that with only one child.  If she’d had half a dozen, that washer would have been replaced by an automatic in record time.

And she would have had to be a lot more creative with dinner.  We never knew what pot roast was when we were growing up.  We ate a lot of meatloaf.  (A lot of meatloaf.)  We ate a lot of stuffed cabbage.  We went through a ten-pound bag of potatoes a week.  And vegetables, which were a staple on the “Zilla” table, were for rabbits at our house.  Who could afford them?!  DH used to talk fondly of the German frankfurters his mother would buy from time to time.  At our house, we bought the A&P Special – heaven alone knows what went into them, but Thursday night was Hot Dog Night at our house, and we were grateful for that one hot dog on a bun – now that was luxury!  (Eight hot dogs to a package, so one was “left over” – it always disappeared by morning, first come first serve.  I didn’t know food got moldy until after I was married.)

And the bathroom.  The “Zilla” household was unusual, in that it had two bathrooms, and for MIL-zilla, this was a necessity.  She could never fathom how seven people could live in a house with only one bathroom.  Of course – in the Zilla household, they could take their time shaving and brushing their teeth.  At our house, you used the bathroom for only the very basic necessities, and even bathing was something you rushed through; somebody was bound to Need the room before too long.  (When I’d had it up to here with MIL-zilla, I used to torment her with tales of when my uncle’s family lived with us for five months during the closure of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Four adults.  Seven children.  (Eight, actually, but one was still in diapers.)  One bathroom.  She’d turn white at the very thought.)

See – these are the things you don’t even think about when you get married.  You’re so wrapped up in a haze of Love and Happiness and Fulfillment, that it doesn’t even occur to you that such trivia exists.  Over time, it can be the stuff that drives a wedge between you, or it can be the kind of thing you shake your head over in wonderment that your Dearly Beloved actually came from a different planet – the Planet of the Onlies.  Or the Planet of the Apes.  When my nephew got married this past summer, our son asked, “Does Katherine [the bride] have any idea what kind of family she’s marrying into?”  “Nobody knows,” I said, thinking of the Zillas, but then added, “Just ask Dad.”  My husband guffawed.  Maybe he knew I was thinking of his parents, or maybe he was just agreeing that my background was hopelessly chaotic.

But this May, we will have been together for 43 years.  Obviously the planets found a way to align.

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