I remember my first “Cheez-It” cracker, around the time I was 8 years old. Unlike “Lay’s” potato chips, I ate only one.
The flavor of burnt cheddar sickened me. That flavor injected itself into my soul like John Travolta’s character in “Pulp Fiction,” stabbing the adrenaline needle into Uma Thurman’s heart, as she OD’ed on heroin. Instant and deep.
If I saw the Cheez-It box thereafter, I would get sick. For a few weeks – and I honestly can’t say what ended it – I would see Cheez-It crackers whenever I saw something square. If a saltine cracker were given to me, it visually morphed into a Cheez-It. I would feel ill and have to look away, demanding the cracker be removed. Did my brothers offer me more square things than usual at that time? I can’t recall. The square doorknob to my bedroom? Cheez-It. How was I to get into my bedroom if I had to touch THAT!
But I got over it. Mostly.
To this day, if I smell burning cheese – say if someone is cooking a grilled cheese sandwich, and a bit of the cheese sneaks out of the bread, and over-cooks in the pan – my stomach turns a little and this memory comes back. Don’t even get me started on those burnt, parmesan crisps being served with soup in trendy bistros. Torture devices!
“Oh, you’ll like this with your soup.”
Like HELL I will!
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My father hallucinated.
I didn’t know this until around age 29. I had vague knowledge of his mental illness, as it is hard to hide a bottle of Lithium forever. Even harder to not notice the swings in Dad’s moods and motivation throughout the 11 years in which he was more or less in my conscious life. But by and large, in the way a compulsive gambling, alcoholic, philandering attorney can be, Dad was relatively “normal” in the years he was around me.
In 1995, when I was 29 I got a call from Dad’s second wife, telling me he had been committed to the Nevada State Mental Hospital. She called the sheriff when Dad began swinging their 1-year old baby daughter by the leg, as he tried to figure out how to quiet the voices he heard coming from within the paper-thin walls of his trailer home. The sheriff committed him, by force. After they got him to put the shotgun – and the baby, I presume –down.
I was able to call the hospital the next day, and expected to speak to a doctor. Instead, I was routed to Dad’s phone, and he rambled on a number of topics religious, historical, and pertaining to his condition. He was still hallucinating, whether by drug or by nature. I got nothing tangible from the call beyond my only first-person witness to that which was previously unknown to me.
Did Mom know? I called her immediately, and yes, she knew. She reeled off a litany of incidents throughout her marriage to him. She had never told us, and it’s understandable to some degree, especially now that I have full grown adult children and have had to face the choices involved in discussing various parental Swords of Damocles. When is the right time to tell? If they know something, will it be a stigma or an aid?
Anyway, all of this is a long way of saying that I wonder what went through Mom’s head, watching her eight year old son hallucinating Cheez-Its around every corner. I wonder how her fears and experiences drove her behavior towards me. I wonder how trapped she may have felt seeing behaviors in her own flesh and blood — behaviors she could discount and revile in her husband as being “other.”
It’s an unanswerable question.
The only thing I know for certain is I don’t eat Cheez-Its.