Feminism

choices and being allowed to make them, part one

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[me, from around the time of this story]

When my family was stationed in Iceland, we became close friends with another family up there. We were over at their house all of the time– at times, it feels like we spent most of our time there. My parents usually asked them to babysit us whenever they were celebrating or having a date night, and I loved the sleep-overs we had there.

The story of one such sleep over is one of the funniest of my childhood– and a pretty accurate depiction of who I was, and who I am now.

Mrs. Willis* had spent the entirety of this particular day baking. She’d been making all kinds of breads, fruit breads and nut breads and pumpkin bread and cinnamon raisin bread, and cookies, cakes . . . her kitchen counters and her enormous buffet were covered in sweets. Me and her eldest daughter could barely keep our fingers out of the dough– and the finished products. Mrs. Willis had spent all day laughingly slapping us away and telling us to go play instead of trying to “help” her bake.

I was, however, present in the kitchen when she’d prepared the casserole for dinner, and I noted what she’d put into it: tomatoes, butter beans, spinach, sour cream– which were pretty much My Entire List of Foods I will Never Ever Eat. By the time dinner rolled around, I was dreading it, because my mother had one strict rule about being somebody’s guest and eating her food: if you don’t like something she’s serving, you take a “thank-you bite” (a small helping, but a helping), you eat the entire thing with a smile and without complaining. In fact, your performance should be so good she doesn’t even notice you didn’t like it. But, after that, you don’t have to eat any more of it.

When we sat down to dinner, I was relieved by the side dishes: plenty of salad, crescent rolls, corn, and green beans. She’d put on a full spread, and I was able to eat to my fill. I took as small a portion of the casserole I thought was polite, and then as much salad, green beans, and crescent rolls I could stomach, because, seriously, crescent rolls.

Mrs. Willis, however, noticed that I hadn’t eaten much of the casserole. “Samantha, would you like another helping?” She asked, gesturing toward the casserole with the serving spoon.

I shook my head. “I’m ok. I’m full.”

“But you’ve eaten nothing but salad and bread. You need more than that, this is the entrĂ©e.”

I pointed to the spot on my plate where the sour cream had left a smudge of sauce behind. “I had some. I’m ok.”

“Samantha, you either eat more of the actual dinner, or you don’t get any dessert.”

I looked longingly at all the cakes, the cookies, the cinnamon-roll monkey bread, then looked back at Mrs. Willis. “That’s ok.” It was worth giving up all those chocolate-chip cookies that had been perfuming the house all day to not have to eat more butter beans swimming in spinach and sour cream.

Mrs. Willis was dumbfounded. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the “deal” she’d offered had not really been a deal at all– she’d expected me to instantly cave in order to get cookies. When I had accepted her terms as agreeable, she was shocked. Later, after I’d been sitting on the sofa for hours watching the party guests munching away on cheese balls and tarts and my mom finally arrived to pick me up, Mrs. Willis told my mother what happened:

“You will not believe what Samantha did!”

My mom sent one stern glance my way. Uh-oh. “What happened?”

“She wouldn’t eat any more of dinner, even when I said she had to eat more or go without dessert!”

I could see mom’s lips twitch– I knew that look. She was trying to avoid smiling when I’d done something both adorable and bad. “Did she take a thank-you bite?”

“A what?”

“A thank-you bite. Did she eat a small helping without complaining?”

“Well, yes.”

“And did she complain about not getting any dessert?”

“Uhm . . . well, no. She hasn’t. She’s been very quiet since dinner.”

“That’s what I’ve taught her to do. Samantha,” she called to me, letting me know it was time to go. I got my coat and walked over. Mrs. Willis still seemed to look flabbergasted. We left, but before we went home, mom stopped and got dessert. We laughed together over caked chocolate donuts and iced glasses of milk.

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