It all began, I think, when my youngest sister, Jean, was born. I was six years old.
When my mother went to the hospital to deliver a child — and Jean was her fifth — Gramma Neal would pay for a caregiver to stay with us while Mom was in the hospital. In those days, women who delivered babies were in the hospital for a week or so, so the selection of the caregiver was a big deal to Jim, Cath, Margaret and me. Our favorite caregiver was a kind woman named Della, who would make us milkshakes (using ice milk rather than ice cream) and grilled cheese sandwiches. On the occasion of Jean’s birth, however, Della apparently was not available, so our caregiver was a tough, no-nonsense woman named Mrs. Graf. She was a strict disciplinarian, to put it mildly. One day when Jim returned home from school a few minutes late, she tugged his ear (just like you would see in a Little Rascals short) until it was red and he hollered in pain.
For one fateful dinner, she served stewed tomatoes. They were, arguably, the most unappetizing food imaginable — pink and skinless, translucent and veiny, served on a wet dish covered in watery juice shot full of seeds. No rational person would eat them, and I refused. She forced me to do so, upon pain of corporal punishment. They were disgusting and made me physically ill, and I think I have hated vegetables ever since. Now, I’m not saying that I would have grown to like vegetables, even if Frau Graf hadn’t forced me to eat them some 46 years ago. There is no doubt, however, that her insistence that I eat stewed tomatoes contributed to my steadfast disdain for all vegetable matter. And I’m equally sure that, every time I turn down a salad or ask that my entree be served without vegetables on the plate, the six-year-old lurking inside me thinks: “Hah! Take that, Mrs. Graf!”