White Bread Spells Happiness
Writer’s comment: I have learned that to write a convincing and forceful essay, a writer must be emotionally engaged. However, this is not an easy task when, as students, classes require us to write about certain topics. In addition, when writing something personal, we may sometimes evoke unpleasant or painful memories, as I discovered while writing this essay.
Our assignment was to write about an object that we associated with a particular memory. Two days before the assignment was due, I still had no ideas for the paper. However, a couple of hours before English class, I forced myself to sit down at the computer. Miraculously enough, a childhood image of a loaf of bread came to mind, and after ninety minutes of non-stop freewriting, my essay was virtually complete. I realized that I had been avoiding writing the essay because I didn’t want to think about unpleasant events from my past. Through writing this essay and, subsequently, having it selected for publication, I have learned that it is worthwhile to push past our emotional comfort zone and write about seemingly uninteresting or uncomfortable topics, because we may find a story that not only touches the reader but reconciles us with our own feelings as well.
Instructor’s comment: An essay assignment called “Object-Memory” asked students to reexperience some moment in their past by describing, and following the memories close to, a particular object—a record album or broken plaster angel or old toy. Imaginatively creating the lost world of her childhood and the white D’Italiano bread whose brightly colored wrapper spelled momentary comfort in an impoverished home, Christine brings readers into her experiences of hope, hunger, shame, and humor. She challenges us to reconsider how deeply children feel class divisions. And what I love best in this essay is the realness: the coolness of her modern kitchen, the pristine beauty of her cakes, and the mouth-watering apparition of D’Italiano bread. This essay shows Christine's skills as a writer and self-editor well: it reads like a short story, teaches without preaching, and makes us hungry for childhood food.
—Jan Van Stavern, English Department
The plastic wrapper of a loaf of Wonderbread’s D’Italiano white bread is colored brightly with the primary colors one associates with childhood and kindergarten playroom activities. The swirling script lettering of the word D’Italiano makes the bread seem somehow more special than bread packaged with ordinary block lettering. On both ends of the shiny, clear wrapper, boldly colored round dots resembling bright balloons are arranged upon a blazing red background, conveying the joy and happiness the bread would bring to any sandwich and my fifteen-year-old life. Once, the bread represented a hopefulness and freshness that I hoped my life would someday acquire. However, the bread also served as a painful reminder of the dismal nature of our empty, barely paid for apartment that my single mother, sister, and I shared. The bread symbolized both the good and bad aspects of that particularly intense period: on the one hand, the potential to be just like any other kid my age, but on the other, all the things our small family lacked and my inadequacy at being what I considered normal.
Growing up in New Jersey, my sister and I were raised without a father in the house throughout most of our childhood. My uneducated mother always held at least two jobs to provide the barest essentials such as a roof over our heads and food in the kitchen. She was usually employed as a waitress or bartender, which meant late hours for her and a lot of time alone for my sister and me. During my early teenage years, I remember coming home from school on most days with a teenager’s typically ravenous appetite. However, I usually found our kitchen disappointingly void of any kind of snack food. Although the refrigerator contained main staples such as milk, butter, and eggs, these items were not appealing to a famished child. Furthermore, my mother was quite adept at growing science projects in the refrigerator, and opening the door to view leftover casseroles layered with gray and green fuzzy molds did not entice me to cook. Occasionally, I would come home to a cake my mom had made the night before and attack it with considerable fervor. On the weekends, my mother and I went food shopping for the week, or for whatever number of days she could afford food for at the time, and buy the items she deemed necessary, such as meat, milk, and canned vegetables. These items did not interest me because they required cooking or some other ingredient to make them edible. However, I did sometimes successfully manage to convince my mother to buy a box of Captain Crunch cereal or a box of instant mashed potatoes, which I consumed in an astonishingly small period of time.
While in elementary school, I remember going to my girlfriend’s houses after school and being absolutely amazed at both the variety and amount of food in their kitchen cabinets and refrigerators. Every kind of snack food seemed to be available: Fritos corn chips, potato chips, Hostess cup cakes, and juices with funny cartoons on the label meant to entice the most finicky kids. I distinctly remember my friends and I climbing onto the kitchen counter to make ourselves bologna sandwiches with mustard on fresh, white Wonderbread, with Fritos corn chips piled on the side. This meal seemed to me the epitome of non-dysfunctional family life and represented the financial and emotional security I longed for. Their well-stocked kitchen made me feel safe and forget my own home for a little while. In contrast, our empty apartment and its kitchen with only the necessities were painful reminders that our situation had to be pretty bad for our mother to be gone most of the time. I told myself that she wasn’t around more often because she had to work, not because she didn’t want to be with us. However, I wasn’t always successful at convincing myself that the latter, whether a real or imagined notion, wasn’t the case.
Occasionally, my mother purchased the foods I longed for and considered symbolic of a family with no dysfunctions or financial worries. As strange as it may seem, on days when I came home from school and found that new, brightly colored loaf of D’Italiano bread resting on the kitchen counter, I felt happier and more secure than I had that morning. I felt I was normal for a while instead of poor and alone, and I could see myself as any other school kid in a middle-class two-parent family. That loaf of bread worked a minor miracle in helping me to forget my reality for just a little while: reality being a mother who was never around, reality being an empty apartment with only lawn furniture in the living room, reality being a young child acutely aware of her differences from other children, reality being a young girl afraid of the future because she wasn’t sure she had one.
As a thirty-one-year-old married woman today, I live in a new home in a suburban development where young children flood the streets to play street hockey, basketball, or whichever game is popular that day. My lawn is always mowed, and the hedges are always neatly trimmed. Inside, the house is meticulously clean, something that my friends tease me about. My sister likes to say that my house isn’t just clean, it’s sterile. Each room contains pale ivory carpet that requires me to expend considerable energy keeping it in pristine condition. All my friends seem to be aware of this and automatically remove their shoes in the front entry, while a few refuse to drink red wine in my house for fear of spilling it. They do these things without any request from me; however, I must admit that I appreciate their consideration. Even my dog is trained to avoid soiling the carpet. Simba is a very large, 125-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback, who has a tendency to sleep in any dirt pile available. Every evening when I open the door to let him in the house, he steps inside and immediately sits on a towel I’ve laid in front of him and waits for me to wipe his feet. Simba is very patient with me and tolerates even my most thorough and lengthy wipe-downs during the rainy season. Our little act never ceases to amaze and entertain my friends and family.
My kitchen is especially tidy, and the white tile countertops are cleared of any non-cooking items. The kitchen cabinets are well stocked with spices and staples such as oils, vinegars, and baking ingredients, and the refrigerator and freezer always contain enough food for a few days. And, on most days, some sort of cake resides inside a pedestaled, glass-domed cake plate on the kitchen counter. The only thing missing is that loaf of brightly colored D’Italiano bread, which is not distributed here on the West Coast. Although my home appears quite organized and pulled together, I still have a bizarre quirk left over from my childhood. I hoard food. After I return home from grocery shopping and have put all the food in its proper place, I don’t want anyone to eat it. This, of course, drives my husband absolutely crazy. It also provides endless teasing from my best friend who understands why I do it but likes to give me a hard time anyway. It’s not that I never let the food get eaten, just that I am continually conscious of the food being depleted. It’s not unusual for me to say something to my husband like, “Don’t eat all of that because I want to get a second meal out of it tomorrow night.” My weird behavior also causes me to avoid eating too much of a particular item for fear of eating it all, which, on many occasions, leads to food actually going bad before it is fully consumed. I am perfectly aware that I can buy more food, but somehow I need the security of always having a fully stocked kitchen.
Curiously enough, I am not the only one from my family with bizarre behavioral leftovers from the past. My sister is a hoarder as well; however, she hoards not food but things. I remember visiting her while she was attending junior college and living with my mother and her new husband. I went up to her room in the reconverted attic and was completely amazed at the enormous piles of merchandise covering the floor. She had at least thirty large boxes, stacked almost all the way to the ceiling. They contained brand new items, such as a vacuum cleaner, television, VCR, dishes, and pots and pans. They weren’t inexpensive items either, but were made by some of the best manufacturers around. She told me she had been collecting these things for years in preparation for the time when she moved into her own apartment. However, she wasn’t ready to move for at least a couple more years and complained of constant arguments with our mother over the merchandise. Apparently, our mother was continually attempting to gain access to some of the items my sister was stashing. My sister adamantly refused, which infuriated our mother.
This past summer I went back east for my sister’s wedding. I hadn’t been back for four years, and the trip caused me a lot of emotional turmoil because I had originally fled New Jersey with the intention of never going back, and I felt that somehow I had failed or weakened by not keeping my resolve. I remember that as the plane was on its final approach to Newark International Airport, I felt a surge of panic well up from my stomach and fiercely clutch my windpipe, pulling its way up to my throat. My entire body throbbed with my pounding heartbeat, and I found it difficult to breathe. In order to prevent myself from vomiting over the person sitting next to me, I had to very deliberately talk myself out of my hysteria. Walking off the plane, although the panic was gone, I was still feeling a bit shaky. However, when I saw my sister’s lovely face greeting me at the terminal gate, all my negative thoughts vanished, and I raced to hug her.
During the visit, my mother and I went grocery shopping together at the same store I had frequented as a young teenager. The excursion seemed mostly uneventful until I spied the loaves of D’Italiano bread piled atop the shelves in the bread aisle. For a moment, I was transported back to that empty apartment where I had endured the most unhappy times of my childhood. The irony of the situation was that I was reliving the past while standing with my mother. She picked up a loaf and tossed it into the cart unaware of the profound effect the bread had on me. She turned to me and said, “You said you were hungry. Would you like me to fix you a tuna sandwich when we get home?” Stunned, I could only reply, “Yes, that would be fine,” and we moved on.