I suppose it would be catchy to say that I grew up underprivileged, but I didn't--I grew up pretty much like everyone else I knew and with parents some might call "solid citizens." In fact, I was very much privileged because I was loved and I knew it.
But we weren't rich, and my mother, bless her soul, wasn't much of a cook. My first teaching job brought me to Monroe, Wisconsin, where, for a fortnight or so, I lived in with an old Swiss-American couple who owned the trailer I was going to rent once the old renter cleared out. At every meal--I swear it--there was a pile of neatly cut slices of real Swiss cheese--breakfast, lunch, dinner--holes and all. Cheese was a staple, as it should be in Badgerland.
I'd never eaten Swiss cheese before. I don't think we ever had it at home, but if we did my mother never put it on the table. I know father loved sharp cheddar, but I don't remember ever seeing that either. It was likely a part of his own late night treat or something.
What I knew was American cheese and Velveeta, and that came on everything from hamburgers to half-buns adorned--I kid you not!--with a inch-long slice of bacon, then toasted, one of my mom's favorites for guests. Iowans--get this!--Iowans taught me to pull up my nose at American cheese. I bet I could sell a memoir in Wisconsin with some catchy variation on that line: "I was a Velveeta cheese head."
Anyway, you can guess why I loved yesterday's offering from the Writer's Almanac--"American Cheese" by Jim Daniels.
At department parties, I eat cheeses
my parents never heard of--gooey
pale cheeses speaking garbled tongues.
I have acquired a taste, yes, and that's
okay, I tell myself.
[On the interest of full disclosure, my wife and I ate baby swiss last night, late--I'd left it out of the fridge so it was warm, just in case you're wondering]
I grew up in a house
shaded by the factory's clank and clamor.
A house built like a square of sixty-four
American Singles, the ones my mother made lunches
with for the hungry man who disappeared
into that factory and five hungry kids.
American cheese. Yellow mustard. Day-old
[Nostalgia is such a blessing--don't you think?]
Not even Swiss, with its mysterious
holes. We were sparrows and starlings,
still learning how the blue jays stole our eggs,
our nest eggs. Sixty-four singles wrapped in wax--
dig your nails in to separate them.
When I come home I crave--more than any home
cooking--those thin slices in the fridge. I fold
one in half, drop it in my mouth. My mother
can't understand, doesn't remember me
being a cheese-eater, just like that.
Some writers claim that just about everyone who deliberately puts a pen to paper, or tickles keyboards, has no more than four readers in mind when they do, four people he or she needs somehow to please. We don't have American Singles in our house--not that they're beneath us, we just don't. That's not the story here, or the real reason I love the poem.
The story is the beguiling mystery that always attends the relationship between parents and children. I once wrote a little memoir essay about my mom wailing on me when I was just a boy--and she had cause. My mother swore no such thing ever happened. I know it did. I remember.
Or at least I think I remember, don't I? Who knows?
The real joy of "American Cheese" is that Mom simply doesn't remember what an incredible payload those wax-wrapped singles delivered on this professor kid of hers. It's entirely possible that the other four siblings couldn't care less, but every time son Jim stops home, he says he can't stop eating those singles. Can you imagine?
It's the most fundamental relationship we know--family. But, my word, it's rife with mysteries.