beefAlways intriguing, NPR’s Moth Radio Hour yesterday afternoon broadcast stories about food and relationships.  One story focused on the narrator’s parents’ argument about how beef should be cooked, a discussion that continued throughout their marriage and spoke clearly of their strong and loving relationship as they sparred again and again over “rare vs. well done”.

As I listened, the story churned up memories of my own mom and dad and the fact that they never argued about “rare vs. well done”; our beef was always well done.  Only after my dad died, did I discover that my mom hated well done beef and that she loved it rare and ate it that way for the next 29 years.

When I asked her why she hadn’t cooked meat both ways, her answer was quick, “That’s the way your father wanted it so that’s the way we ate it.” That one comment capsulized my parents’ relationship — my dad was the strict leader , my mom his obedient subordinate.  He was a “father knows best” with little room for negotiation. He was the family’s leader, our job was to carry out his orders without question in return for a nice middle class life.   Unwilling to fight for what she wanted either overtly or subversively Mom swallowed her resentment, gaining over 100 pounds during their marriage.  She could not manage the conflict resistance would cost her.

The issue of how to cook beef was just one of many, many indications of the problems with my parents’ relationship.    For years I blamed Mom for not fighting back, for not standing up to him.  I hated Dad because he restricted Mom and us girls from things we wanted to do.  If we talked back or weren’t obedient, there were consequences, slapping and yelling were not out of the question.  Was all this unhealthy behavior rooted in their  WWII and 1950’s expectations of the generation?  I’m sure other parents were similar.  Maybe, but no matter, their strained relationship had a serious impact on me and my sisters.  Like Mom, I was obedient, unwilling to resist.

My dad confused me.  For example, he would make buttermilk pancakes with heaps of butter and syrup for me and my giggling girl friends after a sleep over at our house, but then refuse to let me see a horror film or be out past 11:30 at night.  It was only after I left the house did I rebel using the next ten years to experiment with sex, drugs and rock-n-roll while I pushed my career to the edges of what was possible in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Then, he became my mentor,  the guy that said I could do anything I wanted, advising me as I clawed my way up the organization hierarchy.  However, by the time I was 42 with three divorces, I had a psychological mess on my hands that took several years of therapy to clean-up.

So, what did I learn?  I learned that I have both the strengths and weaknesses of both parents, that they did the best they could, and that I do not have to live my life as my mother or father did.  Life has been good for the past 25 years.  How do I know?  My husband and I eat beef the way we like it — his medium rare and mine very rare. This one thing describes the balance we have in our relationship,  how we negotiate, share and find ways to please and support, not hinder, each other. I am lucky.

You never know what gets churned up in your mind when you listen to the radio.