This day and age, it’s perfectly normal for parents to focus on and even obsess over their children’s nutrition and fitness. Somewhere between general health awareness and the swooping blades of helicopter parenting, it has become a thing.
In the sixties and seventies, it wasn’t so much a thing. Parents fed their children because failure to do so resulted in a lot of noise and poor behavior. They also expected their children to get their butts OUTSIDE to play or braced themselves for in-home destruction during inclement weather in keeping with kids’ natural activity levels as a means of “fitness.”
In this sense, I guess Dad was ahead of his time. First, I must say, even when we were very broke, we never went hungry. Ever…even if our fare was bread and cream gravy (which rocked, by the way), Mom always ensured we ate.
Dad, however, in the dips and curves of his massive mood swings, managed to touch about every area of our lives (some more intimate than others, as you now know); food and fitness were no exceptions.
Unlike the earlier referenced helicopter parents of the 2000s, however, Dad’s on-again, off-again infatuation with our food intake and/or fitness levels had zero to do with health and everything to do with his need to dominate and ensure we fell in line. Even if it hurt, even if it made us want to throw up, both of which were natural phenomena for us when he would suddenly become Jack LaLanne (for you spring chickens, replace that name with any male Fitness guru you follow on YouTube or whatever media you use that I’ve never heard of), or Julia (Julio?) Child (again, young ‘uns, choose your favorite Food Network chef).
These things always happened when he wasn’t working due to his issues with being a responsible adult. Thus, he compensated by overcompensating on the home front. I assure you, to a kid, we would have preferred he just got a job like the other dads.
I personally remember the fitness spinning to life when we lived on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico when I was somewhere around the 3rd or 4th grade. My sister specifically remembers that he made us a massive mandatory breakfast on Memorial Day, then dragged us on an 8-mile hike. I don’t remember the breakfast (that one, anyway), but I definitely remember the “family hikes” among the desert mesas. Erase that lovely Sound of Music family-up-the-mountain hike scene; this was not a candidate for a Family Weekly feature story. We had to be nearly in rank and file as we moved out into the desert. If we lost our minds and acted like children by running ahead or falling behind to look at a lizard or something, we were immediately chastised for “not wanting to be part of the family” (by the guy who would hole up in his bedroom for days on end, go figure). My brother remembers a few other things about one hike in particular, which is not shareable. Dad would have been thrown off the parenting helicopter by enraged socially conscious moms and dads, and rightfully so.
So, let’s stick with fitness before we bound into the serious Olympic breakfast spells. In New Mexico, he became entranced with running in place and jumping jacks, in addition to military-style hikes. No kidding, he’d make us line up and run in place, time us and, with his apparently calibrated eyes, ensure our knees were high enough as we huffed and puffed, praying for an end, fantasizing about being in some other home, or even the Bates Motel, for that matter. I’m sure Norman didn’t have to do counted jumping jacks or timed runs.
Flip ahead in the 70’s calendar till we land squarely in our first home in Boise, Idaho, the sixth grade for me, which put the others in junior high and high school. Here we wound up on Welfare since Dad was on another stay-at-home-and-hide binge.
Because this was before food stamps, we had to go to a big warehouse and get “commodities,” i.e., generic food provided by the government. Good stuff…it included the only “canned bologna” I’ve seen before or since, thank God. If you didn’t slice it very thin, it was pretty vile. But I digress (what a surprise!). Of course, Dad wouldn’t set foot in the commodity warehouse because that’s where poor people went, so Mom would have to find time around her work schedule to go with one or all of us kids. Other than the gross bologna and weird not-cheese (this stuff made Velveeta seem gourmet), the food really wasn’t bad because it consisted of basic staples…bread, rice, dry beans, flour, sugar, butter, hot cereal, canned chicken, powdered eggs (blech!), etc. Oh, and prunes; oh boy. We tolerated the powdered milk because we were basically nice kids (and we would have been issued capital punishment on the spot if we complained).
What we were less grateful for was the fact Dad read somewhere that breakfast was not only the most important meal of the day but apparently must be multi-course and in battalion-sized quantity. Or maybe he made that part up. Either way, our commodity haul ensured he could thus provide for us, by force, if necessary.
Ready for this? And I assure you, I checked with my older sibs for accuracy because my memories of these epic before-school smorgasbords were so absurd, I needed to fact-check. Our memories (and gag-reflex responses) were intact and identical.
We started out with stewed prunes (as soon as your nausea passes, you can keep reading). Then, we had to eat a brimming (and I mean brimming) bowl of whole wheat hot cereal. Then, in he came with the scrambled previously powdered eggs and pancakes and toast. If there was any bacon to be had, that would come in with the last course too.
Stop rolling your eyes! I’m serious here!
Of course, we had to eat every bite and wash it down with the tastily hydrated powdered milk and, as my sister reminded me, whatever delightful juice facsimile we had from the warehouse. Almost all the products from there were in white packages with black print, so flavors are hard to recall since the flavor was mostly sugar. If we didn’t eat every bite – what am I saying?! – we ate every bite because there was zero tolerance for disobedience.
Please understand, I am not complaining about being provided for. Nor am I complaining about the blessing of Welfare, without which, we might have gone hungry. I am not complaining about an overabundance of food (okay, maybe a little bit, because it really didn’t need to be 4000 calories all at once!). But in fairness, I was absolutely complaining about that nasty-ass bologna; as a card-carrying LOVER of Oscar Meyer baloney, I have to draw the line with that canned stuff, free or not.
Actually, come to think of it, other than that, I’m not complaining at all. As always, I’m telling you a story of not-uncommon dysfunction, of four kids who somehow did well in school during periodic food comas. Four kids who, for intermittent times in their childhoods, probably could have succeeded in Marine boot camp although they wouldn’t have understood the first thing about playing on a real sports team.
I guess it was a mixed blessing; if Dad had been consistent with our home “fitness,” we might have become true Olympians. However, if the mega-meals had been the norm, we would have all been candidates for Biggest Loser before we even graduated high school. But as it was just a random thing, we didn’t end up being morbidly obese.
Wait! There’s the silver lining! I knew if I typed long enough, I’d find it!
And that concludes the ill-advised Ron Seley parental approach to nutrition and fitness.
What did I learn? If I was going to run, I should actually move forward; it’s much better on the shins, not nearly as boring as running in place, and I wouldn’t have someone yelling at me to “get those knees up!” And learned not to do jumping jacks, mostly because I just really hate jumping jacks. I also learned to get a job and keep it, so I wouldn’t have to eat canned bologna, powdered eggs, and plastic cheese.