A call this morning with my mother started me thinking about associations and the lasting impact they have on our behavior.
When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, around six or seven years old, I found the family-sized box of Nestle Quik powdered chocolate. ("Found," in this context, means that I waited until the adults were not paying attention to me, and I sneakily crept into the kitchen and pulled my pudgy, overweight body onto the kitchen countertop and get the chocolate off the topmost shelf in the highest cupboard.)
Not being a child known for moderate dietary indulgence (I would add 1/2 c. of brown sugar to a glass of whole milk for the pleasure of slurping the brown sugar off the bottom with a straw, just to add more brown sugar when it either dissolved or was eaten), I sat my pink flower-pantied bottom on the countertop with tablespoon in hand and eat spoonful after spoonful of the powdered chocolate ad nauseam (that's a pun, by the way). How I managed to eat half a box of this stuff (not to mention without any kind of lubricating agent like sips of water milk), I do not know...but I did.
An hour or two later, I was in the front seat of my parents' 1976 white Thunderbird, sitting between them. (Anyone who can picture this situation may ask, "where was her seat belt?" To that I would say, Dad ripped out the seat belts and disabled the warning/light bell on every car he had. It was 1980-something and we probably had a metal dashboard in that car; kids were just made tougher back then.) As we made a sharp right turn into the parking lot of a strip mall, by stomach roiled. The car made the little bumpity-bump over the curve, and I experienced all of that chocolate powder a second time, this time in the upward direction, as it temporarily turned brown the white leather seats and stained my favorite yellow/white polka dot dress.
Fast forward about 10-12 years to a college drinking experience when I must've thoroughly abandoned all of the best good sense I ever learned from Grandma or Spock (I mean the logical Star Trek Spock, not the nurturing child psychologist). This 6-hour period began with homemade sushi and champagne (hey, we were cultured college kids!), progressed through beer-and-amaretto Depth Charges, and concluded with shots of tequila and cinnamon-flavored Firewater. About four hours after last call, I took a 15-minute break from vegetarianism and indulged in Chicken McNuggets because I realized I needed food. Perhaps not surprisingly, my body rebelled. Thereafter any gaps in my memory about what I had drank or eaten over the previous 12 hours were answered, in a most physically uncomfortable way.
Since I was 6 or 7, I've barely touched chocolate, eschewing chocolate milk, hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cheesecake, chocolate pudding, chocolate bars, or even chocolate ice cream, or chocolate fudge. I may be one of the few women who disdains gifts of chocolate at Valentine's Day. Since that teen-aged tour of the middle-shelf of the bar, I have barely touched booze, but, more significantly, I have such a strong aversion to tequila and artificial cinnamon that my stomach clenches at the faintest whiff. For multiple reasons, I have never again attempted to acquaint myself with Chicken McNuggets.
So, back to this morning's call with Ma.
I like to cook and bake, something my mother doesn't have much time to do, and my dad likes to eat what I cook and bake. He living nearly 600 miles from me isn't an impediment, as I manage to send travel-tolerant food via carrier pigeon (a.k.a. family members taking road trips between points A and B). Knowing my dad loves cheesecake, and I like making it, caused me to call home this morning to offer to send some cheesecake to him as part of his Christmas package.
Dad was asleep, sleeping off the exhausting effects of life-saving cancer treatment which does everything to destroy quality of life while trying to preserve the quantity of it. So, I asked my mother: Would a nice, high-fat, high-sugar cheesecake entice Dad into eating a little bit more (weight gain being one of his objectives right now)?
Mother: "No, not cheesecake."
Me: "Is he just not eating anything, or do animal-based products just not seem tasty to him right now?"
Mother: "Neither. We just don't want cheesecake in the house."
It was then, in a Hollywood-like rush of flashbacks and instantaneous recollection, that I remembered.
Mother hasn't made cheesecake or had homemade cheesecake in her home for almost 30 years. Whereas she'll occasionally purchase the finest cheesecake CostCo has to offer, it is generally relegated to the extra freezer out-of-sight, and more often meets its end not through someone's enjoyment of every calorie-plumped bite but rather due to freezer burn because it sits there uneaten for so long.
So why the cheesecake prohibition? Clearly, in a home where 1-pound bricks of Jack cheese, tubes of salami, and jugs of whole milk were as plentiful as Starbucks in an urban mall, cheesecake is not verboten due to health concerns.
I last saw Grandpa Ted when I was about ankle-high to a grasshopper then so I have only the foggiest memories of him (if, indeed, they're authentic memories). My mother used to make Grandpa Ted a cheesecake every Christmas. He'd turn one 8-inch cheesecake into about 16 slices (making them very thin indeed!) and freeze each one individually. He'd allow himself one slice a week over the next 3 months or so, knowing that on his birthday, he'd get another homemade cheesecake, so his Christmas gift needed to last until then.
Grandpa Ted died some 27 years ago, and Mother hasn't made a single cheesecake that I know of since then. I have no doubt that the possible parallels have struck here: She liked to bake cheesecake for her dad, who died. I like to bake and am offering to bake a cheesecake for my dad, who is suffering through cancer. She is (or at least, can be) a rational woman. Were I to go ahead and send a cheesecake there uninvited, there'd be no Joan Crawford-type dramatics with a cheesecake flying across the room to hit the wall with a slurpy splat. But every time she saw it in the refrigerator, it'd likely trigger her own Hollywood-like rush of flashbacks and make her a little less happy until it was gone.
Her commitment to cheesecake avoidance is so great, my dislike of chocolate, cheap booze, and Chicken McNuggets pales by comparison.
Such is the power of association.
It's okay, though. To be honest, Dad probably wouldn't feel well enough to eat it anyway.