My son called pizza his “special turkey” for about five years. He would not eat regular, nonspecial turkey, not for me. Not for his grandmother, who would never have asked him to in the first place because she was firmly on his side in all things. Not for his stepfather, especially, or anyone in his stepfather’s family, which was a personal affront to all of them. No turkey. Or carrots. Or mashed potatoes unless he saw me make them and could guarantee that I didn’t mash any secret vegetables like cauliflower in to fool him. He did not eat much of anything for a very, very long time. And this was OK most of the year but really the worst at Thanksgiving.
It was always the worst at my husband’s family’s house. We were married for five years only, five years of someone else being the boss of all of us until we decided to be the boss of us. Those Thanksgiving dinners with four kids over one weekend where I knew I had two choices in front of me: feed my son what I knew he would eat or try to “make him eat with the rest of us.” He was expected to sit with the entire family at dinner, to have cut-up turkey and potatoes and carrots on a plate with, and this was fatally important, no ketchup, and eat. Preferably in silence with his hair smoothed over his forehead and a smile on his face.
I was too young to say much then. Too pregnant half the time, too busy with new babies and toddlers and diapers to push back. And so, in the beginning, I tried. To make everyone happy but my son. In the car on the way to dinner, I begged him, “Please, hon, just eat a little bit of turkey and potatoes and you can have a big chocolate brownie for dessert.” I brought bribery brownies with me because pumpkin pie looked too much like a vegetable to him and he would not try it.
My son would tell me “I’ll try,” but you could see in his face it was beyond him. He simply could not force himself to eat it. Once, to prep for the coming holiday, I tried to practice with him. I put one piece of macaroni on his plate and told him that he could have whatever he wanted for dinner if he just ate that one piece. I’m ashamed to tell you I baked an entire funfetti cake and put it on the table in front of him. I’m more ashamed to tell you that I told him he could eat the entire thing if he just tried one piece of my very delicious macaroni.
He ate peanut butter sandwiches; he ate bananas. He ate french fries and hot dog buns without the hot dogs dipped in ketchup. He ate cheese pizza.
His little hand with his little fork shaking as it closed in on his little mouth. “I can’t, Mommy,” he finally said. “I just can’t.”
He just couldn’t, and I knew it. I accepted it. Our doctor accepted it, told me he was healthy and he would grow out of it so don’t worry about it. At home, when it was just us, he kept his own bottle of ketchup beside him at the table, ate the mashed potatoes I made him while he pulled his chair over to the kitchen counter to eye me suspiciously. “Can I trust these?” he would ask and I would sigh and push aside the parsnips I was about to mash in when he wasn’t looking. He ate peanut butter sandwiches; he ate bananas. He ate french fries and hot dog buns without the hot dogs dipped in ketchup. He ate cheese pizza.
Then Thanksgiving would come, and we didn’t get to decide anymore, because of the Family. They felt like its own entity separate from my mom and my kids and me, humorless and unknowable. Make him turkey. Make him eat carrots. And do not let him cry.
Because that’s what he would do, just sit there and cry. I was often put at the other end of the table so I couldn’t “let him get away” with anything, as I was told was my habit. For two Thanksgivings, he sat at the table and cried. His stepfather sat beside him, flushed with the effort of trying to show the Family that he, unlike me, was the strong one. When he cried, the Family said, “This is a great way to spend Thanksgiving, listening to him cry all through dinner,” and glared down at me, sitting in front of my untouched food. Useless. I watched my son as his older brother, just a little boy himself, would sneak some of his turkey onto his plate to help him. Inside, I curdled like spoiled milk.
I let that happen for two years and then I said no. My mom said no. My mother-in-law said no. No, he is eating a slice of pizza kept in a Ziploc baggie for his dinner. He and his older brother are drinking chocolate milk too. When he wants mashed potatoes, if he wants mashed potatoes, he gets his own private bottle of ketchup like he does at home. The Family frowned at first. They gossiped about my unruly child, the whiner who got away with everything. But eventually someone else’s kid threw a temper tantrum at the table, and they could talk about her instead.
My son sat quietly eating his special turkey called cheese pizza. I left his stepfather and our Family was cut in half. And so we became a Family of our own. The kind who wears track pants at Thanksgiving and eats whatever the hell we want. And for this, we are thankful.