Government Cheese and Pinto Beans

I was nine or ten when my mom took me and my younger siblings downtown to a place to get some free food for poor people.  Our dad was out of work for six weeks. My mother was humiliated.

We waited in line until it was our turn. As the worker handed Mom her block of government cheese in a gray cardboard box, a package of powdered milk, some canned mystery meat, and a bag of dried pinto beans, she passed them back to her stairstep of children.

As she handed back the five-pound bag of beans, she cried, “What am I supposed to do with these?”

We were used to getting our beans out of cans – green, baked, kidney, lima, chili — but not pinto beans, and not dried and in a bag.

One minute my dad had been sitting at the round red Formica kitchen table, pounding his fist until peas flew out of the serving bowl, and the next minute he was down the hallway with my mom calming him down and getting him to go to bed.

The next day he was gone.

“Where’s Dad?” I asked.

But the answers weren’t answers at all.

“You don’t need to worry about it.”

Or the next time I asked – “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

Or the last time I asked – “It’s none of your concern.”

None of my concern? This was my DAD. That’s how my family was – secret after secret after secret.

A week later, Mom came back from visiting him in the hospital. She brought moccasins that he had stitched together with thin leather straps.  He made every size over the next few weeks, a pair for each of us.

“Why so many?” I asked.

“It’s part of his therapy,” Mom said.

Therapy for what?  I hadn’t a clue at the age of ten. At least I knew he was still alive and coming home in a few more weeks.

The powdered milk was nasty. Unless all the powder was stirred up well, it was lumpy. It tasted okay, but the texture was wrong. It was really wrong on cereal.

The government cheese sliced like Velveeta, but it didn’t taste like Velveeta. It tasted like the cardboard box it was in.

The mystery meat was better than no meat. Mom turned it into stew.

Neighbors dropped off bags of wormy apples, which we cut up to make hot apple slices with cinnamon. Others brought bags of un-shucked corn.

Eventually Dad came home.  No explanation was ever given. Dad accepted our hugs as I wondered where he’d been and why. He seemed the same, only quieter.

Dad has been gone now for 33 years. He would’ve been 90 this year. I recently found out what they did to him while he was gone those six weeks. My younger sister just told me this year, now that I am 65 years old.

I really did have to wait until I was older.

The pinto beans never did come out of the bag. Mom didn’t know what to do with them, so she didn’t do anything at all.

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