I’m Not Finished: Canned Mandarin Oranges, Wednesday Morning, 1969

Part of a series called I’m Not Finished: A Personal Encyclopedia Gluttonica.

Of course I had a deprived childhood. Childhood is, by definition, a time when you are deprived of what you most want and, to add insult to injury, the deprivation is presented as being for your own good. This all takes place at exactly the same time when your desires aren’t even desires, as adults know them, but are felt as pure, uncut needs.

A bright yellow can with red and green that reads "Del Monte Mandarin Oranges in Light Syrup."

The can may or may not have appeared otherwise in 1969 but one truth endures: My mother would only have bought a name brand like this if she had a coupon for it.

Or so those darling cans of mandarin orange segments seemed to me, age four,  one grocery-shopping Wednesday morning after some sad holiday fruit salad had tipped me to their crisp succulence. I imagined, I yearned for, I needed a bowl of fruit salad composed of nothing but mandarin oranges. My mother, rather crisp herself and distracted by her shopping list, said it wasn’t possible.

All I wanted her to do was hold the fruit cocktail, canned fruit cocktail being the pallid concoction that she tarted up with chunked green apple, sliced banana, and (sigh) canned mandarin oranges. And then hold the apple and banana. That’s all I was asking her to do. Bring me a fruit salad, hold the fruit cocktail, hold the apple, hold the banana.

Screen shot from the film "Five Easy Pieces" in which Jack Nicholson's character tries in vain to order a breakfast combo but with wheat toast in place of the potatoes. The middle-aged waitress is pursing her lips as she is writing on her order pad. Jack is sitting in a booth next to Karen Black, who plays his girlfriend.

Five Easy Pieces, BBS Productions, 1970

Had it not been 1969, had it not been a Wednesday morning in the canned goods aisle of the Wegman’s closest to our house in Greece, New York — indeed, had I not been marooned in the seat of a shopping cart, her mini-me in our respective polyester stretch pants — this exchange with my mother could have exploded into a Five Easy Pieces type of situation. Instead, all that happened was I eyed the stacked cans of tantalizing citrus receding in the distance as my mother pushed us on toward condiments and instant soups while I pouted that my mother could have entire cans of mandarin oranges whenever she wanted and was choosing not to.

It is my first memory of wanting to be a grown-up. That “adulthood” meant “unlimited access to canned fruit” says something about the scope of my ambition. I had already had my first moment of not wanting to be a grown-up. That had come and gone one bath night when I watched my mother stick her hand right under the hot water gushing out of the faucet to check the temperature before she helped me get in. I remember thinking, Yeah, I don’t think I want to have to do that.

Of course, my mother was not entirely deprived of deprivation herself. I’d be the first person to acknowledge the many benefits of growing up with an organized and responsible parent, a maker of shopping lists, a user of coupons, voluntary human thermometer, resister of her own cravings. But while I respect that frugality, I have some sadness from knowing the anxiety that helped produce it. Both of my parents were, in those days, members of the foot-in-the-door middle class. For them, every expense felt like a risk, the risk typically boiling down to three words: “lose the house.” One reason the mandarin oranges were a no-go (besides the reason that children didn’t tell parents what to buy) was The Mortgage.

This sounds ridiculous, given that we had a mortgage and also a decent car, a stay-at-home parent, and innumerable items that cost a whole lot more than canned fruit. But it’s not ridiculous because it reflected genuine anxiety. It’s also not an entirely bad thing that I associate true maturity with the ability to go without something I want. It’s just inconvenient when I really want something.

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