Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hey, Sweet Potato!

(The following is adapted from a post I made earlier today on the Children of Hoarders Yahoo! support group. The context was a comment about parents thinking they know more about their kids than their kids know about themselves. Sure, in some respects, that's true, but in other respects? Well, read on...)

Holiday dinners were the only time that we would have sweet potatoes when I was a kid. My sisters liked them, and when we grew up and started having holiday dinners at my sisters' houses, sweet potatoes stayed on the menu.

At every such dinner, the sweet potatoes would be passed around the table, they would reach me, and I would politely pass the bowl to the next person without taking any sweet potatoes for myself.

I don't like sweet potatoes.

I don't actually hate sweet potatoes, but they are pretty darned close to the bottom of the list of foods that I am willing to eat. Starvation situations only. Zombie attacks. Nuclear winter. Your basic apocalypses. Like I said, it's not really hate.

Every time, every year, my mom (who was a severe hoarder) would be upset that I did not take any sweet potatoes. More than upset; shocked and stunned, really.
Mom: "But Joe! You love sweet potatoes!"
Joe: "No. I don't like sweet potatoes."
Mom: "But you always eat them!"
Joe: "I don't remember ever liking sweet potatoes, and I don't 'always' eat them. We go through this every year. We've done this for at least thirty years. I might have had a spoonful of them once in the past, just to humor you, but I do not like sweet potatoes."
Mom (with feeling!): "You're terrible!"
Sisters: "Really, mom? Do we have to start this again?"
Mom: "I don't know what's wrong with you people!"
This wasn't some fun little tradition that families joke about. Mom was serious about this. Sometimes the sweet potatoes would be the start of the holiday arguments; sometimes they were just a preamble. (I didn't hate sweet potatoes, but I did learn to hate holidays. Holidays were a time for drama in my family. I'm more of a comedian. A topic for another day, I think.)

I know, I know. You're asking, "Why not just skip serving sweet potatoes entirely? Just serve something else!" We tried that one year, and my mom thought we were just terrible for doing so. "Everyone has sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving! It's not Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes!"

The thing is, mom was an extremely intelligent woman with an amazing memory. I really think that she wasn't kidding: she deeply and truly believed that I loved sweet potatoes and that I had loved them throughout my entire life. It's as though she simply refused to let any evidence to the contrary take root her brain, since she knew that I loved sweet potatoes. I think she finally started to accept the truth around the time I turned 40.

I don't know how much (if any) of my mom's fixation on her son's very special relationship with sweet potatoes might have been tied to cognitive patterns related to her hoarding behavior, how much might have been related to some other psychological issue, or how much was a simple exaggeration of any parent's mistaken memory of their child. What I do know is that once an idea became planted in my mom's mind, it was almost impossible to dislodge it, no matter the evidence against it.

I realize that the sweet potato story sounds like, well, small potatoes, and it's possible that it has nothing to do with hoarding behavior. Nonetheless, countless stories like those, over issues large and small, day after day, presented a major challenge in the relationships between my mother and her family.

Update: Shortly after writing this post, a friend sent me a quote from an article about Narcissistic Personality Disorder that might relate to my mom's focus on my relationship with sweet potatoes. I wrote a new blog post to explore that subject: "Sweet Potatoes, Narcissism, and Parents Who Hoard".


Katrina Ray-Saulis said...

This sounds familiar...

Anonymous said...

same here ... only it was fruit salad. my HM has never forgiven me for asking her not to cook for the holiday dinners at my house after the mouse infestation at her house, which she denied existed, reached epic proportions... got a handle on the situation, after a fire, still constant battle but no mice. and she stopped cooking after my comment which i kinda feel guilty about but the truth is the truth. thanks for bringing yet another aspect of living with a hoarder to light...

Embaril said...

My mother was always astonished every time she learned that I hate banannas. Yes, I find that favorite southern dessert, Bananna Pudding, Loathsome.

Anonymous said...

My HP insisted I try the sweet potatoes every year, because obviously if I tried them I would like them. Finally I just said, I tried them last year and didn't like them, I tried them the year before and didn't like them and the year before that and the year before that. I don't like sweet potatoes, they make me gag.

Hoarder's Son said...

It's a sweet potato conspiracy!

Princess Judy Palmer said...

At some point my devious mind would have kicked in and I would have patted my mother and whispered conspiratorially with her, "Mom, you're right I used to LOVE sweet potatoes, but I've developed a terrible allergy to them, along with rutabagas and kohlrabi. It's just tragic" and played that for all it's worth. I wouldn't have cared if she saw the truth or not. I would have just wanted her to stop pushing the sweet potatoes (or whatever). Sweet potatoes were not part of our Thanksgiving dinner. What was part of it was no one was allowed to eat until the big meal served at about 2 in the afternoon. My mom, of course, would have been cooking and sampling all morning long while the rest of us were hungry, cranky and had low blood sugar. Good times.

Anonymous said...

My experience isn't so much with food, just my mom taking every one of my "likes" to the extreme, even if I don't particularly like something. When I was about 14 years old I casually "mentioned" something about the Greatful Dead - I don't remember what I said - but four months later I awoke on Christmas morning to find the tree mounded with Greatful Dead themed Was the only reaction I could possibly come up did she even remember my totally insignificant one sentence comment I had made months prior? This is the example that really sticks out in my mind, but things like this have always happened. She has almost completely overtaken the house with her hoarding. I have cleaned it so many times, only to have it filled back up within a week or two. I was stuck living at home for financial reasons, with a new baby, and had what I believe were panic attacks on a regular basis. I finally got my own place, and she's filling it up. She used to love cooking (she can't anymore because she doesn't do dishes), so she makes up for that by hitting kitchen sales and buying me every kitchen gadget that I "must have because it was really really cheap and it works really good - I can't cook without it."