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!"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.)
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!"
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".