There are certain experiences in our lives that form us—perhaps even change us. These fantastic (and sometimes even traumatic) occurrences can “punch our card” for life—and leave lasting impressions. Such an event happened to me when I was just seven years old, at the behest of my rugged father—a man who thought his actions would be good for me.
Dad grew up in East Texas, and he had a Texas drawl that got thicker every time we visited our relatives in Shelby County. He grew up on a farm, and his family helped a lot of people during the Depression. He worked from the rising of the sun along with his dad and siblings. He had a powerful work ethic and believed in working with his hands.
I was seven when Dad took me to an animal slaughterhouse. He felt it would “toughen me up.” He forced me to sit on the bottom of a milk pail and watch as a bull was shot, hoisted up, and its throat cut. I was horrified as blood splattered everywhere. I cried so hard I couldn’t catch my breath, and my dad was embarrassed by my reaction. The owner took me up to his house where his wife, who looked a lot like Mrs. Cleaver from Leave it to Beaver, gave me a cup of tepid tap water in a scratched-up blue metal cup. I waited on the porch for my dad—trying to recover from the house of horrors. I called a cat over so I could pet him. He slowly came close, then to my shock, began to heave and convulse and then proceeded to vomit an entire dead mouse right in front of me. Backing up a few steps on the porch, I covered my face and cried again. I was horrified and felt so alone.
In the days following the gruesome incident I refused to eat meat at dinner time. All I could see on my plate was a replay from the slaughterhouse—it was awful. Dad would make me stay at the table and demanded I eat every bite on my plate. Oh, he meant well, after all he provided a nice roof over my head and nutritious food for his family to enjoy. I get it…now… children should not waste good food—but my ability to see meat as “good” had been forever compromised.
Through many tears and high-volume discussions, I learned tricks to make the meat on my plate disappear. When Dad would walk away from the table I began dropping chunks of steak in my plastic water cups, stuffing pieces of roast beef inside the elastic waist of my play shorts. I hid chicken in my napkin, ham under my plate and I even found a metal bar under the table to conveniently press my meatloaf on.
I often tried to express my torment and pain concerning my new disdain for meat but was met with intolerance and frustration from my parents and my grandfather who apparently had a more mature and educated mindset concerning “where tenderloin and ground chuck” came from. Confused, I began to internalize my psychological fears. These well-meaning people had no idea how radically changed I was as a result of what I had witnessed. It was a permanent imprint on my mind—something I would never forget.
A foundation was set and my mind was made up. I didn’t really know at the time what I had become, but eventually I realized there was a name for my eating preferences—I’ve been a “vegetarian” ever since. And by the way, to this day, I have never owned a cat.
A child views their world through their limited understanding and often their flawed judgment. What I had seen that day terrified me, followed quickly by the cat and mouse scenario, together these traumatic experiences upset and altered my worldview.
This incident in my childhood was so impactful that even today when I try to eat a bite of meat, I still cry. My husband commented one day, “This really goes deep doesn’t it babe?”
Just before he passed away, my dad admitted that he knew he had been hard on me as a child. He explained that growing up on a farm made him immune to the grisly scenes that induced a lasting distress in my psyche.
I forgave him, but the personal experience made me come to realize that parents must win the hearts of their children by establishing a loving relationship of trust and open communication—from a very young age. Maybe I just needed to talk about how the experience affected me, maybe I just needed to feel safe enough to express my emotions—to own them as mine and not be shamed for them. Kids don’t start out wise, they watch and learn and eventually become the products of their parents and the adults that shape them and their worldview.
Dad would be eighty-seven at the end of this month had he lived. I found myself missing him the other day. I wondered, why did he suddenly come to mind? I have no doubt it had something to do with the BBQ bash I was attending. But this time, instead of being flooded with negative thoughts and painful memories, I found myself enjoying the companionship of good friends and family and being thankful for the relationships that grow and are nurtured around eating together.
And as I looked around at all the blessings in my life, I couldn’t help but think that just as our Father in Heaven heals our diseases, He also heals our memories and restores our peace. He loves and cares for His children. We don’t need to remain in bondage to anything that keeps us from feeling His love, grace and joy.
And there’s one more thing…I have to say, I paid little attention to the brisket slathered in BBQ sauce…the potato salad was fabulous!