Sweet Potatoes - Yuck!

The Captain’s house looked like the bottom of the cold, dark ocean. It hung out over the canyon always in shade from the thick grove of redwood trees surrounding it. As I entered the house, the murky wood paneling and shadowy wood floor beckoned me into the underwater cave.

Monica, Karen and I were relegated to the living room to sit quietly, while the adults enjoyed high balls and appetizers in the study. Mom’s black high heels went click, click, click on the floor as she came to check on us every few minutes, drink in hand, pinky up.

“How are you girls doing?”She looked like Jackie O with her black hair that flipped up, gold form fitting dressed that zipped up the back and trademark red lipstick. She stood over us as we sat side-by-side on the sofa. “Don’t wrinkle your dresses.”

We all adjusted ourselves.

“When can we eat? I’m starving,” I said squirming and whining.

“Watch your dress dear,” she reminded again. “We’ll be eating very soon.”

And off she went, back to the adults and the food and the drinks. I was almost eight years old and I knew my job was to sit pretty on the red and black plaid couch until dinner. My older sister, Monica had blond pigtails like mine, curled into ringlets and finished with red ribbons. We wore identical red and blue velvet Norwegian dresses. Mom had dressed us as twins since my birth one-year-and-five-days after Monica. Our younger sister, Karen, five-almost-six years old, wore the same Norwegian dress but in yellow with her short brown hair in ringlets like Shirley Temple. We all wore matching white bobby socks and black patent leather Mary Jane’s.  

Dad liked to make us sit still for hours at a time, proving that his children could behave perfectly in a grown up environment. Consequently, my sisters and I spent hours practicing the art of obedience while looking pretty. If we failed in our task, the punishment was public humiliation in the moment and a private humiliation later in the form of a spanking. We became good at sitting still.    

I stared out the big bay window where in the distance the sun had colored the fog pink and orange like cotton candy as it hugged the coastline of Half Moon Bay. Next to the windows, the bark of the giant Redwoods appeared close enough to touch.

As I sat in the dank living room, I noticed a large painting on the wall of an old schooner at the bottom of a colossally dark angry wave, cresting with white caps and ready to smash the poor boat to smithereens. The painting glared at me, beckoning me to look again and again to check and see if the small ship had been crushed. Suspended in time, the little boat would forever be stuck at the bottom of that wave. My eyes darted back and forth between the painting and the cotton candy fog and back to the lone ship again.  

“Dinner girls!” the Captain’s wife called. She was a round soft woman, with poufy grey hair I could see through if I stood close enough. She had a smile that was almost friendly and eyebrows that shot up and down when she spoke. The Captain stood at the head of the table. He scared me with his loud laughter, coughing fits and deep voice and always wore the same American flag suit: a Navy captain’s hat, blue blazer, white shirt, blue pants with a red ascot tied around his neck and red socks in his boat shoes.

Dad adored the Captain and his wife, always insisting we go to dinner there just to test my sisters and my ability to behave, I’m sure.

I took my place at the long dark wood table next to Dad and across from Mom. My sisters and I sat on various heights of stacked books so we could reach the table. The Captain’s wife laid out the good china for everyone. A stern look was administered to each of us, as Dad pointed with his eyes to the plates and fine glasses.

We all held hands while the crusty Captain said a prayer to Neptune, as if we were heading off to sea: 

“Keep us, our God; for your ocean is so wide and our boat is so small.

Thank you for our friends, and for the good food.  Amen.”  


Finally, the food came around. The rule in our house was that we had to take a little bit of everything and try new things. Yum, I took some turkey and mashed potatoes. Oh no, the green beans and sweet potatoes. I took a few green beans but the sweet potatoes smelled funny. I took a small piece the size of my hand pushing it off to the edge of my plate, where it sat like a banished soldier, away from the yummy mashed potatoes and turkey. The rolls came around. I loved rolls and butter and put them near the turkey and mashed potatoes. 

As I ate, I was haunted by that sweet potato sitting on the edge of my plate. I tried to ignore it but it was impossible. Whispering just loud enough for me to hear, Dad leaned over and lowered his head. “Take a bite of your sweet potato Leslie.”

I shook my head slightly, and pointed to my mouth full of mashed potatoes. But he nudged my arm and looked at me with those stern blue eyes, the chandelier light blinding me as I looked up at his face. I cut a small piece of sweet potato off, stabbed it and put it in my mouth. I hated it immediately. It tasted like orange mush, squishy and stringy. He watched me make a face while I tried to swallow it, but it wouldn’t go down. It stuck like glue to the back of my tongue. I took a big gulp of milk and finally swallowed it. I shuddered at the yuckiness of it. Karen and Monica watched in silence.

I continued to eat all my favorite foods until everything on my plate was gone except that nasty sweet potato hanging out on the edge. I considered pushing it over the cliff of my plate, and sliding my plate on top of it, but Dad was too close and would see. 

 I looked up at Dad, “I tried the sweet potato and I don’t like it,” my eyes squinting close together and lips pursed like I tasted something rancid. 

“Finish it. The Captain and his wife made us this nice dinner, so finish your sweet potato.” Dad’s voice boomed. Everybody stopped talking and listened for a brief second. 

I leaned against him, laying my head on his arm, hoping that physical contact would melt his heart a little. His voice boomed louder “Eat it Leslie.”

The Captain’s wife tried to ease the tension. “She doesn’t have to eat it. Leave her be Bjorn. Let’s have a highball in the den.” But it was a public thing now and Dad never backed down from a “public thing.” 

“Eat it,” Dad said again as he took my fork and cut a big piece of sweet potato off and brought it to my mouth. I pursed my lips together tightly, and refused to open, shaking my head.  Directly across the table from me Mom’s face told me she was scared and I knew she couldn’t help. The wave of Dad’s anger descended on me.

Monica made a face that looked like she had eaten a mouth full of worms. Karen clung to Mom’s arm in anticipation of the torrent of anger crashing down on me. When I looked at the Captain’s wife, I drew strength from her pitying eyes. I knew I had to stand my ground. 

“Open. Now.” He grabbed the back of my head which fit perfectly in the palm of his hand like a ball and pulled it backward. I began to cry and when my mouth opened, he shoved the sweet potato in. 

“Now chew and swallow it!”

But I couldn’t. The smell was nasty, like dirty earth. My stomach lurched and rumbled at the taste of that stringy, slimy orange potato.    

The Captain’s wife got up and removed some dishes from the table. The staring trance on me was broken for a moment as everybody watched her leave the room with a stack of plates. 

My mouth was full of sweet potato and I began to shake my head while tears started rolling down my face.   

“Swallow it” he commanded again. 

But I couldn’t swallow it. The lurching in my stomach started to move up to my throat and before I knew it, my Thanksgiving dinner came up and landed right back on my plate. I coughed, sputtered and cried loudly at the shock of seeing my dinner – all orange and slimy – sitting on my plate again.  

Furious, Dad grabbed my arm hard and shook me sideways. Everybody at the table looked elsewhere, at the ceiling, or the floor, or the window behind them. The pain wasn’t over yet. The convulsions began and more food came up involuntarily. Little pieces of food slid from my mouth to my chin onto my pretty red Norwegian costume as I began to cry out loud.

Dad jumped up from his chair and left the room – his face beet red and disgusted. The Captain followed him. Mom rushed around the table and wrapped her arms around me “You’re okay sweetie. You’ll be fine.” She pulled the chair back.

The Captain’s wife took my plate and whispered to Mom, who looked mortified, “I’m so sorry dear. He really shouldn’t have pushed it so.” 

 In the nautical bathroom hung with anchors of various sizes, I couldn’t stop crying or convulsing. Mom wiped my face and after a few minutes, I calmed down and realized how much trouble I was in. Nobody embarrassed Dad in public without paying for it. 

“Do you think he’ll spank me when we get home?”

“Leslie, I don’t know. You push him to the very brink of reason every single day. Let’s get you cleaned up.” 

I didn’t want to push him every day but I didn’t agree with him so I stood my ground. He didn’t scare me. Monica and Mom never stood their ground and Karen was too little. 

As I sat on the bathroom counter being wiped off and primped by Mom, I knew it was only a temporary sanctuary - a place where Mom loved me and Dad couldn’t get me. As soon as I opened the door, there he stood in the hall waiting for me. “Go sit in the corner right now and do not say another word tonight.”

I had won the battle of the sweet potato, a battle which foreshadowed many more battles to come. Deep inside, I was proud and happy with myself. 

I sat in the corner, grateful Thanksgiving was over. 


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