My mother-in-law was not feeling well enough to attend Thanksgiving so we stopped by her house after the holiday meal. Aside from one (or two) too many sodas on top of a Shirley Temple, Charlie did very well, enjoying his mashed potatoes and asking for “sushi” (rolls of orangey-pink salmon from the appetizer table). We had arrived as everyone else was finished up their turkey and looking for some pumpkin pie. (Jim and I decided on the strategy of arriving late when the food’s already out a few years ago, after the three of us–and the other guests–had endured too many unfun moments of us placating Charlie with chips, walks, and begging, while the roast roasted and drinks in wineglasses and tumblers multiplied on all sides.)
We arrived at my in-laws’ around 5.30pm, after a late Thanksgiving lunch/dinner (I couldn’t decide what to call it to Charlie and used both words). My mother-in-law had been in bed in her darkened bedroom all day, worn out with back pain; my father-in-law was sitting in his usual chair, slumped forward but quietly cheered when we tumbled in. “White rice chicken!” Charlie called. “We just had Thanksgiving,” I said. Charlie’s big brown eyes blinked. He took out two spoons, a knife and a fork and set them at his usual spot on the dining room table. He dragged over the extra black chair from the corner. He drummed a fine beat with the spoons, face open, expectant.
I realized that, soon as we drove the long driveway and saw the double garage doors, Charlie’s mind had turned on the Gramma Granpa movie, according to which (on Saturday evening, which is when we have been visiting them these past few months), we get take-out from a certain Chinese restaurant that provides way too many cartons of Charlie’s favorite white rice.
Or perhaps I should say that white rice is one of Charlie’s stim-foods. These also include sushi, brown noodles (=rice noodles in peanut sauce), hummous, and French fries. They are foods that Charlie eats as long as there’s some left on the table (or the counter or the floor), no matter how stuffed he is; some otherworldly compulsion almost seems to possess him to eat and eat, and to train his eyes on the rice or fries on other people’s plates.
It is not greed or rude, aggressive grabbiness, though the untrained eye may judge it to be such. I think Charlie’s seemingly infinite capacity to consume all those carbohydrates reflects on his need to interface with the world in as concrete a way as possible. The Thanksgiving meal with the turkey, the stuffing, the marshmallowed sweet potatoes like my Aunt Karen makes, the pumpkin pie, is as heavy with symbolism as it is with calories; it is a table full of comfort food with gravy, succulent grease, and family memories. Substitute the actual bird with tofu and you have resentful guests, hungry no matter how much they eat.
Perhaps Charlie feels so cheated, and still so hungry, when his movie-for-what-we-do-at-GrammaGranpa’s-house does not run right. It would have been different if they had been at the Thanksgiving meal and we had just dropped them off at their house. Not seeing Grandma in her usual chair across from Grandpa–and only a weak voice from a dark bedroom so I could not see her face–must have been disconcerting to Charlie. I chatted with my father-in-law, one eye on Charlie who was drumming the dining room table with the silverware; Jim tried to pull Charlie over to “say hi to Grandma.” Charlie was briefly on the floor with my father-in-law and my mom watching and worried and calling “Jim” and Jim (who was sitting with his mom) calling “Kristina,” the one moment I had turned my back. I ran out, held Charlie under his arms and did not succeed in not snapping out some words. The minute passed and Charlie stood up on his own and walked back to the black car.
“Sweets,” I said to him at home, “it’s Thanksgiving, it’s holidays, and things get all disrupted. So we had lunch that was like dinner and we went to see Grandma and Grandpa and skipped the white rice chicken. But you can have hot dogs or whatever still if you want.” Charlie grabbed his boomwhackers and whacked the furniture and smiled and ran and slumped beside Jim in front of the TV, couch-potato-like and (though those sodas kept him up way too late) peaceful, especially after some hot dogs and frozen peas.
And some potato chips for me, thankful that another national stim-food holiday is over.