Friday, January 20, 2012

Games and Stories: A Possible Vignette

He was eight years old, sitting on the living room floor playing a video war game when he heard his grandfather in the kitchen say the word warriors.  Only his grandfather wasn't taking about men at arms, he was remembering the war years, telling the boy's mother how hard it'd been for his parents, they'd nothing to eat, their small farm had been overrun, destroyed.  They had to go into hiding.  And then of course, came winter and for six months all they had to eat were onions saved from the root cellar.  Onion sandwiches, the boy's mom laughed, wincing.  The mother hated onions.

POW! POW!  the boy's digital soldier snipered the enemy into a spectacular red blotch on the screen (which didn't kill him - it took eight more thumb presses to blast the animation to death), while his mother in the kitchen remarked, "Oh that reminds me of that funny cookbook--the one where the author tells you how to cook in war time"; whereupon she straightened her back, cleared her throat, and began reciting in a faux British accent:  "How to Cook a Wolf" ...  and laughed some more but the grandfather just stared at her.  Its author M.F.K. Fisher was not British and the mother had never read the book, had only heard about it.  Perhaps she confused Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher with Julia Child, who wasn't British either but, no matter, the effect was the same: her comical performance made her sound authoritative.  Or so she pretended.

The grandfather's memories were subsiding; very few remained of his parents.  He kept them alive by repeating their stories - stories to which his American-born children and grandchildren could not relate. Nor could they speak or understand the language he'd been brought up in.  He didn't know who to blame for this.

Meanwhile, his electronic army, having now been decimated, the boy became bored, got up and went into the kitchen where he thought he'd heard somebody say something about Irish potatoes or wolf soup, he couldn't be sure.  His mother was painting her nails, his grandfather biting into a hunk of cheese, watching an imaginary sack of onions in the corner. "How'd your game go?" his big brother asked, coming down from upstairs. "Reach the next level yet?"  The boy squirmed, ducked the question, grabbed a cookie, ran outside.

Me, I hate onions, the mom said.   Me too, said the grandfather.  They had that, at least, in common.  The boy, now sprinting towards his friend's house, wondered what it'd be like to reach that highest game level.  One day he'd make it, he'd kill all the enemy and come out on top, be the best.  He wanted more than anything, to be the best at something.


I had an onion/sardine sandwich for lunch today and it reminded me of something my late, former father-in-law once told me about his war years in Europe--that they then mostly lived on nothing but onions.  One day I decided to try an 'onion-only' sandwich.   (It's better if the bread is toasted, a bit of Dijon mustard added.  You can't kiss anyone afterwards, of course, they will run from you).  Onions (and garlic) in winter do wonders to keep you from getting a cold, so I eat them frequently.  Wolf stew, though--I don't think so!  I love wolves too much.  (The book's wolf referred to in the book above is metaphoric.)  If you can still find a copy around anywhere, M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating is a pure delight to read. The title is misleading.  It's not just about food.  The perfect book to curl up with during the long, cold winter, to take your mind off the long, cold winter.  A definite 'keeper'.

I started out to forge a tiny poem about war time food, which slowly morphed into a story about loss, brought on by my reading this morning of some poems written by a Tibetan man in India, registered there as a refugee, who returned to his parents' former home only to be arrested and kicked out.  His poems spoke of confused and lost identity -  he is a citizen of no country, his parental homeland is no longer a country.  This is a recurrent theme in many of Erich Maria Remarque's novels, as I recall - the stateless man: individuals without 'papers', unable to prove who they are.  A generation later, how memories fade, how stories begin to unravel, get 'lost', the language forgotten.

My father-in-law's "we lived on onions" story stayed with me for some reason.  Present that idea to a child today and he will say "Ewwwwwwwwwwwwww", unable to imagine such a thing. A world in which one has only onion sandwiches to look forward to, all day, every day?  No way!!   A world without games, though -- now that's even scarier!  Ironic ... the 'game' is to survive.  But survival is not a game.