Coleslaw and an Iron Will

Everyone is familiar with “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. What is a lesser known truism, at least personally, is that you can put coleslaw on my plate, but you can’t make me eat it. Thirty odd years ago, I went toe to toe with a babysitter over the popular Southern staple. While we were staying with her parents at their farm during the summer, her family hosted a potluck style picnic on a Saturday afternoon. Up to that point, I had enjoyed farm life…picking strawberries and beets (note to self…don’t eat beets raw), playing with the dogs, cats and cows, stumbling through enormous fire ant hills, and weeding the garden. We were walking through the buffet line as she prepared my plate. Spoonful after spoonful of mostly familiar munchables. Until we got to the coleslaw. 

(Important side note: my mom is a gentle person who seldom, if ever, spanked me, and never, ever made me eat something I didn’t want to try or disliked.)

Sitter dropped a generous dollop of slaw on my plate. I eyed it suspiciously and asked “what’s that?”. She replied, “coleslaw”, to which I chimed in, “I don’t do sloth”. She said, “Well, you will now or you’ll hurt someone’s feelings”. For an eight year-old girl, this was a host of completely foreign concepts. First, that I was going to be forced to eat something; then, that it might hurt someone’s feelings if I didn’t; that I might not have a choice in the matter; and that I might be punished for not eating it. 

What this babysitter didn’t know, and couldn’t fathom, is that I come from a long line of infamously strong-willed women. My great, great grandmother survived on her own back in olden days after the murder of her “whore-hopping” husband at the hands of an angry husband (I doubt has fun tidbits like that!). My grandmother quit smoking COLD TURKEY after 56 years, just because she MADE UP HER MIND. My mom (where do I even begin to extol her virtues?) can do ANYTHING she sets her mind on, including write million dollar government proposals, keep a household running like clockwork, love and care for a teenager, an infant and a husband, plus everyone else she knows. 

Back to the picnic. 

My babysitter was entirely incensed at my stonewalling. I didn’t pitch a fit or anything, only blankly refused to acquiesce. She told me that I would sit in the piano room by myself until I was willing to eat the coleslaw. The piano room was in the front of the big farmhouse, and contained three things: a boring, upright piano, a bench and a metronome. Utter misery for a creative, inquisitive young mind. My solution…take a nap. When I woke up, it was 5 or 6 hours later, at least, and it was pitch dark outside. Sitter came in and asked me if I was ready to eat the coleslaw. Nope. Uh-huh. Not gonna happen. EVER. I really don’t recall if I ate anything that night. 

To top off all that fun, we attended church the next day. Small Southern towns like Augusta are big on Baptist churches. Her family sat quite close to the front. I was not really accustomed to attending church. In fact, at that time in my life, I had only maybe been in church once or twice for a wedding (as a truly horrible flower girl). I was sitting in the pew near the center of the main aisle, listening quietly and behaving myself. Midway though a blistering sermon, the hellfire and brimstone Baptist minister unleashed his fury on ME. He pointed his finger in my face and told ME that I was going to HELL. He’s lucky that I was too docile and shocked to vent some playground fury on his offensive digit. All I could do was wonder what in the heck I had done as an eight year-old girl to deserve such hostility from a total stranger. Needless to say, I’m not really keen on angry preachers or Baptist churches. 

Fast forward to present day. I’m sure some folks think my iron will is not something to be proud of. Maybe it’s not. Maybe in certain situations, it’s limiting, or just being unnecessarily stubborn. However, I think it mattered for a lot of reasons. In the past decade, I discovered that I can’t eat cabbage. It makes me very ill. So, goodbye, egg rolls and kimchi (not that I ever ate kimchi–pickled anything other than pickles is not my style). I stood up for myself at a young age, and refused to be swayed to do something that I truly disagreed with, even in the face of punishment and ostracism. I knew my own mind and my own likes and dislikes. I never made my son eat anything he didn’t want to. Now, as an adult, he eats a huge range of foods, from sushi to shag poneer, Chilean sea bass, pho, prime rib, you name it. Having choices matters. And I feel like you can make better choices when you actually have the strength to say no. 

Over thirty years later, I still have fond memories of that sitter, despite everything. She was a sweet lady; her folks were kind people; and I loved all the animals. I also don’t mind the lessons I learned. I’m glad to know I can stand up for my own convictions, even if they seem silly to other folks. Often I find that even the most enigmatic behaviors have their underpinnings built in concrete, definable circumstances. And just to be clear: I don’t do SLOTH.

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