Monday, December 31, 2018

That New Year's Eve When I Washed My Own Mouth Out With Soap

I grew up in a different time. Which I suppose is my way of admitting that I'm kind of old. We won't get into all the things I didn't have back then or all the problems I have with "kids these days", but it really was kind of different growing up in the 1970s and 80s. I almost feel like some aspects of my childhood were closer in spirit to the 1950s than today. Having said all that, I will also say that I never had my mouth washed out with soap as a form of punishment for the kinds of shenanigans that kids get into. That seems like a good preface for this little story (especially considering the title and the photo above).

I have written about celebrating New Year's Eve as a kid here before. In Happy New Year 1976! I was able to do some detective work to confirm a vague memory of a New Year's Eve party from my childhood. In this post we will explore another ancient New Year's Eve memory from around that time. But this one doesn't need to be confirmed through research--I don't think there would be a way to even attempt to do so. In the recent post Reliving an Embarrassing Moment from My Youth I wrote about something that happened to me as a kid that I found so humiliating that I had always kept it to myself. In reality what had happened was kind of a small thing (I wore two different sneakers to school one day back when I was in middle school) and I don't think anyone other than myself even noticed. I realized that my mind had categorized this as a traumatic event when it really wasn't. It was kind of a minor event that was built up to be something big by my psyche--and the blog post itself. It felt like I was baring my soul and putting something "out there" (airing my dirty laundry as it were) by writing about it all these years later. It almost seemed like a cathartic thing to share (maybe even therapeutic in a strange sort of way?). But I'm sure that readers were left feeling kind of like "that's it?"

Before we get any further it's worth mentioning here that this is another example of an embarrassing moment from my youth. And it's once again a quite minor thing that was more of an embarrassment in my mind than it was in reality. In fact I had never shared this story with ANYONE from the time it happened until probably 10 or 15 years ago or so when I shared it with my best friend and his wife. It was probably during a New Year's celebration of our own and I felt enough time had passed that it was more of an amusing kid story than anything else. Well, my friend's wife has gone on to say that THIS is her favorite story of mine from when I was a kid! So it's probably a good one to share here, now that I seem to be opening up and writing about all the embarrassing moments of my youth.

I was part of a big family. I have eight siblings (seven sisters and one brother). When I was a kid my family had pretty substantial New Year's Eve parties. They kind of petered out before I hit my teenage years, but I do have some fond--if hazy--memories of them from when I was little. One of the most important parts of these parties was the food. My father would go out of his way to put all kinds of interesting and exotic shacks out on our kitchen table. Frequently there would be things you (especially as a kid) had never seen or even heard of before. It was fun, but there was also something kind of mysterious and even intimidating about it. What is this strange stuff? Should I dare to eat it? Will I be made fun of if I DON'T try it? Not everything was exotic and foreign of course. I dimly remember there being standard cocktail party fare like olives, pickles and cheese & crackers on the table next to things like Vienna sausages (with burning Sterno fuel to heat them up) and chocolate covered ants or grasshoppers. Here's a couple photos from one of our New Year's Eve parties (December 31, 1977) that my sister found and put up on Facebook a while back. This is probably a couple years after the events of this blog, but certainly close enough to be a great illustration for the story:

New Year's Eve celebration 1977-78
Me partaking in some New Year's Eve snacks
In "Happy New Year 1976!" I was six years old. While I don't exactly remember when this memory came from I know I was quite young and it seems fair to estimate that if it wasn't December 31, 1975 it was probably within a year or two of that New Year's Eve. Among all the food choices on the table was something that doesn't seem especially odd or exotic. It was a container of cottage cheese. Of all the things spread out on the table that's the ONE item I recall in this memory. I remember seeing this clumpy, white substance that was called "cottage cheese". I knew cheese (especially varieties like American and cheddar) but had never seen something like this lumpy, almost liquid substance that was referred to as being "cheese". It certainly didn't look good, but it seemed like I should at least give it a try. The only problem was that...I couldn't get myself to actually go through with it. It seemed too off-putting for some reason (It looked gross? It seemed like something too "grownup" for me to be eating? It looked more like cheese that someone had already eaten and thrown-up?). Whatever the reason I simply couldn't bring myself to take a little sample of the cottage cheese and try it out for myself.

But it kept bugging me for some reason. I can't imagine that anyone who was there that night could have though back then that forty-plus years later that little container of cottage cheese would be pretty much the ONLY thing I would remember from that night. But it's true. Well, actually it's almost true. There was one other thing that stuck with me, and that's because it was (or seemed) like it was related in some way and would become forever linked to the cottage cheese in my memory.

Here's our kitchen table around 1972
As has already been mentioned, I was pretty young (and thus physically small) at the time. I vaguely remember being one of the smallest people at the party and able to navigate through and around all the bigger people semi-unnoticed. While that strange cottage cheese dilemma (should I eat it or should I not?) played out in my mind I kept seeing it sitting there on the table. But I also spied something else too. This something else wasn't ON the table, but was instead UNDER the table. On the floor under the table nearly against the wall was something white. My size made it pretty easy for me to see it hiding out in the dark. I decided that it was a bit of cottage cheese that had managed to find its way onto the floor. And then I made the decision that this new "floor cottage cheese" was my solution to the problem. I would sneak under the table and try out some of the cottage cheese in private where nobody else could see me. Why I felt that this was necessary when there was a whole container of the stuff sitting on the table available to anyone (including myself) that wanted to try some I can't really say. The fact that I couldn't bring myself to eat the stuff on the table seems to have morphed into the belief that I wasn't SUPPOSED to eat it. It somehow became something that I needed to SNEAK a taste of. It's almost like cottage cheese was an adults-only kind of a thing (like the beer, wine and champagne that the grownups were drinking).

Whatever the reason I suddenly felt a need to sneak under the table and try some of that forbidden cheese! Finding the right moment I ducked under the table--not a terribly difficult thing for a little kid to do. Once I was sure no one was looking I made my way toward the back wall and my prize. There it was--the mysterious and tempting cottage cheese. I reached out and picked it up. My mind didn't seem to notice that the consistency of this particular bit of cottage cheese was quite different from what I had seen on the table. It was solid--more in line with what I had traditionally thought of when I thought of cheese. But it was indeed white. Probably the only thing on the table that was that white was the cottage cheese, so this MUST have been cottage cheese too, right?  I brought the object closer to my mouth and I took a bite. Well, it turns out that this thing WASN'T cottage cheese, and I knew it instantly (even having never tasted cottage cheese). No, this out of place object was actually a piece of soap. Why a piece of soap was sitting on the floor under our dining table in the kitchen I have no idea, but there it was. And while I have never had my mouth washed out with soap for doing something "wrong", I suddenly found myself in the odd position of washing my OWN mouth out with soap. There certainly wasn't a "reason" for me to be doing so beyond mistaking one white object for another, but in a way it almost seems like I was unconsciously punishing myself for coveting that forbidden cottage cheese. However one might choose to define my actions I had indeed unwittingly taken a bite of soap. And it wasn't a pleasant experience. Not at all. But it did become one moment of a long-past New Year's Eve celebration that I still recall to this very day more than forty years later. I can't say that anything else from that night was stored in my long-term memory, but that strange cottage cheese/soap incident is forever etched in my mind.

And as a postscript it might be worth mentioning that cottage cheese is STILL something that I don't like. Actually, I don't think that I've ever even tried the stuff to this very day. I don't expect that it will taste like soap or anything, but I DO still find its appearance and consistency to be off-putting. It just looks lumpy and gross! It might seem that the appropriate way to end this post would be by saying that in honor of finally sharing this memory I also finally went ahead and tried out some cottage cheese. That could be a good way to illustrate some form of closure or something, right? Just, no.


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