Part 3: Lord, bless this food, amen

Written by Bert Plomp

At a young age, I witnessed several terrible events that still vividly stand out in my memory. These incidents involved two very serious accidents where someone was run over by a bus. The first accident occurred at Vredenburg. A man was involved, and he was almost flattened under the bus wheels. I was four years old at the time, wandering alone in the city center after having just been injured myself. I had gotten stuck between the revolving door of Hotel Smits, resulting in a nasty gash on my head, bleeding profusely. When an ambulance picked me up, I was placed in the front seat. Subsequently, the ambulance headed to the man who was run over by a bus. What remained of the unfortunate man was placed on a stretcher in the back. Together, we were taken to the Academic Hospital.

At the age of twelve, I witnessed another fatal accident. This time, I was right there. A girl my age happily ran out of school. Without looking, she crossed the Jutfaseweg. Her mother, waiting with her bicycle on the other side, witnessed her being crushed by an approaching regional bus right before my eyes. I saw her blood and life carried away by rainwater, flowing under a sewer grate.

A third memorable event took place when I was six years old. I was staying with a friend named Rudie. My parents were good friends with Rudie’s single mother at that time, whom I called Aunt Mien. Rudie didn’t quite fit in with his peers for some reason, neither at school nor in the neighborhood. To help him out of isolation, I was frequently asked to come over and stay at his home on Croeselaan. Rudie was a very nice, shy boy, and his room was filled with beautiful toys. During a winter visit when I was staying overnight, he started feeling unwell during the day. He had a high fever and, along with me, was put to bed early. Rudie passed away in bed next to me that night. At that time, there were no crisis teams to help cope with such traumatic experiences. I overcame it on my own. Besides, with psychological help, you never really get rid of such images.

Running children defined the streetscape in my youth. Both my brothers, my sister, and I were always running, especially when it was time for dinner. We eagerly awaited the moment when the school doors swung open for lunch break. We didn’t know how fast we had to get home to enjoy the delicious meal our mother had prepared. During that time, it was customary to have a hot meal “at noon,” and the entire family would gather around the table to eat.

Things are quite different nowadays. During the day, there’s hardly anyone at home. Parents have a cheese sandwich at work, and children stay at school. Very young children are “safely” tucked away in a daycare center. Actually, there is often a dog at home these days. The poor soul spends the whole day glumly staring out between the geraniums, endlessly waiting for the moment when its owner reappears at the window.

In my home, meals were always preceded by the reading of a suitable passage from the Bible. The head of the household, in those days the man of the house, was responsible for this solemn task. During that time, it was all about the Bible. How much more enjoyable it would have been if, from time to time, something cheerful had been recited instead of all those heavy, hard-to-digest Christian readings. The period of having to listen to Bible verses before meals did not last long. Due to growing resistance against the head of the household, he and his Bible were done within a few years. After that, the preacher was openly ridiculed. There was often no willing ear left to hear the biblical nonsense. Except for the somewhat deaf ear of old Mr. Ter Steege, an old Salvation Army soldier who ate with us every day. And, not to forget, the ear of the always faithful four-legged Marsha. The household dog who devoutly sat under the table, waiting for something to be tossed its way.

We didn’t rush home for a biblical recitation. No, we ran home around noon because we were hungry and eager to eat. Against our better judgment, we also ran home every Friday. Almost always, we ran back to school just as fast. On Fridays, a fish dish was always on the menu. Mother couldn’t resist delighting her favorites with her culinary masterpiece: ‘Haddock with beets and mustard sauce.’ It wasn’t that we ate fish on Fridays because we were Catholic. On the contrary, we were Dutch Reformed. According to my mother, Reformed had nothing to do with Catholics with their popish faces. Unfortunately, the culinary masterpiece was always full of bones. The fishbones were invisible because the dish was covered with a generous helping of mustard sauce. After consuming the fish dish, it invariably induced a powerful anti-peristaltic movement in many a diner. A movement that resulted in an uncontrollable urge to vomit.

If we made the mistake of showing up at the table on a fish day, the ritual was as follows. Father read a passage from the Bible, followed by the general pronouncement, “Lord, bless this food, amen.” This blessing rarely descended on Fridays. As soon as the word “amen” was uttered, a fierce struggle broke out at the table. The culinary enjoyment inevitably degenerated into a round of free wrestling. During this struggle, the carefully prepared fish dish, bones and all, was first forced into the weakest eater. This fate usually befell my younger brother Charles and me. Charles and I adamantly refused to consume that nauseating bite. While the pious leader grabbed one of the refusers by the head and pinched his nose shut, Mother forcefully shoved a spoonful of that disgusting mess down his throat. With all the anti-peristaltic consequences.

Older brother Theo didn’t have much trouble with his portion. He had experienced the war, even if it was only for a year and a half. My parents always found a reason to “blame” me for not having experienced the war. They had mainly been responsible for that. Whenever I complained, it was immediately: “Oh boy, you haven’t experienced the war.” It meant that I had never had to endure suffering in my life and therefore shouldn’t complain. Often, I wished I had experienced the war. Just to put an end to all that nagging. Often, when one of the others was being dealt with, we managed to make the cursed fish meal disappear under the table. Feeding it to Marsha. Our loyal dog was always eagerly waiting there to relieve you of your food. We also sometimes succeeded in making the meal disappear into an old shoebox and temporarily hiding it in the linen closet.

It took twenty years before I discovered that fish can actually be very tasty. As long as it’s well-prepared and free of bones!


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