Hunger—Now, and During My Childhood 17

Maureen Kay as child

Unknown age

I am hungry. The image that returns to me repeatedly is a fee-fi-fo-fum giant with three enormous fingers hooking underneath my ribcage to take me to a scarier place. There is a burning, a squeezing, a fist shoving itself just above my navel where I most intensely experience this hunger. It sharpens at the end of each exhalation.

I haven’t eaten for twenty-four hours. This self-imposed fast is not the same as the hunger I often experienced as a child and adolescent, but the memories of that hunger descend upon me. Though I have read about studies of the health benefits of periodic limited fasting since I was a young adult, I have needed the distance of these many years before I myself could successfully fast.

We lived on a farm until I turned five. We primarily grew olives, but to eat them we pulled pitted ones out of a can—they had to be cured before being consumed, and just like most children, we stuck them on our fingertips before sucking them into our mouths. Occasionally we siblings wandered to the orange trees, seeking a snack, or made mud cakes in the irrigation ditch and pretended to eat. Despite living where food was grown, I am told our worst poverty hit just before we moved from the farm to a city. I don’t remember this phase of hunger we endured.

I changed schools frequently in kindergarten and first grade, always confused about the routines the other children seemed to understand. Lunch time at school often felt like a crisis. The other children had sandwiches with the edges cut off by doting mothers, apples and cookies in brown paper sacks or metal lunch boxes decorated with their favorite cartoon characters. They had coins to buy milk. Or they had money to eat in the cafeteria, which held heavenly items like meatloaf, cornbread, and green beans. Occasionally my mother gave me money that enabled me to join them in the cafeteria. I could not understand why other children left food on their plates.

But more often I walked home for lunch, because that was the final option for children who didn’t bring a lunch or money. My arrival home was a nuisance to my mother, who would groan when she saw me—if not audibly, then a groan I could hear nonetheless. Before retreating to her bedroom she would make a statement like, “See what you can find.” And I would search, trying to fill my growling stomach.

We had a drawer for bread, but usually the slices were moldy. Saltines were a good alternative, and most of the time we had them around. We usually had milk, but sometimes it would spoil after our weekly delivery by milk truck, because it could sit on our porch for hours before someone would refrigerate it—which was me when I got older and caught on, and was home from school.

We generally had celery. I ate so much celery–fresh or so old I could make both ends touch—that I developed an allergy to it. My mother dismissed it when I showed her my itchy hives that spread up and down my body; she said it was “nerves.” (After an allergy test as an adult confirmed my suspicions, I avoid celery.)

But I do remember returning to school after finding nothing at all to eat, so that happened also.

After one move during the school year during first grade, a kind young teacher noticed I had no lunch. She offered to cut her sandwich in two so we both could eat half of it. I was elated, though I spoke little outside the family until I was ten, so I am not sure I even said thank you.

The next day at lunch I waited for my half of sandwich. The teacher seemed irritated, and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t share my sandwich every day. You’re going to have to bring your own lunch.” And that was the end of that.

In seventh grade, we had a hip science teacher. We all adored him, especially us girls because we considered him attractive. I cannot fathom why, but one day he pointed me out to the whole class, mortifying me for the entertainment of the other students. I had been sitting quietly, and had done nothing to provoke this. He announced, “Maureen is so skinny if she turned sideways you would think you were only seeing a zipper.”

Maureen Kay, author blog, hunger, childhood hunger

Seventh grade

My revenge took place later that year when we measured the difference between our biceps at rest and flexed. I had the biggest differential in the class of girls and boys, and when they were skeptical I showed them my Popeye muscles. A couple boys appeared shocked, which satisfied me greatly. The hours a week of scrubbing dishes, countertops, and our kitchen floor made my arms stronger than any of theirs.

In high school I babysat for other families and earned enough to buy a hot dog and a milk at lunch. I soon hated the daily hot dog, almost gagged with nausea choking it down, but it and milk were the cheapest and most nutritious combination I could buy to try to fill me. My mother complained when I took babysitting jobs, because she said she needed me to stay home to clean for our large family. But even though I was usually compliant, I ignored her and arranged for the parents of the children I cared for to pick me up for the jobs that were too far for me to walk to, ensuring myself at least a sickly lunch the following days.

And now I am going to go eat from our packed refrigerator and cupboards, full of fresh, delicious, healthy foods. I am keenly aware of how fortunate we are, keenly aware of the great number of adults, teens, and children who have no choice about the hunger they are experiencing right now, pain like three giant fingers gouging them below their ribcage.

About Maureen Kay

Maureen Kay has just finished writing a novel called Fracture. She blogs about her personal experiences, bigger issues, other authors, and her writing journey.

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17 thoughts on “Hunger—Now, and During My Childhood

  • Kathleen

    So heart wrenching. I, unfortunately, can relate. However, I was lucky enough to be part of the beginning of the “free lunch” program by middle school. It was embarrassing to have to use the lunch tickets but I wasn’t too proud to eat. I find it unbelievable that those who have never experienced true food deprivation can be so quick to legislate cuts to food stamp programs and aid to indigent children. They should be ashamed of their lack of compassion. Maureen, thank you again for sharing your story.

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      I appreciate all the comments.

      Kathleen, I am so glad you got lunches by middle school. Still, that implies many years before that when you might have needed them also, and many mealtimes beyond school lunches when you probably needed more food than you received, and clothing, etc. My heart goes out to your child self. My father was against our receiving any government help, and even trying to get him to fill out the financial aid form so we could attend college was a major struggle–he felt our financial information wasn’t the government’s business. Unfortunately for us.

  • Diane

    It’s so sad that you had to babysit to get money for lunch. That teacher was just stupid. I’m glad you showed those boys your Popeye muscles!

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      Thanks, Diane, and thanks so much for being a friend who I could always count on during those years. And someone who has consistently been kind to me during the many years of our good friendship.

      I only found out this year your mother used to come over and help with our never-ending laundry, and sometimes my mother would disappear from the room when your mother was trying to help out my mother and all of our family. Your mother provided a model of stability and goodness for my siblings and me that I’ll always appreciate. When I would go to your house and she would offer me milk and cookies, it seemed like a miracle each time.

  • Holly

    HI Maureen, Thank you for sharing this. Very personal and also relevant today, as the food stamp program has been cut & now unemployment benefits have been cut. Sadly there are still many hungry children in the US… Also, I think occasional fasting is a good idea, not only for health reasons, but to experience to hunger and have empathy for others… Looking forward to more posts from you 🙂

  • Marquez

    I have other friends with similar childhood experiences. Like you, they managed to grow into wonder, self-sufficient people. You’re more than a survivor, you’re a success. Thanks for sharing this experience.

    • Maureen Kay Post author

      Thanks so much!

      Your support of friends who had deprived childhoods has likely meant more to them than you probably realize. The extreme hit self-esteem takes from hunger sets children up for isolation, and becoming doormats to bullies. A true and supportive friend–as I know you to be–relieves the hunger in the heart.

  • Allyssa Axell

    Next time Congress is debating food stamps and other government forms of food support such as the school lunch program, food for pregnant mothers, etc. – please consider turning your post into an op/ed piece for the Washington Post or New York Times.

    Weeping. Those 3 giant fingers are still busy at work, gouging multitudes of the vulnerable nutritionally-deprived innocents right below their rib cages . . . so painful. So unnecessary.

  • Naomi Baltuck

    No child should be allowed to go hungry. Your teachers were remiss to let that go unreported. You are right when you say that people don’t realize what a difference a kind gesture can make. When I was eight, just after my father died, his Cousin Joe took me and my little brother to his company picnic, where there were rides and treats. Like you, I was too shy to say much more than thank you, but I always loved him for it.

      • Naomi Baltuck

        Hi Maureen,
        We only saw Joe that once–perhaps if my brother and I had been extroverts we might have connected with him more easily. But it goes to show how even just one act of kindness makes a difference and is remembered. I’m grateful that my dad paid off the house before he died, and for a mother who was able to raise seven kids on social security–just one reason why I never complain about paying taxes. We wore the relatives’ hand-me-downs, and propped up our couch with an old tire when the leg broke, but we never went hungry. We made trips to the library and local museums, and she used to take us camping when gas was cheap and most campgrounds were either free or didn’t cost more than a dollar or two a night. I generally believe that things work out for the best.

        • Maureen Kay Post author

          Your mother was amazing to be able to raise seven children on social security, give you outings like that, and keep you all fed, while single parenting. That’s a vivid detail about propping up the couch with an old tire.

          I also think about people who had a positive influence on my life from just single days we interacted, or single comments they made to me. People often don’t realize how much good they do.

  • CJB

    You figured out a way to get at least some of what you needed by your own wits. A remarkable effort for a child navigating an adult world.