Author – 2nd from right front row- and Pratt Family, 1957
From: The Woman Who Made Oatmeal Stick To My Ribs
“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”
— Barbara Kingsolver, Novelist
Wholesome goodness is what Moms are all about. What Mom hasn’t gotten up before her children to make sure they were nourished and ready for the world?
All Moms know that the heart needs nourishment along with the body. Until it is filled, an empty stomach can hardly endure patiently Mom’s wise and loving counsel. So mothers feed first and teach second. And behind the rib cage, close to that stomach which each morning anticipates breaking the nightly fast, is the heart.
As a child I grew up under the wings of a Great Depression influenced mother. Her attitudes of care, protection, health, and wisdom were highly motivated by the times and the people she grew up with. There are many lessons of life and values I learned from her which I now recall as I watch her slip into old age; a new age of mothering as shocking a realization to me as it is to her. But she is still here, and still giving guidance, and still reminding me to eat right, take care, say prayers.
It might not sound like it but Mom was one of those women who could better say what she meant by unconsciously using a metaphor. The frequent oatmeal speech was one such attempt by Mom to instill wholesome habits of nutrition thereby fortifying her children for the day ahead.
“Umm, umm, good, umm, umm good, that’s why…” a jingle from the 1950’s and 1960’s starts, as it still rings in my ears after all these years. In fact, if all that was left of America were its kitchen pantries and travelers from a distant planet arrived seeking out signs of life, they may draw a conclusion or two from what they find.
There in the pantry, as they spin the Lazy Susan they will watch several cans of Campbells, a brand of soup that could be called “America’s Official Soup” because it is so ubiquitous. The other item most likely to be discovered is Oatmeal. The most prolifically distributed brand the aliens will find is Quaker Oats.
If I were an alien from deep outer space, knowing that the entire country was devoid of living human beings, my first communication back to my superiors on the mother-ship might be something like this:
“It would seem that the American humans were known for their tastes with two strange foods. One of them contains a liquid mixed with a variety of edible plant and native animal parts. The other is a dry dusty meal that one can only assume would be hard to swallow. In fact, if consumed in large quantities it might be considered one of the killers of this civilization.”
“You are suggesting the American beings were fed this? A dusty meal, given them by their mothers?” the commander would reply.
“Yes, undoubtedly so. And in its present form it is certainly deadly. One would choke and thus die from asphyxiation unless mixed with the soupy liquid found in cans.”
“I see. Are there any clues as to who the maker or culprit causing this kind of death might be?”
“Yes, Commander. Because it is found everywhere, in almost every residence we have investigated, we believe we can identify at least one source for the flaky material.”
“Proceed with a description,” the alien on the ground hears.
“The containers for this meal substance most universally show the likeness of a rosy cheeked but round faced, white haired, and happy male wearing a black cloak and a wide brim head covering of some type. A hat, I believe the former inhabitants called it.”
“This hat would signify leadership of the American tribe?”
“Perhaps. No doubt they respected him greatly for his image is always found on this meal’s containers they call Quaker Oats.”
“We shall call it oat meal, for the record,” the commander responds back.
“Yes, oatmeal. Quite unlikely any human could eat this without some sort of modification such as adding the liquid first. In fact, supreme leader, there was a written message, a note found in one habitation next to the carton containing the dry food.”
“A communication?” the commander in the mother ship responds excitedly. “It might contain valuable, even secret information,” he suggests to the explorer on the ground. “Perhaps from the happy male himself – their leader,” he adds.
“Yes, Excellency. Or might I suggest this message comes from the feminine side of the race. Everywhere we find images of these American females preparing foodstuffs.”
“Then a message from a female American to the happy man you described?”
“Perhaps. Shall I send the message to you through our portable translation screen?”
“Scanning.” The alien on the ground passes the note through the hand-held device beaming it up to the command ship.
As the words pop up on the screen before the alien commander seated at the control console of the command ship he reads:
“Jimmy. Don’t forget to eat your oatmeal. It will stick to your ribs. Love, Mom.”
“So the leader’s name, the one on the box, was Jimmy. Stick to his ribs. Must be some sort of primordial code. Hum… Interesting.”
Sometimes taking an idea to the absurd serves in illustrating a point. But my point, more recently than childhood, was made another way.
My younger brother Rex, and the brother I grew up closest to — you know, the one you cheat at board games, take advantage of and ask to test the cold water of the swimming pool first -– was in a hospital a few years back for a major surgery that would take the surgeon through his rib cage.
I had promised that our family would pray for him and I just wanted to call him to let him know I was aware of his needs the hour before the surgery was to take place. I had merely expected to leave a message for him. He was in a well-known Los Angeles hospital. Somewhat sedated from the effects of prep drugs he picked up the phone in his private room. Our conversation went something like this:
“So Rex, you worried?”
“No…not…really…” he stammered.
“I’m praying for you.”
“Oh…well, uh, I’m…kinda…drug…ged…right now.”
“Well, I know everything will go well.”
“Oh…O…kay…” he slurred as the drugs took greater effect. “I’d…bet…ter…go…now,” he added, drifting away from the conversation.
“Can you do something for me?” I asked.
“What?” he demanded, but as kind as he could under the circumstances.
“Ask the doctors a question when you come out of recovery.”
“Ask them if they found any oatmeal.”
“What?” he squeaked out. “I got…ta…go… Bye…”
“Bye. Love you brother.”
The surgery was a success and for some reason I thought Rex was capable of remembering our pre-operation conversation when I called him back the next day.
“So,” I said. “The prayers worked.”
“Yeah. Guess so,” he answered.
“You ask the doctors the question?”
“You know. They cut through your ribs to get to that gland and fixed it right?”
“So did they find what I asked you to have them look for?”
“Jim, what are you talking about?”
“Oatmeal. Did they find any on your ribs?”
Rex was still drug afflicted so I let him off the hook.
“Talk to you later. We are remembering you in our prayers. Ask the Doctors for me will you?”
See, Mom never lied, unlike Dad who lied to get into World Ward Two so he could save the planet. I’m not sure if she ever mentioned it to any of her other children, but Mom definitely had always told me when I lived at home: “Jimmy, eat your oatmeal, it’ll stick to your ribs…”
Today my kitchen cabinets are full of oatmeal. All flavors, I eat the stuff regularly. But I never quite understood what Mom meant by it “sticking to my ribs.” I have never asked either, just assumed if she said it stuck, then it must.
I recall as a boy feeling around my ribcage after eating my oatmeal and wondering if it took a trip other foods didn’t. Maybe oatmeal really did hang out down there.
“…and it’ll keep you warm,” she would add, an assurance that eating the entire bowl would be good for me.
See, I trust Mom. So I had never in my life, not even to this day in my fifth decade, asked why she thought oatmeal, above all other foods, would linger on the ribs instead of becoming digested.
The idea that I took from Mom, especially when I was thousands of miles away from home in South America, and offered almost daily a soupy gruel of watered down hot oats for breakfast (a drink rather than thick spoonfuls) was that preparation for the day with good sound nutrition will keep you safe. It was never quite like Mom’s but whenever I brought the warm cup of soupy oat drink to my lips Mom was there with me.
As I think on it now, the oatmeal comforted Mom too. She just needed to know that something she did would stick to us from home when the seven boys and two girls ventured out into the cold hard world.
Eating oatmeal might not really stick to ribs, but I never, ever, eat it without hearing Mom’s voice. It isn’t just oatmeal that stuck to this boy though. It was the time-tested values that gave real warmth and protection. Like a shield against the punches, life’s knock-out blows to the rib cage, Mom always meant more than just oatmeal would stick. Obeying Mom on eating the hot cereal was assuring myself that I could succeed.
Mom always got it right, because it was always the best she gave. There are no perfect Moms or Dads, nor children I suppose, but some come pretty close. After all is said and done just knowing your Mom cared made a boy feel safe.
And as for the oatmeal, every time I eat it I smile and think about it sticking to my ribs in a special way, a way that causes me to silently say:
“Thanks Mom. Your warmth and caring has stuck where it matters most, and it still is protecting my heart!”
Virginia Pratt passed away in 2008. The revised version of the 2005 Regional Bestseller "MOM, The Woman Who Made Oatmeal Stick to My Ribs" is due out in the Fall 2017 on Kindle and iBooks. For updates please visit my website: www.jamesmichaelpratt.com.