Safety and Play in a Fruit Cocktail

When life feels unstable or unsafe, humans are remarkably adept at forming their own sense of safety and routine. Here, Becky Allender writes about her childhood ritual of eating a fruit cocktail, and wonders about the surprising presence of Jesus in imagination and play. This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living.


As a child, a dark closet was the safest ground to play with my dolls. My mother was not a cruel woman, but she didn’t play, nor did she give room for anything other than work. She grew up in the aftermath of the Great Depression with a mother who gave two of her children away to an orphanage. Her mother couldn’t support the whole family after her husband died of melanoma.

There was no time for my mother to play as a child, and no child of hers would be allowed to be a child. Her fears kept her captive to the illusion that she created a loving home because we were well dressed, fed, and fearfully obedient.

My worst years were the three years that my older sister went to school before I was able to follow her. I can allow myself to see and feel the loneliness when my older sister was not there to buffer the emptiness. Judy coaxed me out of my isolation, but in her absence I wilted.

I was a serious adult when I was young—at least when I was in mother’s presence. What she could not control was how I traveled in my mind. And, since our family appeared well, I was well too. There was a safe routine each day of the week, and it allowed a grounding of goodness.

I never thought much about our family life in the 1950s. In all respects it was a life of routine and stability. At lunchtime during the school year my mother picked us up and brought us home for 30 minutes. Fifteen minutes were spent watching Queen for a Day with my sister in a large chair while she prepared Campbell’s soup and a cheese sandwich.

I loved the chewiness of the cheese and the steaming bowl of soup, but my favorite moment was eating my fruit cocktail. It took my husband almost 40 years to realize I am a mono-eater. I eat one thing on my plate until it is gone, and then I move on to the next, most enjoyable portion. I always save my favorite delight for the end.

This finale was furthered by the interaction with each fruit’s personality. The pears were easy going, so I ate them first. The grapes were the “policemen” of the crowd and always to be trusted. All was well if grapes were there. Seriously, they were always eaten last. The cherries were the most popular, the peaches were kind and usually to be trusted, and the pineapples were odd but likeable. Thus, I knew the safety required with each lunch. Cherries and grapes were eaten last so that life would remain sweet and predictable.

It never occurred to me that this was not how anyone else ate lunch. I remember telling my husband about the personalities of my fruit and he looked at me with trepidation. I suspected he was configuring the new data into a diagnosis. When I told him I did the same with numbers, his eyes widened in disbelief.

The nines were like the grapes—the policemen and “good guys” in the neighborhood. The fives were like the cherries, popular. The threes were peach-like and the rest of the numbers were pineapple and pear-ish. To this day, I love cherries more than any other flavor or fruit. Cherry lifesavers, dried cherries, frozen cherries, fresh cherries, and the last Coke I had in 2005 was a Cherry Coke. (Thank God that it wasn’t the alphabet because reading would have been too complex.)

I am aware that I, like everyone else who is “stable,” create ways to remain intact and cogent. I love that my four-year-old self had the imagination to find comfort and play in fruit and numbers. She is a wild work of wonder, a lover of beauty and complexity. I needed kind fruit and safe numbers before, and I need it more today.

Traveling through this life I sometimes wonder: “Jesus, were you in the fruit cocktail? Were you in the numbers?” I know he meets four-year-olds in the imagination of play. I know he wants to be my greatest ‘grape’ and ‘cherry.’ If that little one could find such delight with fruit, then what is keeping her 66-year-old from the same play? If Jesus can show up in a fruitful young imagination, then to expect anything less of life, especially my life, is a consignment to the closet. As I ate my pear tonight, I smiled at my husband, he smiled back and asked: “What is the smile?” I simply said, “Good fruit.”