Missing Girl Scout Cookies

Gail Hosking

Gail Hosking

On paper it’s about those Girl Scout cookies and the eleven dollars Viola Fink said I owed her. That’s what I read from the records left by the social worker in charge of what she called “The Hosking situation,” which meant simply that my father had been killed in Vietnam and my mother had gone crazy with drink. No one had written down the word hunger.

Viola Fink must have understood the situation. She was a kind lady, paid my Girl Scout dues for a whole year when I couldn’t afford it, though later she told the social worker that she shouldn’t be responsible for those cookies I’d either eaten or sold. She was a single mother and had her own financial limitations. But what was a seventeen-year-old girl to do who couldn’t find much food in her own refrigerator? Whose mother disappeared for days? Whose father was saving the world from communism?

I suppose I should have written my father about owing that money and then about what was really going on at home, but I didn’t. I thought if I didn’t speak about how my mother was drinking all the time or how there didn’t seem to be enough money even though he sent a check every month, then the problems would go away. I knew how to get myself invited to my friend Dwana Fritch’s house for a meal, so at least I had a place to eat dinner now and then. Her mother loved that I enjoyed her food so much. She took pride in her fried pork chops and pancakes and didn’t care a bit when I opened up her refrigerator to see what was inside. Steve Parkhurst’s dad often invited me to dinner, too, as long as I didn’t like the dark meat of the chicken. He baked the best biscuits I’d ever tasted and made me laugh with his jokes. I washed dishes during my lunch period at the high school in exchange for a meal, so what was there to write my father about? Where would I begin to explain anything when he was eating C-rations out of cans and dropping sulfur pills into his drinking water so he wouldn’t die?

When I lived with my grandmother the first time my father went to Vietnam, she kept telling me how hard it was for him over there in the jungle. Couldn’t you just write him a short note now and then to cheer him up? I’m afraid I stopped writing letters when I moved back with my mom, maybe because I didn’t want to tell him how hungry I was.

Twenty-seven years after my father finally got himself killed at war, my art therapist sister tells me that Daddy’s death wasn’t the worst of it all. I’ve learned this is what they call a complicated grief. It would have been easier to think otherwise, to think it was enough to know how much we were going to miss him. It would have been enough simply to mourn the loss of a parent. But the damage from war was like a series of concentric circles that kept widening with time. There was a hunger left in all of us: for food, for love, for the past, for explanations. But the war simply came home and continued its battle on our ground. We understood so little of this back then, as we sat under my father’s funeral canopy on a cold New Jersey morning and listened to a soldier play a bugle in the background.

My grandmother held one gloved hand on her black purse and one over her mouth. The minister stood behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. When the soldier in charge of the funeral detail handed my six-year-old brother a folded American flag, my teenage sisters bent their heads and wept. As the oldest child, I stood next to them as stoic as I had ever been. I looked down at my little brother and then wondered what was to become of us. My only hope had been that my father would return from Vietnam. But now that hope had vanished.

“We are here to thank you, Charles,” Reverend Highberger said at the funeral service. The first four rows of the Ramsey Presbyterian Church filled with soldiers who knew enough to take off their green berets at a funeral. Two steadfast soldiers stood at either end of my father’s draped casket. White gladiolas filled the pulpit, and the light coming through the stained glass windows created streaks across the blue carpet. “Vietnam is a place far away, a place we’ve been hearing about too much,” the minister continued. “But Charles was there as he felt it was his duty. He was there because of need. But the true eulogy is in the hearts of his fellow soldiers and the members of his family.”

I didn’t know then what was in my heart because it had already frozen solid like a tundra archive that might never melt; though I see now that I still wondered about the words duty and need. I was thinking about our empty refrigerator and my growling stomach. I might have asked questions right then and there had I any language for the occasion. I might have seen just how frightened I was about going back to school in Illinois as if nothing had happened and without knowing how I would pay off those Girl Scout cookies.

After the burial, Aunt Edith, cousin Tuppy, and the church ladies brought casseroles to my grandmother’s dining room table. My mother tried to help, but they shooed her away into the living room. My grandmother’s house suddenly filled with uniformed men and relatives I hadn’t seen in what my grandmother would call a month of Sundays. Everyone tried to sound cheerful for us. Some told stories about my father and how much he had missed us in Vietnam; others like my now-widowed mother sat on my grandmother’s couch staring at the crowd with not one idea of what to say. I helped my brother fill his plate with potato salad and cold cuts and then watched as he filled his cheeks like a starved chipmunk.

A few days later we boarded a plane and flew back to Illinois. We entered our home in silence, and then I got up the next morning and imposed order on the day. I ignored a merciless nagging heartache, but I could not ignore my mother’s decline, or my empty stomach. Still, I had not one idea what to do. I couldn’t even be angry; there was no such luxury while I watched her terrible shaky sadness. I found my way to a good meal and a piece of sanity now and then at Dwana or Steve’s house. Always I pushed down the words that wanted to rise out of my throat like the cry of a wounded animal.

My mother had her own kind of hunger, though hers begged for annihilation. She drank herself into a place she said kept her alive, and then she disappeared from our apartment for days at a time. My little brother could be found on the playground behind our apartment with a box of Sugar Pops in his hand and my father’s jungle hat on his head. By then I slept more often on Dwana’s bottom bunk bed and ate the sausages and scrambled eggs her mother cooked us each morning before school. I was doing my Latin homework on Dwana’s dining room table, translating stories about Roman empires and wars. Eventually a social worker showed up at my mother’s apartment and began writing letters to the state. My mother told the social worker about the knots in her chest, so a doctor gave her 25 milligrams of Librium. Everyone said that a church affiliation would be helpful. No one talked about food.

I lay on the bed that I shared with my sister and I listened to the rain. The shadows of the early morning light swirled across our wall. I got up and took out the pink rollers in my hair, but by the time I put them on the dresser, I knew I couldn’t go to school. I was so tired, so heavy in my body that I felt dead in the center. Only the week before a doctor had diagnosed anemia. Later, he would label it malnutrition.

That week the Sheriff arrived and took my mother to jail. He said it was because she’d driven drunk again without a license. The Department of Family Services made temporary plans for us in the homes of friends. Already my mother’s life had tumbled out of my reach. The police charged her with contributing to the neglect of minor children. I called my father’s brother in New Jersey and told him the story. He came to get us. The social worker sent my uncle my mother’s attorney bills: fifteen dollars per hour for deskwork and twenty-five dollars per hour for court work. Bills, and more bills, mounds of them, stuffed into the cracks of our ravenous lives.

I came empty-handed when I visited my mother in jail. I walked down the creaky wooden steps of the county court house after school and half expected crowds of women to fill the cells, but my mother was the only prisoner there. She looked young and fragile behind basement bars. Her pale face appeared gaunt and childlike, so I felt I had no choice but to look strong for her. She must have known that I wanted to bring her a basket of food because she told me right away that they were feeding her just fine—I shouldn’t worry. Seeing her sober reminded me of better times, though they seemed gone forever now.

*

I don’t know if Viola Fink ever got paid off. What erupts from time to time, like a rune to be read, is the memory of her taking care of things when I couldn’t myself. I think of the kindness of strangers, what friends take care of when the government can’t. I never came to understand the bigger items like war and danger and duty, but those seemingly smaller things, the ones that return years later like a hunger when I least expect it, still surface when I pay overdue bills or open my refrigerator. When little girls in uniform ring my bell, I buy their cookies and then eat them with ravenous delight as though there is still nothing left in the cupboards.

3 Comments

  1. wow as a retired school teacher and now a mental health advocate and an old friend of Gail. I had no idea and i guess none of us ever do but she grew up to be an amazing women. I am so proud of her ability to write and she continues to tell her story through a little girl’s eyes. I will share this with a support group that touches upon grief a lot. it is so moving

  2. I am shaking now, not with physical hunger, but with emotional hunger to speak to and be with my dear friend, Gail; a writer who never fails to move me.

    As a volunteer/activist working passionately on hunger and food insecurity issues I read this tale on another level also; the story of hunger in America is so hidden, as it was for Gail and her sisters and brothers (and mother) and as it is now, today, still and again.

    Gail, I love you dearly, and I couldn’t be more grateful for your friendship.

  3. When Betty Ann mentioned the girl scout cookies I had no idea what she was talking about because I had not seen your essay. I had such a lump in my throat as I read it. It’s a time I don’t revisit very much but I know the memory of hunger is why I buy so much to fill the pantry. I didn’t have a Dwana or Mr. Parkhurst and I remember having nothing but some hamburger meat and kepchup at times and making it into a sudo sloppy joe that would last for several days for us. I’m glad you write such moving stories to remind us how hard life can be and how people reach out to help.

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