Shut Up and Eat Your Squab, from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma, Lady Furness

pigeons

Once Mamma left us in Barcelona while she went to America for a short visit. We were then eight, going on nine, and we had not yet seen our own country. We asked to be taken with her. Mamma did not approve, so we stayed home with Papa. But a week or so after Mamma left, we had a wonderful surprise. Dr. Mann, our family physician and friend, arrived at the house with four pigeons a pair for each of us. Carlos, the butler–also our friend–built us a cage for them on the terrace. The pigeons seemed happy in their new home, and we promptly named them. They were Isabella and Ferdinand, Jeanne and Carlos. One day, when we got home from school, our friend Carlos met us at the door. “I have news for you, twins,” he said, leading us to the pigeon cote. “Look, they have laid eggs and are sitting on them. Someday soon you will have baby pigeons.”

“When? How soon?” we asked.

Carlos smiled. “You will have to wait,” he said. “Nature takes its own time.”

Naturally, we were excited. We had never had any pets of our own before, much less baby pigeons. Every day after school we would sit by the hour, watching the nesting birds. We sat in silence, afraid that any sound might disturb the delicate balance of nature. Then one day as we clambered up to the terrace we heard Carlos calling to us. “Look, twins/ he said, “they are here–the little pigeons–six of them.”

We ran to the nest, and we were horrified. We had expected soft, fluffy little things-like the baby chicks you see at Easter. Instead, we saw six wet, ugly little creatures with heads bigger than their bodies. We were ready to cry. But Carlos comforted us. “Wait and see,” he said. “In a few days they will be beautiful.” And they were.

Meanwhile, we racked our brains trying to find suitable names for them. Mamma returned from America. “Come, Mamma,” I said. “Come outside and see what a beautiful sight we have to show you.”

Mamma took one look at our baby pigeons; then, to our horror, she ordered them killed. From inside the house we heard her say to Carlos, “Let the parent pigeons loose, Carlos. Then kill the baby pigeons. We will have them for dinner.”

“Oh, no, Mamma!” Gloria wailed; “please let them stay at least until they are old enough to fly away.” Now, very near hysteria, we screamed in turn: “Don t kill them! Don t kill them! Why? Why? They’re so little they don’t take up any room at all.”

All our pleading left Mamma cold. Her mind was set.

“Why are you doing this?” I screamed, as she turned to leave. “Why?”

“Why?” Mamma looked at me with ice in her eyes; I had dared to question her orders. “Because,” she said, “my dear grandmamma always told me that pigeons bring misfortune, bad luck, and poverty into a house and my dear grandmamma was always right.”

Gloria and I put our arms around each other and cried help lessly and in desperation; this was our first great grief. But whether we were brokenhearted or not, that night we were given squab for dinner. Carlos must have been crying, too, for as he served our baby pigeons we noticed that his eyes were red and swollen.

Heads down, out of the corners of our eyes we watched Mamma. “Eat your dinner,” she commanded.

“Oh, no, no, Mamma,” Gloria said pathetically. “We cannot eat our babies.”

“Stop this nonsense,” Mamma snapped. “Eat your dinner or leave the room.”

The tears again started down our cheeks. Together we got up and left the room. Through the fog of our feelings we were conscious of her brittle voice announcing, “No dessert for a week.”

We went to our room and sobbed until we were exhausted. “I don t care if we never have dessert again,” Gloria wailed. “I only want to bring our baby pigeons back to life.” And together we cursed this ogress of a grandmother, a woman we had never seen and would never see who seemed to stand for everything that didn’t matter, and who seemed to destroy everything that did.

While horrifying, this anecdote–perhaps more imagined than remembered–reminds me of one of those old “Mommy, Mommy” jokes from the 1960s:

“Mommy, Mommy, want happened to Fido?”
“Shut up and eat your meatloaf!”


from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958

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