The Shape of Our Dignity: Her Tomato Soup…

Posted inCreative Voices

I’ve had two bowls of tomato soup in the last 24 hours. Nothing fancy. The canned, condensed kind. I like tomato soup with a simple grilled cheese sandwich; especially when I am sick. This week, strep and the ‘vid knocked my ass down. Hence why I’m posting so late, and not my goal of two. Nonetheless, here I am, thinking about her tomato soup.

I’d love to say that today’s lunch was exactly like how mom used to make it, except I can’t remember what hers tasted like. It most certainly couldn’t have been much different. It was canned, condensed, but always Campbell’s.

Fair warning, we are about to head down a small rabbit hole. I had to broach the matter at some point. It is, in fact, a part of my life, and often helped shape my authenticity for good or bad. This project isn’t about religion; it’s about the collection of memories in which I’ve viewed them. It’s how they trigger me, remind me, heal me. It most certainly won’t be the last mention of my time with religion.

Growing up in the Mormon church, you knew you were one of the poor kids when you had to use the Bishop’s Storehouse. As a family, we had to put in almost a full day of service hours to “pay” for our groceries. This place was the church grocery store. Shelves were stocked with Deseret labels on everything.

A selection of canned goods was always on the list. There were options of beef stew, carrots with potatoes, chicken noodle soup, and some form of sauce and pasta. These were salty, processed foods, because choice wasn’t available. Aisle after aisle of products aligned in perfect formation among five feet tall structures that seemed to stretch for miles.

The cereal aisle did not even seem fun, as knockoff choices tried to entice the young into enjoying them. Mom would grab four loaves of bread, baked fresh that day. You would get bagged pastas and an industrial size hunk of cheese in a big box; enough to feed an army.

We weren’t an army, but a family of five in need of grocery assistance from our church. I’ll give them credit. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a great structured welfare system. It benefits their members in need. The products are also globally distributed for many disaster relief needs.

Our family had a woman from the ward come search our cupboards every two weeks, as she made a grocery order with my mother. If you grew up Mormon, you knew her as the Relief Society President. Also, a ward is a geographical area in your neighborhood that mapped out the people you attended church with. I know, so many terms to learn.

My mom would take the order form, load us kids into the car, and spend hours gathering all the items on the list the lady from the ward said we needed. We couldn’t get anything else that wasn’t on the list. We didn’t have the option of picking treats from bins. We didn’t have a checkout stand with last-minute items placed to get you to buy them on a whim. We had the list and nothing more.

My mother was often offended by the fact that she couldn’t make her own list. The control that the woman who raided our cupboards had over her was a wrench in her plans with each order. My mother was also quite particular when it came to her choice of soups: Campbell’s.

The Bishop’s Storehouse didn’t carry name brands. They carried the church produced, canned, and labeled Deseret brand. It’s not a brand one would know from outside the welfare of the Mormon church.

Its logo, in all caps, sans serif, spelling out DESERET with a simple beehive icon. Trust me, it could really use a rebrand to feel a bit less forced and timely. It’s almost militant in a way, while still trying to say “pioneer.” The labels were color-coordinated for the type of product its package contained, with a serif typeface that is burned into my brain. To this day, I can still spot the “brand” from any pantry, and yes it is triggering.

Knowing this, there was always a stock of Campbell’s soups on hand, like an emergency stash of the best. If you weren’t sick, you didn’t need soup. Though, mom liked her things that weren’t at the Bishop’s Storehouse. These were always off limits to us; name brand snacks she made us feel were for adults only or too good for kids to have.

I didn’t trust these off-limit brands when I was finally able to buy my own groceries. Hmmm… I now recognized this moment, where what was off limits as a kid was cold, undeserving. I wasn’t enough for them. Or maybe… just maybe I resented them? I mean, I didn’t know what I was missing in their taste. It all seems so stupid now, as I’m in a brain fog; sick without my mom.

My wife and our oldest teenager has been taking care of things while I’m quarantined in the basement. Our youngest is in their room, isolated. I’m a man-baby when I am sick. I know this about me, want to change that about me, but oh crap, do I get whiny. I hate that about myself.

As a kid, I remember my younger sister was always sick. She’d have a cough. She’d cry about her throat hurting. She’d spike a fever, and mom was right there in comfort. The baby of the family, always wrapped in mom’s arms.

I knew every time I was about to become sick. It was almost routine, the overwhelming feeling in the pit of my stomach, the rumble in my tummy, the cry for mom. I remember my stepdad came to my rescue every time. He’d run me to the bathroom, hold my hair back, and comfort me as whatever it was that revolted ME came back up.

My mother wasn’t always cold. I don’t think she could stand the sound of someone throwing up. I don’t blame her. I didn’t have a strong stomach about it until I became a stepfather to my own kiddos.

Mom was great at warming the soup though— always tomato, and always Campbell’s.

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.

Header image by Heather Ford.