Vegan Deli

Vegan Deli  by Jo Stepaniak

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Raising Vegetarian Children
by Jo Stepaniak, M.S.Ed., & Vesanto Melina M.S., R.D.

Raising Vegetarian Children

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Children

I do not have any children and - since I'm not in a serious relationship with anyone - I haven't really given the idea of children much thought. However, I thought I'd share the story of my transition from a nightmarishly selfish vegan child to a compassionate vegan adult.

I suppose all children and teenagers cause their parents some grief at times, but I feel fairly certain that I took the cake! I announced to my heavily meat-eating, hunting-as-a-family-togetherness-activity family when I was thirteen that I would no longer be eating meat. Looking back, I'm fairly certain that I did it more out of a desire to avoid the taste of game meat and possibly just to annoy my parents than out of any sense of compassion for the animals. But, as happens to people who start learning about vegetarianism, I became more and more aware of the disgusting level of cruelty inflicted on animals by humans. By the time I was fifteen, I knew that I could no longer continue eating or using any animal products whatsoever and still look at myself in the mirror.

My family took my announcement of my change to veganism less well than they did my announcement of my change to vegetarianism. From my mother, I got the obligatory, "But where will you get your protein?" concerns. My father and brothers were an entirely different story. They were furious, cruel, and belittling of the importance of my decision to me. I was routinely called an idiot and a fanatic. My father absolutely forbid me (too late) to get rid of my leather, wool, and silk clothing, and insisted (to no avail) that I replace it. My brothers would return from their hunting trips, pull me out into the garage, and literally physically force me to look at their latest kills. Meals, and any other family times, became torture. I couldn't spend more than twenty minutes with any member of my family without the situation devolving into a screaming, crying, name-calling match.

This is where I usually end the story, waiting for all of the sympathy to come rolling in concerning my cruel, unenlightened family. But there is more to it than that. I was largely responsible for the nightmare that was my last two years at home. I became militant and accusatory about animal cruelty issues, confronting every member of my family several times a week about their food and clothing choices. I routinely told my family that they were all murderers and that I hated them. I refused to go on family vacations, family outings, or even just have a night at home with them. I did nothing at all to decrease the stress of the situation - I did everything within my power to make it worse, in fact.

I thought that college was the only thing that could save me. I applied to colleges as far away from my family as I could find, and happily chose one in a state my parents had never even driven through. I wasn't the only one who was happy that I was getting out, though. On the (rather long) drive to the airport, early in the morning, my mother finally broke the long silence, sighed, and said, "I don't want you to think that we don't love you. We do. But I can't hide the fact that we're all glad you're leaving. The last couple of years have been hard. Maybe things will be better with you living so far away." I, being my childish self, said I was glad to be going - and that I wasn't sure I ever wanted to come back.

Living vegan in the dorms is a whole essay unto itself, but the rest of my experiences at college my first semester were excellent. I made many friends, none of them vegan, but all of them wonderful. I enjoyed my classes and did well.

One day, shortly before Christmas, a favorite professor of mine mentioned to the class how jealous he was of this very moment in our lives and our relationships with our families. "This Christmas is a great opportunity for each of you. Many of you are going to be returning home after the first long-term absence from your family. Things will have changed at home, and things have changed for you, as well. Most of you are more intelligent, more mature, more accepting of faults in adults than you were four months ago. Let me give you some advice: don't waste it. Don't slip back into what you were when you left home. It's going to be hard, because you'll find it easiest to slip back into your accustomed place in the family, but don't do it. Stand out. Be better than you were. This chance will not come again. At future Christmases, they won't be as ready to see that college has changed you. Take the opportunity and use it - be who you've always wanted to be for your family."

I and a couple of my friends who were in that class with me discussed over dinner that night what our professor's comments meant. My two friends talked about wanting to impress their fathers with their ability to not blow their school budgets, please their mothers with talk of boyfriends and dances, and be more patient with their little brothers and sisters. All I could think was, "Just please help me get through Christmas dinner without WWIII breaking out!"

Over the next couple of days, I thought a lot about it, though. What kind of person did I want to be for my family? Certainly not what I was in their eyes: a fanatic, an idiot, a constant source of stress and bad feelings. I wanted to be seen as an adult. Someone they respected. Someone they trusted. Someone who encouraged them to be more compassionate. Someone they loved.

I shared these thoughts with my friends and pointed out that it was impossible. My parents could never accept me, and we could never get along on an even simply polite level, because my parents were cruel murderers. My friends rolled their eyes at each other and started to ask me questions - about my family, about my goals, about my reasons for being vegan. In the end, my friend said to me, "I just don't understand how you can be so compassionate to animals, so kind and forgiving of your friends, but so cruel to your family."

That really made me think. I wasn't being cruel to my family, they were being cruel to me..... weren't they? They were the problem, not me..... right? Maybe not.

A plan started to form in my head. What if I treated my family like I treated my best friends? What if I always smiled when I saw them, asked them questions to let them know I was interested in their opinions, complimented them on what I liked about them, tried to see past their failings, did everything in my power to make their lives better? I decided to give it a shot - it certainly couldn't make anything worse.

When I stepped out of the gate at the airport and saw my mom and dad waiting for me with wary looks in their eyes, I forced a huge, happy smile onto my face. I gave them both big hugs, told them how much I had missed them and how happy I was to see them again. On the drive home, I chatted happily about how much I enjoyed college, but I also made a point to ask questions about their lives. For the first time in my life, my father talked to me about his work. My mother just kept turning in her seat to grin at me.

At home, I did the same with my brothers. I pulled out the little gifts I had picked up for them and asked them about high school and junior high and sports. At dinner, everyone was too busy telling stories and laughing to notice or care that I was eating a salad instead of the meatloaf.

The days continued to get better and better. I told my mom that I wanted to learn to cook, and she bought a couple of vegan cookbooks for me. We spent many wonderful hours together experimenting in the kitchen and getting to know each other again after three years of no communication. I played sports and video games with my brothers and went on long walks alone with each of them. They told me their dreams and their goals and their problems and concerns. I spent hours rubbing my father's back as we watched TV, listening to the advice he had for me about classes and finances.When meal time came, I was always a little stressed in my heart, but nothing ever came of it. I had always made at least one vegan dish to try out my cooking skills, and so there was no question about me having something to eat. My family all wanted to try what I made - usually teasing me a little when it didn't turn out quite right, but applauding and cheering like crazy when it did.

Probably the best moment of my visit came when my mother was once again driving me to the airport. There was no uncomfortable silence. We continued to chat happily about everything under the sun. Suddenly, my mom broke off in mid-sentence and smiled at me. "You are a miracle. Can I tell you that? A miracle. I've never seen everyone as happy as they are when you're around. You're so special, and I'm so proud that you're my daughter."

At that moment, I knew I had made the change that I thought was impossible. I had stepped out of what had been a childhood with a bad ending and into a compassionate, loving adulthood. It has been several years since that day, but I've never forgotten how good it made me feel. And how good I've continued to feel as I've extended my compassion for all living things to my family. And how good it has felt as they've also striven to increase their compassion. I almost fell over dead when my mother said she was going to only prepare meat two meals each week, but I was too busy dancing for joy!

I regret that it took me so long to see that the principles of compassion that I adopted in my diet and lifestyle should be applied - perhaps above all - to my relationships with my family. I missed out on a truly compassionate childhood. But I'm making the best of a compassionate adulthood.

L.D.
New York
- n e x t   e s s a y -


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