The title of this post is misleading. I was going to write a humor piece about Popeye, but as I sat down to watch an old Popeye cartoon on YouTube, a long-repressed memory was awoken, much as the memories of childhood of Proust’s narrator in “Remembrance of Things Past” was awakened by the aroma and taste of a madeleine dipped in tea.”
As i listened to the final “boop boop” of the Popeye closing credits, I went back to my childhood, when I used to watch reruns of Popeye on a local New York TV channel. I must have been very young at the time and I was fascinated by the triangle of Popeye, Olive Oyl and the villainous Bluto.
The plot lines in the animated cartoons tended to be simple.
A villain, usually Bluto (later renamed Brutus for a time), makes a move on Popeye’s “sweetie”, Olive Oyl. The bad guy then clobbers Popeye until Popeye eats spinach, which gives him superhuman strength.
I especially liked it when Olive Oyl melted in Popeye’s arms at the end, after he defeated Bluto.
As an only child, I was competitive with my father for my mother’s attention. I think Freud would have loved to analyze my childhood obsession with Popeye.
I would ask my mother to cook some frozen spinach. After they were cooked, I would have her put the cooked spinach into a used can of Spaghetti-Os so I could make believe that I had a can of spinach like Popeye. I have no idea why we just didn’t use a can of spinach! Once I had my can of spinach as my acting prop, I became Popeye — in the same way Sir Laurence Olivier became Hamlet. My mother was Olive Oyl. She would go into her bedroom or the kitchen and cry for help. I would eat some spinach out of the can with a fork, flex my bicep, and rush in to save her from whatever danger she was in.
Jeez, no wonder I repressed this. How embarrassing!
I called up my mother tonight.
Neil: Guess what I’m going to write about in my blog tomorrow? “Popeye and spinach!”
Mom: Really? Be careful with spinach. There’s all that bad bagged spinach coming out of California. Remember to wash it first.
Neil: I’m not calling you about spinach. Do you remember watching Popeye?
Mom: I never watched Popeye as a child. I never liked him. He had this one eye. And creepy voice. And weird body.
Neil: But you watched him with me. Remember?
Mom: Did we?
Mom: Mom, it was a big deal for me back then. I would be Popeye and you would be Olive Oyl — and I would rescue you?
Mom: We did that?
Neil: Yes! Don’t you remember you would cook frozen spinach and put it in a Spaghetti-Os can?
Mom: Wouldn’t it make more sense to just buy a can of spinach?
Neil: I was going to ask you that! Why did we do that?
Mom: I don’t remember this at all. Maybe you played it with your friend Robert.
Neil: I played it with YOU.
Mom: I remember playing Scrabble with you.
Neil: Oh my god! You’ve repressed the memory — just like I did!
Mom: And well… maybe it’s better that way.