Beef Jerky and Matthew West

The journey from who I was to who I am began with a bag of Mennonite beef jerky and a teenage boy I still consider a little brother. It’s strange how such a simple, innocuous moment can bring such a revelation and truly help you find yourself. God does have a sense of humor, after all.

I sat at the kitchen table of the large farmhouse of the family who had taken my son and I in after I found out about my soon-to-be ex-husband’s latest affair. Unlike so many people, leaving my ex was one of the easiest things I had ever done. I wasn’t really hurt, as neither of us had been happy in a very long time, but the overwhelming emotion that covered the relief was fear.

What was I going to do now? How could I be a good mom alone? How could I avoid the mistakes my parents made with me when I was following in their footsteps? And what was I going to say to my preschool son when he was old enough to really understand? The truth, that his father had no clue how to keep his pants on, was not something any child wants to know about his father…

That day in the kitchen, though, none of these questions were the ones bothering me. For the moment, we were warm and safe, among friends that were family without blood. What was bothering me at the moment was that I was a little hungry and wasn’t sure what to snack on.

The younger son of the family we were staying with came downstairs just then and got a plastic bag from a cabinet. Taking out a piece of beef jerky and taking a bite, he offered the bag to me, “You want a piece?” he asked, his mouth just full enough to distort his voice.

I started to say no, I didn’t care for beef jerky, when a light bulb went off in my mind. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember a single instance where I had actually tried it. My ex didn’t like it. My mom didn’t like it. So there had never been any around, and I was told it wasn’t good.

But nowhere in my mind was my own opinion. I could not pull forward the taste of beef jerky as I could with cottage cheese or anything else I had tried and disliked.

“Sure,” I said, putting out my hands as he tossed me the ziplock bag. I took a small piece of the dried meat. It smelled good, and I liked seasoned beef, so why wouldn’t I like it?

It tasted amazing, and I knew for sure that the memory wasn’t just misfiled somewhere. If I had tried this before, I would definitely remember! I took another piece.

The boy, seeming to intuitively know that something important was happening, held up another bag. “We have a couple of different flavors in here. You want some more?”

I sampled several different flavors of beef jerky and liked them all but the Hawaiian barbecue, but the actual taste was no longer the bigger point. I went to my room and sat down on my bed with a notebook and a pen. Now that I had discovered the issue, I had to figure out how deep it went. Did I have my own opinion on anything?!

Music was first. My dad listened to country, and I always had, too, shunning the older rock my mother liked and even more the hard metal of my ex. I knew all of George Strait’s songs, never missed the CMA awards, had a David Allen Coe CD in my car. But what about the music we played at church? It was kind of rock, directed at God. There was a good feel to it, and it made me smile.

I had never really considered it, but I realized I really liked it. Thinking to all the songs I knew of it, I realized that one singer, Matthew West, was the best in my opinion. Wow, not just a new favorite snack, but a favorite singer that none of the major influences in my life had ever heard.

Carefully, I analyzed everything else in my life, from my favorite books, clothes, movies, and food. I really looked at them from my own point of view. My clothes were first. I always wore what I thought my mom would like, up until I was married. Then I dressed to please my husband. I hated dressing in the tight shirts and low-cut jeans. They made me feel insanely self-conscious.

Most of my life, I had hated spaghetti. The spaghetti I grew up with was a clump of thick noodles with a sauce of basically meat, tomato paste, and onions. But that wasn’t how it had to be made…I could make it differently, use real sauce with herbs I had never eaten and cheese. I might really like it!

I had been reading Stephen King since I was eight, because my mom liked him and had all of his books. Thinking carefully back to the stories, the characters, I realized that I really liked his writing myself. Maybe at first it had been influenced, now it was my choice. But I also liked the comic book heroes the boys here talked about.

I looked in the mirror at my long, blond, fuzzy hair. I had worn it short all my life until a few years earlier when a co-worker had insinuated it made a statement about my sexual orientation. It had embarrassed me enough in front of my husband that I decided to grow it out. But I hated it with a passion! If it wasn’t back in a ponytail, it irritated me to death, especially when the windows were down while I was driving.

All of a sudden, I looked critically at myself in the mirror. My hair was everywhere, falling down from the clip I had it in and making my neck itch like it was covered with ants. My shirt was cut too low in the neck and so short that I was always pulling at it to keep from showing my belly or back. I grabbed a t-shirt from the drawer and changed quickly.

That was a start. I went to get my son, who was playing with the boys in the yard. I told him we were going shopping, and that if he was good I would get him a new toy car.

A few hours later, I returned home. I had three pairs of Wrangler jeans and button-up shirts from the ladies section at Tractor Supply, as well as a new Batman t-shirt. My hair, which had been to the bottom of my shoulder blades, was now to the bottom of my ears and a deep, Irish red color that complimented my green eyes well. I turned off the new Matthew West CD and got my son out of his booster seat where he was happily playing with a small Tonka truck.

Carrying him on one hip and the new clothes in the other hand, I walked into the house. The lady we were staying with looked at me, surprised. After a second, she said, “A very nice change. You look good!” Then she added, “I think I have a headband that would look great with your new style. I’ll go get it.”

I glowed with the praise and the easy acceptance with which my choices were met. “Thanks! Oh, and do you think you could teach me how to make spaghetti?”

Years later, and I am happily remarried to a wonderful man. The first time we met outside of work, I was wearing knee-length shorts, and one of the Tractor Supply shirts and my hair pulled back in a bandanna. It’s still the same length, back to my natural brown color. The majority of my clothes are t-shirts, and my husband always tells me I look good. My favorite food is pasta, and I have a rather impressive comic book collection.

I’ve never been happier, stronger, or more fulfilled. My son is thirteen now, and I work hard at teaching him to find his own way and develop his own choices. He likes Toby Mac’s Christian rap, video games, and comics. This year he asked for his first Stephen King book. When I asked him why, he said that he had really liked the movie and wanted to read it.

He found it in his stocking on Christmas morning.

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KR Pendergrass

KR Pendergrass is a career paramedic, wife, autism mom, homeschooler, freelance writer, and part-time member of The Avengers. Despite these superhuman feats, she still finds time to serve God and do all she can to make sure her husband and boys have the best life possible. Her publications include her Christian mystery Incompatible With Life, and short stories such as "The Worst Call" on the Soft Cartel site and upcoming story, essay and poem in the December issue of The Scarlet Leaf Review.


  1. I gobbled up your story of self discovery. Good for you for allowing a “nothing” moment, like being offered beef jerky to ignite a new way of being. I think trauma has this benefit (if nothing else). If we’re aware enough, it invites us into a new kind of knowing. And if we have the courage to investigate–as you did–all kinds of new worlds open. Thank you for sharing your story.

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