I wake up with a dry mouth and stomach ache. Yesterday I battled stomach flu and lost. But today's stomach ache is not as angry. Insistent, yes, but gentler. This, I realize, is hunger. Just hunger, a sensation I don't experience often enough, a sensation most of us don't experience often enough.
And there she is before me, as she appears every morning. My mother. My gaunt mother.
Will she know if I spill her longest secret? And do I care?
Come here, a little closer. Let me whisper it in your ear:
My mother was anorexic. And bulimic. What they now call bulimarexic.
In her later years we were gladdened to see her weigh eighty pounds. Eighty pounds was a victory. In what kind of world is eighty pounds a victory?
She denied her diagnosis vigorously. She died before owning her condition. She'd wave her hand, a clear enough dismissal of our inquiries. Breezily, she'd offer, "Oh, you know, the cancer left me with radiation damage in my throat. It's hard for me to eat anything but the softest foods."
And then we'd watch, incredulous, as she lit into a steak, her studied obliviousness enough to take our breath away.
I won't talk about being a girl growing up with a mother obsessed with her weight. You can guess at what it was like. Only this:
I am out for dinner with my family on the night of my graduation from high school. I am wearing a sleeveless white dress, and I am as thin as I will ever be. Not too thin, but just right. My mother is sniping at me about how ill-fitting the dress is. She is disgruntled because it was my grandmother whom I chose to accompany me to the store to select a dress. In the taxi on the way home from dinner I am sitting with my aunt and uncle. My uncle, generally a genial fellow, takes my arm with unprecedented force and hisses, "Don't let my sister tell you otherwise. You looked beautiful tonight. Perfect." I am stunned. These words are more (louder, clearer, straighter) than I've heard from my potbellied uncle in years.
I do not forget them.
My mother's every waking hour was spent thinking about food. She had scarcely finished one meal before she was planning for the next. When she came to visit me and the boys, her requests for food arrived on the hour and required thrice-daily trips to the gourmet supermarket (the "only" supermarket, as far as she was concerned).
I am pulling in to the diner where we are to eat brunch, even though the boys and I ate breakfast at home and aren't even faintly hungry. It is pouring. My mother lets herself out of the car and races into the restaurant ahead of us. She takes the only umbrella. I am left trying to manage the boys, their jackets, and a few toys. In the rain. I am dumbfounded. By the time the boys and I slide into the booth my mother has chosen, she is already sipping her coffee -- and has already ordered her meal.
This weekend my sister-in-law asked my children if they'd like to eat grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch. They nodded. She pulled out the ingredients and left them on the counter for me. She grabbed a frying pan and put it on the burner. And then she turned to face me. I must have looked recalcitrant, or mystified, or some combination. She laughed and called out to my brother, "Your sister is the only person I know who makes me look like a gourmet cook." And then she took over at the stove.
It is, I think, my mother's peculiar legacy. I am so frightened of turning into her that I don't like thinking about food. I don't like preparing food. I spend the least amount of time I can in feeding my kids, while also ensuring that they don't eat crap. It's a fine line, but we manage. It isn't ideal. Luckily my husband likes to cook.
I am not anorexic. Or bulimic. Nor have I ever been so. But I know, first-hand, what it is to be obsessed with food. What that obsession looks like, smells like, tastes like.
It is quite possibly what I know best of all.
written in 2009