Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Sausage and Peppers, and Family

One of the reasons my Grandma went to live with my parents about 7 years ago was her eating habits - or specifically the fact that she didnÂ’t eat. If there was nobody to cook for, she didn't cook. If she did have a guest, often she would just cook for her guest, and pick at a small plate of something for herself.

Grandma was an Italian gourmet - the old-school southern Italian Mama with the thick red sauces, the incredible garlicky fish-and-pasta dinners, the fresh bread, the sausages from the butcher, the hand-mixed salad dressing that nobody else could get quite right, the deep-fried pastries that her mother used to make, the piles of little fish that she painstakingly deboned for us every New Year's Eve. This woman, not eating at all. Food had lost all its appeal for her. My Dad said that when they made the decision to move her permanently to Illinois, she weighed about 80 pounds. She had given away to charity most of her good cooking pots. She just hadnÂ’t been eating. Crying, cleaning, watching TVÂ… not eating.

Hlonelinessess had been consuming her. The older she grew, the more life seemed to fall away from her. Grandpa died in 1985, Mom married and moved far away, her siblings and friends died out one a time over the years. The school where she volunteered eventually had to retire her, well into her 70's, when she became unsteady on her feet, and forgetful. Once she hit 80, she was spending weeks at a time all alone. Her life, essentially, was over, and the Lord didn't take her home. Thankfully her daughter and son-in-law did. I think we all fear to wind up living this way, old, not really healthy, alone. Who would want to get out of bed, never mind eat?

Within a year of moving in with my parents, she gained 20 pounds. For several years, until the Alzheimer's took hold, she was happy again.

There is a strong lesson here.

My mother always believed she was fat. She was a black-haired Shirely Temple child, huge eyes and cheeks and smile, chubby and giggly. By the time she was 13 she had a luscious hourglass figure, not many friends (jealous bitches), and cousins who called her fat and four-eyes all the time. By the time she was 15, she had a steady boyfriend with teen-idol looks and a '57 Chevy. The photos of her in high school and college are incredible. She was sexy as hell. She went to College, dated around, wore miniskirts. In Graduate school, she married a brilliant young doctor, and had a baby (me).

However, in the 1960's, she wasn't Michelle Phillips, so in her mind, she was fat.

When I was a year old, Dad got a professorship that moved us to Springfield, Illinois, 5 states away from her home of New Jersey. She was surrounded by suburban hillbillies. Holier-than-thou-Christian, anti-feminist, racist neighbors. Nobody in our neigborhood had half the education she had. She joined some local organizations, trying to make friends, and met lots of snobby elitist Stepfordian wives of local doctors and lawyers.

When I was about 5, I chose to play with friends instead of spending time with her, and she freaked out. She started over-eating, and she was eating crap. A bag of chips a night. By the time I was 10, she had ballooned. The more my personality developed, the less in common we seemed to have, and the more depressed she became. I was a complete stranger to her - she had no idea what to do with me. I was all she thought she had. She couldn't relate to me at all, and it just killed her.

Dad was distant, utterly absorbed in his work, never home, and cold to her when he was home, sleeping on the couch and disappearing into televised sports. Mom despserately needed his company, and they didn't know how to communicate. The classic family scenario from the 1970's. Nobody ever suggested that this was wrong or unhealthy. After all, she had it pretty good, in comparison. Her closest friends and family were half a country away, in New Jersey and Connecticut. Her closest new friends in Springfield were an alcoholic and a woman who was married to an alcoholic. Mom ate compulsively, and I don't blame her. Frankly, I don't know how she survived it. Many women in her position would have attempted suicide.

She was damn tough though. Stubborn as hell. She survived it. She got therapy. She made newer, better friends. She is still big, but she has that hourglass figure back, and doesn't seem to focus on it too much. And she eats healthier than most people I know - no caffeine, no extra sugar, fat-free everything, virtually no alcohol at all. She is still hanging out with people she has very little in common with, but there is a very different dynamic... she seems to have let go of something. She seems in control of her life. She is wanted and appreciated. She's less angry. And she's got that 5-year old smile back, dimples and all.

At 58, I think she is light-years ahead of where her mother was at that age, in the self-awareness department. I'm proud of her.

As for me, I started the not-eating thing when I was in high school. I had very few friends, and my friends, like me, were dorks. Oh yeah, I was a big dork with a constantly running nose all through grade school. In high school, I drowned myself in community theatre so I'd have a life of some sort, knowing my peers were going to movies and dances with boyfriends and friends. My mom didn't believe in fashion, so I wore my cousin's hand-me-downs to school. This was the 1980's. The occasional new clothes came from Zayre's - a local version of K-Mart. I appreciated my friends, but never stopped torturing myself over being constantly rejected by the people I really wanted to hang with. The best days in school were the days when I was ignored. The worst days I have tried to erase from my mind.

Whenever I was angry or sad, I lost my appetite. If I tried to eat in an emotional state, my stomach would churn and I couldn't keep the food down. I went through a few years in high school where I only ever ate dinner, because my parents were there, and I didn't want them wise to my eating problems. My relationship with Mom was torrid. I didn't trust her to deal with me compassionately, and I didn't trust my Dad to protect me from her. I loved my dad and desperately wanted to make him happy, so when he made me breakfast, I would eat it, but couldn't keep it down for long. I never managed to get through first period at school without throwing up. I was thin and knew it. I knew underneath the stupid clothes I had a great figure, so body image wasn't the reason. I just didn't want to eat. My constant stress made food taste tinny, and my stomach was always sick. My sophomore year in high school, I had a Heath bar and a coke almost every day for lunch, partly so I wouldn't have to go into the cafeteria. For an entire year.

My saving grace was the fact that because my mother had me in ballet classes since the age of 4, I knew all about Anorexia, and what happened to girls who refused to eat, or threw up their food. I saw the girls in my dance classes file in and out of the hospital. Beautiful young ballerinas, looking magical in their tiaras and tutus, mysteriously vanished from the stage at 16. Some never returned. Some did, reappearing in the audience a few years later, coming backstage to say hi to old friends, looking tired, wistful, and sad.

I heard harrowing stories of the "treatment" they had received for their "illness." I knew I had to at least convince everyone else I was eating, or I'd be locked away with needles stuck in my arms. I knew what would happen to me if I was caught.

But underneath it all, I knew that not eating could kill me. I have always, all my life, wanted to live life, and never gave up hope that somehow, in the future, something might chnge my life for the better. Some inexplicable survival instinct always took over. Probably, the same one that kept my mother alive, and the same one that kept my Grandmother going.

I also could never refuse to eat my Grandmother's food. If she was there, I ate. I ate for her, and I loved it. There were some years when the only meals I enjoyed were the ones I shared with Grandma.

I started eating normally, and enjoying it, at 19, when I found what at that time was a fantastic, loving, supportive boyfriend, and started college. I briefly stopped eating again a few years later, when we broke up, but this time I ran straight to counseling, and pulled myself together. Today, I catch myself from time to time, not often, going a day without eating, when I'm sad or terrified about something. I fix it by calling a friend and asking them to come eat with me. It never lasts more than a day. And it might happen once a year.

My mother commented recently that this is just one more way in which I am "so like my Grandmother." I smiled wanly. Genetics is a wild ride.

When she says things like that, I swear, I can hear my mother thinking "And one more way that you are SO NOT like me." I wonder if it would be any consolation to her if she could recognize her mother in me, looking out at her through my eyes? Would it help her to understand me a bit more? Or would she feel even more alienated, left out of some intensely deep bond my Grandmother and I shared through our likeness?

My Grandmother, my Mother and I are such distinctly different people, and also so very alike. Like all families. Because of all our counseling, and having Mental Health Professionals in the family and friends category, I like to think we're a little better at working through things than other women. We're probably not.

Grandma is gone now, never to be sad or lonely again. I see her in Heaven, with her own huge restaurant-sized dining room, serving the best eggplant parmesan an Archangel ever had, while Grandpa eyes all guys tucking napkins in their white robes, making sure nobody makes eyes at his Tootsie. Down here on earth, Mom and I swap recipes for low-fat vegetarian dinners, groan at how much we miss eating pounds of chocolate, and commiserate about inaccurate scales and clothes that shrink. We talk about how much we miss eating Grandma's sausage and peppers... and quietly admit nobody will ever make them like she did. Mom and I remember food. We crave it at times. But we also remember binging and starving and hating ourselves.

Underneath it all, I don't think it's the food we really miss. I think we have both learned a lot. I think we have made great strides.

Italians, you know. In the new world. In the new millennium.


MzOuiser said...

This is only a test...

Anonymous said...

that's a lovely picture of you btw.