Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Food

Learning to heal from the loss of my mom, struggles with food

I’ve been writing personal essays about my mom for three and a half years now and am constantly reminded of how much I love to keep her memory alive through writing. Now, I’ve taken all of those essays and strung them together. I plan to build on the narrative so that I can eventually turn it into a memoir about how my mom’s death has affected my relationships in life, particularly my relationship with food.

Given that my mom died 14 years ago today, it seemed like as good a time as any to publish this narrative and solicit your feedback. As you read through the narrative, what strikes you about it? What parts do you like/dislike? What unanswered questions do you have? (I plan to write more about the eating part that I write about at the end, but need some time.)

Here’s what I’ve mustered up the courage to write so far …

*****

When I was younger, my mom always called me beautiful.

“I’m so lucky to have such a beautiful little girl,” she would tell me, holding me tight.

I’d take the compliment, believing her words to be true. I never had reason to doubt my mom because as a little girl, I thought she always knew best. Mom knew how to take care of the many scrapes I got whenever I fell off my bike; she knew how to satisfy my hunger with her home-cooked meals, and she always had an answer to my questions: Mom, why does our cat always bring dead mice to our doorstep? How do caterpillars turn into butterflies? Will you play pretend with me, pretty please?

Mom and me in front of our house in Massachusetts after a snowstorm. Brrr.

Sometimes Mom would get frustrated with me when I asked too many questions. Her frustration mounted into a raging temper whenever I lost something. I would do everything I could to fill the void and ignore the loss, never mentioning the pair of earrings I lost or the $10 bill I misplaced in the school cafeteria one day.

Loss and I never got along well.

One time, I lost my bottom retainer and tried to smile with my mouth closed so Mom wouldn’t see. I had accidentally thrown it away, maybe in the middle school cafeteria where all retainers go to die. I was convinced at one point that the lunch ladies at Holliston Middle School must have been hired for the sole purpose of digging kids’ retainers out of the trash. “I had my retainer in a napkin … and I think I threw it away,’ was all it took for the gloves to come out and the search to begin.

Somewhere nestled between half-eaten bologna and mustard sandwiches and mac and cheese was my bottom retainer. Maybe the janitor will find it and be nice enough to return it to the lost and found at school, I thought. But no.

“Mal, where’s your bottom retainer?” Mom asked one afternoon. I had smiled too wide when I came home from school.

“Um, I don’t know. I think it’s somewhere in my room.”

“When was the last time you saw it?”

“I think the other day.”

“You think?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was the other day.”

My retainer might as well have been a missing child.

“You’re not going to bed,” Mom quipped, “until you find your retainer.”

My room became the cafeteria garbage can. Every corner, every crevice, every old tissue under my bed had so much potential. Six hours passed. 11:00 p.m. Still nothing.

“Robin,” my dad said, “just let her go to bed.”

“Andy, those retainers cost $900,” she said turning to me. “And you’re paying for your new one.” That might have been OK if I had more than $75 in my piggy bank. Maybe if along with my lemonade stand I started selling bookmarks and handmade glitter disks I called Refwingems, I could make enough money …

The replacement retainer only cost $80. Mom and dad paid for it.

Days later, Mom wrote in her diary: “I got so mad at Mallary the other day for losing her retainers. But things are better now.”

*****

No matter how much Mom yelled, I still idolized her and sided with her when she and my dad got into fights. My dad was, and still is, one of the most kind-hearted men I know. I always knew he’d forgive me and love me no matter what. Sometimes I feared that Mom would love me less if I didn’t side with her, and I wasn’t willing to risk the loss. Usually after she’d yell, Mom would try to make up for it. She’d hug me and tell me I was beautiful, or she’d buy me a snack.

Even when I was really little, I always loved to eat (and play with) the meals and snacks Mom gave me. Cheerios were clearly my favorite breakfast food.

Mom always used to surprise me with a snack when I came home from school. I remember looking forward to the treats, which were different every day. For whatever reason, though, I can’t remember the majority of them anymore. All I remember are the cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. Butterscotch cookies. Girl Scout cookies. My favorite were the gingerbread men that Mom would buy from Market Basket. They were the sinfully soft kind, loaded with unhealthy frosting and a head made of solid sugar; the kind of snack that lures adults into indulging in calories and fat they don’t need but secretly want. To me, they tasted like home.

I’d savor the sugar, then jump on the couch and give Mom a hug. I’d rest my head on her shoulder and she’d ask me to tell her all about my day.

“What’d you learn today?” she’d ask.

Weeelllllll ….”

I would go on and on, letting her know about the journal entries I wrote, the jump roping contest I competed in at recess, the A+ I’d gotten on my reading quiz. I’d always “forget” to tell her about the big word I stumbled over when reading out loud, or the math problem I pretended to know how to solve but got wrong.

Mom never went to college, but she wanted her only child to have the best education and get the best grades. Actually, she wanted me to be the best at everything, so I tried as hard as I could to be the A+ student — the perfect, beautiful little girl.

We used to stand in front of the bathroom mirror together and be beautiful. I’d try to make my hair look like Mom’s, and then she’d soon take charge, putting my hair in braids, pigtails, or in a topsy-turvy ponytail. She studied cosmetology in high school and wanted to cut my hair to save money. One time, she cut my bangs so short I looked like Frankenstein.

“Oh Mal, it’s not thaaaat bad,” she said, laughing.

I tilted my head and put my little hands on my little hips.

Just like it wasn’t thaaaat bad when Mom was curling my hair for my aunt’s wedding and accidentally burnt my right ear.

“Mooooooom-ah!”

“It hurts to be beautiful!” she said.

One way to look beautiful, Mom always thought, was to wear mascara. “Always do your eyes up,” she told me.

When we weren’t doing hair and makeup on weekends, we bargain hunted. We spent nearly every Friday night at the kitchen table, drawing big circles around yard sale ads.

“Mallary, rise and shine. It’s yard-sale time,” Mom would say at 6:30 the next morning. We’d hop into our banana boat, the pet name for our yellow Grand Marquis, and cruise around town in search of treasures. Jewel-studded pins. Trinkets. Trolls. I didn’t mind getting up early with Mom, but I hated going to bed. Dad worked days and Mom worked nights, so she wasn’t usually there to kiss me goodnight. That changed when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

*****

Here I am pretending to be asleep on the living room couch.

Mom became too sick to go to work, so we started to spend as much time as we could together in the evenings. Going to bed got even harder. I’d curl up on the couch with her and we’d watch all the “grown-up shows” that made me the envy of my 8-year-old friends  — “90210,” “Married with Children,” “In Living Color,” and yes, even “Melrose Place.”

Dad would pay bills or read his car magazines for a while and then get up to make us a snack. Jiffy Pop popcorn. Frozen green grapes. Mocha almond chip ice cream with chocolate sprinkles.

“Mallary, it’s time to go to bed,” Mom would say after we had finished eating. I found multiple excuses to stay by her side.

“But Mom, I’m not tired.”

“But Mom, just 5 more minutes.”

“But Mommy, I don’t want to say goodnight.”

Really, I didn’t want to say goodbye.

I tried to stay by her side as much as I could and complied whenever she asked for help. One day, she asked me to clean the toilet bowl. Double ew, I thought.

“You mean I have to stick my hands in the toilet?” I asked.

“No, Mal, just use the brush.”

The brush. The brush. Maybe she meant the old toothbrush that she sometimes used to clean in between the crevices in the faucet. I didn’t want to ask for clarification. Mom was in one of those moods, when it was just better to do as you were told, when even asking a question could illicit a scream.

So I took the tattered toothbrush out from under the sink and scrubbed. And scrubbed. And scrubbed, my eyes half shut, my head turned to the side. Ewwness all around. I took a bar of Dove soap and rubbed it along the edge of the water until it looked like a bubble bath in a bowl.

“WHAT are you doing?” my mom asked, yanking the toothbrush out of my hand. “God, Mallary, I didn’t say use a toothbrush. I said use the brush — this brush,” she said, pointing to the big white toilet bowl brush peeking from behind the toilet. It should have been a funny mistake. We should have been laughing. Instead, I cried while mom huffed and puffed, and flushed the toilet, washing my 8-year-old innocence down the lonely drain.

My ability to speak up got washed away somewhere along the way, too. Mom yelled whenever I disagreed with, or contradicted, her. When Mom and I were in a craft store buying cross-stitch patterns, Mom told the cashier that the items she bought were supposed to be on sale. The cashier told her she had picked up the wrong item, that a different item was on sale, but Mom had her mind set on getting a bargain, and she couldn’t be persuaded otherwise.

“The sign said this pattern was on sale.”

“I’m afraid it was the other pattern next to it.”

“Mom, I saw the sign,” I quietly said. “It was the other pattern that was on sale.” Mom gave me the glare and got quiet as the cashier continued to scan items. Beep. Beep. Beep. When we got out of the store Mom grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her.

“Don’t you ever talk back to me like that again,” she said.

“But Mom, I didn’t ….”

“Yes you did. You made a fool of me in there. Don’t let it happen again.”

I had only tried to help, but I didn’t try to explain. I had trained myself to keep it all inside so the screaming would subside. But I couldn’t stand Mom at that moment. I reached for a pen and scribbled on a napkin when I got home that day: “I hate mom. I wish she’d die.”

So I wouldn’t risk having Mom find the napkin, I tore it up and threw it away. One less thing to lose.

*****

Me and mom in Disney World in 1988. I was 3 years old at the time.

Everyone tried to protect me and tell me Mom would be OK and that we wouldn’t lose her. When you’re little, any kind of loss is scary. Loss is taking a wrong turn in the grocery store and losing mommy in a maze of aisles. Loss is having to say goodbye every morning at the bus stop. It’s not being able to find your favorite stuffed animal at night and fearing the monster in the closet might have gobbled it up.

Mom used to reassure me, though, that she wasn’t going anywhere. Right up until she got really sick, she went to all of my school functions. One day when she came to my class to watch me give a presentation, I turned the other way. I looked around at all of my classmates’ moms. Shiny, healthy, wavy hair. Then I looked at Mom, who had decided not to wear a wig or a hat that day. “Mallary’s mom doesn’t have any hair,” I overheard two of my classmates say with a giggle. I told Mom later that day that some girls were making fun of the two of us.

“It’s OK, Mal. Being bald isn’t a bad thing. I’m starting a new trend!” she said, giggling a little. I was mad, but secretly marveled at how Mom could go from being a sick, bald cancer patient to a hip, confident trendsetter. Mom wanted to prove to herself that she didn’t need a wig to be beautiful, even if all she got were ugly stares.

I still thought she was beautiful, and I especially loved her big blue eyes. I tried to hold on to this beauty and carry a part of my mom with me wherever I went. One day, I took her old mascara out of the trash and hid it in my purple LL Bean book bag. I brought it to school and went into the bathroom. Leaning up against the sink, I painted my lashes black. I wanted to make them look like Mom’s. Instead, they turned into little tarantula legs.

“Is that mascara you’re wearing?” one of my third grade classmates asked me. “Yes,” I sheepishly said. “It’s my mum’s.”

I kept her mascara for six years. Maybelline. A pink bottle with a lime green cap. I used that mascara until there was none left, never paying attention to the expiration date. Even after I had used it all, I kept it for years in my makeup bag. It pained me to see it there and not on my mom’s lashes. But still, I couldn’t let go. Every time I looked at the mascara, I was reminded of a mom who lost the strength to put on makeup when she was 39.

*****

Mom had a lumpectomy, but then the cancer came back in her other breast. One day, she looked in the mirror, tilted her head and asked: “Mal, do you think I’m beautiful?” She had one breast, no hair and yellow skin from the cancer, which had spread to her liver.

Me and Mom on Christmas morning. Taken about a year before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Of course you are, Mommy.” I truly believed she was, but as I said it, I remember doubting my own beauty for the first time. Wrapped up in a package of perfection, I never realized the ugly truth about being perfect: you can’t be. I tried to control life’s blemishes and blunders, which became more prevalent in my life the sicker Mom got.

Playing pretend was one way to escape. When you’re a little girl and your mom is diagnosed with cancer, you try to tell yourself that she’ll make it, that you can wave your fairy princess magic wand and make her all better. You believe her when she tells you she’s a soldier in a battle, that she’s the Little Engine That Could, that even though she’s lost all her hair, one breast and 35 pounds, she’ll survive.

Mom lost a lot when she was sick, but she never lost the desire to want to nourish me with food and love. When I’d come home from school, I always knew she’d be there to feed my hungry heart with hugs and kisses and fill my empty tummy.

Then one day she wasn’t there. Well, she was, but in a frightening kind of way. I could tell that something was wrong when I came home from school and saw her on the couch. Mom’s face was painted with pain, her forehead a road map of wrinkles, her cheeks a waterfall of tears.

Seeing Mom so weak made me long for some sense of normalcy and nourishment — a hug, a kiss, a cookie. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked when I came in the door after getting off the bus.

“Maaaaaal,” she softly screamed. “Call your father. I can’t get up.”

I tried to lift her.

“C’mon mom, c’mon mom, move. Move!”

I called Dad because he always knew how to fix stuff. He rushed home from work but was too afraid to pick her up for fear that he’d hurt her even more. It was the first time I remember thinking of my dad as being helpless.

He called 911 and we soon heard the sound of sirens. The EMTs couldn’t lift her either. “It hurts,” Mom said, shutting her eyes. “It hurts.” So they scooped Mom up in the blanket she was resting on and carried her onto a stretcher. BamBam! They shut her inside the ambulance and drove away.

Dad and I drove to the hospital. Mom was hooked up to an IV and was getting platelets. I was only 8 when she started going to the hospital regularly, but big words like mastectomy, platelets, radiation, transplant and chemotherapy soon became a regular part of my vocabulary.

That afternoon, she asked me to look inside her purse and take out her lipstick. It was Rosie Red lipstick, the kind Mom and I had been wanting to get ever since we heard Rosie O’Donnell talk about it on her show.

“Now, don’t put a lot of it on,” she said, handing me the Rosie Red lipstick. “You only need a little bit.” I only wore a little, if I wore it at all. I wanted to save it.

Me and Dad.

By the time we got home it was late, and I hadn’t eaten dinner, let alone my afternoon snack. Dad made “the usual” — the ever-so-simple spaghetti and peas. I liked the meal the first five times we ate it, but after a while the spaghetti seemed to get harder, the peas mushier.

“Daaaaad. Again? Why can’t we have Mom’s pasta primavera? Or her macaroni and cheese?”

Mealtimes were a constant reminder that Mom was too sick to cook and that hard as he tried, Dad just didn’t know how to nourish me in quite the same way.

“Maybe tomorrow, Mal,” Dad would say. “C’mon, you love spaghetti.” He worked full-time and was trying to take care of an ailing wife and a young daughter who craved the kind of care that only moms can give.

“I used to like spaghetti,” I said. “But it doesn’t taste good anymore.”

Dinnertime felt so lonely without Mom. Something was missing, and food wasn’t filling the void. It never really does. I missed Mom’s meals and my after-school cookies. I was tired of coming home to an empty house. I was tired of the hideous hats Mom wore to hide her baldness or to “make a fashion statement,” as she preferred to say. I was tired of seeing Mom confined to a bed when everyone else’s mom seemed healthy enough to attend school functions and cheer for their sons and daughters at soccer games.

Mom was just busy, I told myself. She was fighting in a battle and hiking up a hill. She was living out metaphors that, depending on whether or not you were playing pretend, suggested an ascension toward recovery or, more realistically, toward Heaven.

*****

Me and mom in Disney World, 1988.

Sunday, February 9, 1997. All I wanted that afternoon was a mother to comfort me. But the one person who I wanted to console me couldn’t. Her body was frail, her skin yellow, her eyes shut. The cancer had spread not just to her liver, but to her bone marrow and her brain.

The night before Mom died, my grandma suggested I sleep at her house. It wasn’t right, she said, to see my mother in so much pain.

Throughout the three years that my mom was sick, I thought she would survive. At least, that’s what everyone had been telling me. As an 11-year-old, I didn’t want to believe otherwise, didn’t want to face the “essential female tragedy,” as poet Adrienne Rich calls it — the loss of a mother to a daughter, a daughter to a mother.

On the day Mom died, I was in her childhood bedroom, sitting on her bed. The phone rang. My grandma answered.

“Yes? Oh my God …”

My grandma rushed upstairs, sat on the bed next to me and said, “Mal, your mom’s passed away.” So final, so hurtful, so terse.

We piled into my grandparent’s blue Buick and headed toward my house. I lay across the backseat, resting my head on my grandma’s lap, holding onto the Rosie Red lipstick Mom had given me. Nervously, I twisted the cap back and forth, crushing the stick. Then I started to cry. Are you OK, Bob?” my grandma asked my grandpa. He was crying too hard to speak and all he could do was raise his hand. Still today, I remember how much it shook.

When I got home, I held on tight to my dad and for the first time in my life, saw him cry. I spent a few minutes at my mother’s side but wasn’t ready to let go when the men in black came and took her away.

That night, all I wanted to do was go to bed. The hospice workers and family friends were gone by 7:30 p.m., leaving me and Dad in a house that no longer seemed like home. He turned on the TV just in time for the start of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Canned laughter ensued. I wondered how people could be happy when it seemed the whole world should be sad.

Skipping dinner, I went to bed feeling empty. I pulled the covers over my head and stared into the darkness, hoping I’d wake up to find that what had happened that night was nothing but a bad dream. In denial, I pretended things were fine and told myself not to cry.

“Erase it from my mind, erase it from my mind,” I whispered, scratching my head and repeating a refrain that I often said when something bad happened. I didn’t know that, years later, everything I had temporarily erased would leave such a lasting mark.

“Do you want to talk, Mal?” Dad asked.

“No. I just want to be alone.”

Dad turned off the light. I peered out from under the covers, hoping he’d still be there. He kissed me on the forehead and stayed by my bed in silence.

*****

Mom used to read to me to help me fall asleep.

Even after Mom died, I kept trying to pretend everything was fine. Mom wasn’t there to tell me she’d be OK, so I tried to be OK for her. I went to school the day after she died and told my sixth-grade teachers that I was fine and ready to move on. I wanted to be strong.

“Dad,” I said the day after she died. “I want to write a eulogy for Mom’s funeral.” “Eulogy” was one of those big words that I had heard Dad talk about behind closed doors. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, hoping I’d never have to hear one about my mother.

And yet, I wrote one about Mom and read it at her funeral, composed and without tears. The eulogy, all 480 words of it, was my attempt to comfort everyone else and perhaps convince myself that all would be well. Part of it read:

“Everything happens for a reason, although, that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.

“This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold, she’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God, she is now in Heaven. A place where she truly belongs.”

I remember feeling disconnected when I read the piece, confused as to why I felt the need to write about my mom’s death in a Hallmark card kind of way.

At the time, I thought I was strong. And I was, but I didn’t realize that being weak when we need to be can make us strong later on. When we cry, when we make ourselves vulnerable. When we readily admit that something as devastating as losing a mom just plain sucks, we’re being true to ourselves. Hiding these realities only delays the grieving process, making us surrender to sadness later instead of embracing it in the moment.

But try telling that to an 11-year-old.

*****

When you’re that age and your mom dies, you fear you’ll forget her. So you hold onto everything that is hers and look for ways to keep her memory alive. You write stories about her. You ask family members for details about her life. You dig up old home videos and tapes that help you make better sense of the woman she was — and the woman you may or may not want to become. For years after my mom died, I felt as though I had lost all control, so I searched for ways to hold onto whatever memory of her I could, even memories that didn’t make sense for a little girl to hold on to.

Me and Mom all dolled up. Note the pink puffy sleeves and the silver flats.

I asked my dad, for instance, to keep Mom’s clothes in the closet so I could wear them — oversized as they were — to school. I kept Mom’s wigs in a Ziploc freezer bag in one of my dresser drawers. Mom had two of them. One was dark brown and shoulder length. The other was lighter and shorter. She wore them with hats. Purple hats. Striped hats. Straw hats with sunflowers. I’d try on her wigs and her hats, then tear them off when memories of Mom’s chemo treatments got in the way. I held onto Mom’s shoes, her nail polish, her eyelash curler.

I was living in a fantasy world, and my dad was afraid to let reality take that fantasy away. The first Christmas after Mom died, he wrote “Love Mom and Dad” on all of my gifts. He talked about her a lot, often in the present tense. He saved what was hers until three years later, when we moved to a new house across town. The memories of all that had happened in the house I grew up in were too hurtful to be reminded of every day. “Mal,” Dad told me, “we need to let go.”

I’ve since let go of a lot of what was Mom’s. I let go not because I wanted to but because in holding on to so much from the past, I couldn’t bear the weight of it all. I held on to her jewelry, her journals and her bike. I still wear her unassuming, tiny wedding ring sometimes. I keep shoe boxes containing photos of me and her. And that rusty eyelash curler? It’s in my makeup bag.

I like to think Mom responds via signs. When I’m thinking about her or am in need of a hug, I’ll sometimes hear Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You” — the song she dedicated to me before she died — on the radio. On other occasions, I’ll look at the clock and see Mom’s “special 7:24 time,” which is symbolic of her July 24 birthday.

Not long ago, for instance, I came across a sign when I read this passage from “Stuffed,” a food memoir by Patricia Volk. The passage reminded me of Mom and how she always called me “beautiful” and “gorgeous.”:

“I swore to myself that if I ever had a daughter, I’d make sure she wasn’t tyrannized by beauty. Life would be different for her. She would never wonder, Am I gorgeous? Not because she was or wasn’t, but because it wouldn’t matter. I’d devalue gorgeous. Gorgeous would be a fact of life, a nonadvantage. Brains, wit, drive and kindness, waking up every morning wondering, What’s next? — who needs gorgeous if you’ve got all that? Gorgeous would be neither a plus nor a minus, just there, like the Great Barrier Reef. My girlchik would never have good days or bad days based on makeup. She’d never enter a room less confident thanks to her hair. Beauty would be a nonissue. The plan was simple; If I never told her she looked good, she’d never wonder if she looked bad.

“Then I had a daughter. A daughter!

” ‘Look!’ I showed my husband her toes in the delivery room. ‘They’re like fringe! Did you ever in your life see anything so gorgeous?’

“Everyone who came to the apartment saw the toes. They were all the same length, straight and perfectly shaped. ‘Aren’t they like little pink piano keys?’ I said to everyone. ‘Doesn’t she look like a Sarah Bernhardt peony? Did you ever see anything so pink?’ I praised her earlobes and her navel. I praised her ankles and her chin. Her nostrils, her dark eyes, her thighs. I was out of control, couldn’t help myself. What difference did it make? She couldn’t understand.

“I called her Polly after my Gloria Swansonish grandmother. I allowed myself to revel in her beauty. I told myself when she started to speak, I’d stop. Then I couldn’t. She was too gorgeous. To test my objectivity, I invented the Looking Game. I still play it. When Polly’s back is turned, I say to myself: I am looking at this person for the first time. What do I think? And then, when she turns around, I look at her as if she’s a stranger, as if I’ve never seen that face in my life and am forming a first impression. Always I am struck by her gorgeousness. It never fails. And along with this observation comes a great, dambreaking, mother-lode of love. It’s the gorgeous-love connection, the gorgeous-love one-two. And it was realizing this recently that suddenly I understood: Gorgeousness in my family is love. Saying ‘You are gorgeous’ is saying ‘I love you.’ To love someone, no matter what they look like, is to see them as beautiful.

“I don’t love my children because they’re gorgeous, even if they’re gorgeous because I love them.”

I read this passage right before going to bed. The next morning, I woke up a little frantic, realizing I had forgotten to set my alarm. When I looked at the time on my phone, it was 7:24.

Running my finger across the time, I whispered I love you, too, Mom.

*****

Fisher Price tape recorder. Classic.

I’m reminded of Mom in other ways, too. Last year I stumbled across a tape of me singing with my mom. The night before Mother’s Day when I was 7 or 8 years old, I had asked Mom if we could have a singalong — partly because I wanted an excuse to stay up with her, but also because I wanted to play with my new, oh-so-cool Fisher Price tape recorder. It was the kind of toy that could make any little girl think she were good enough for Broadway.

I don’t remember what I told Mom, but it was probably something to the effect of, “So we’re going to make up a song together, OK? And I’m going to sing and then give you the mic and then you’re going to sing and we’ll take turns!” It’s hardly a surprise that I sang about not wanting to go to bed.

“Ohhhh I don’t want to go to bed! But it’s a school night you can see …  I’ll see you on Mother’s Day, today is a very nice day and today I think I’ll be a movie star, wait and see.”

Listening to the song now, 17 years later, makes me think of Mom and smile.

So many of the memories I have of her are from when she was sick. I can hear the mean kids at school say, “Look! Mallary’s mom has no hair!” I can hear Mom calling for Dad’s help when she was too weak to get off the couch on her own. I can hear her crying the night she found out that the cancer had spread to her brain.

It’s harder for me to remember what Mom sounded like when she’d dance with a broom and sing her favorite songs while cleaning the house, or when she’d come to the front door and yell, “Mallaryyyyy. Come inside, hunny. Dinner’s ready!”

The tape helps me remember. It lets me replace the deafening silence of her death with the comforting sound of her voice: “Goodnight sweet Mallary, go to bed. I love you very much.”

I still wish Mom were here to tell me to go to bed. Every night I tell myself I need to go to bed early, but I hardly ever heed my own advice. My dad and I talk about our night-owl tendencies from time to time, admitting that we wish we could go back to a time when “staying up late” meant going to bed at 8:30 p.m. Sometimes, we say, we wish Mom were here to tell us goodnight. And yet we’ve learned that sometimes, you have to settle for good enough.

So I listen to the tape to hear Mom’s voice and to remind myself that she would want me to take better care of myself by getting more rest. She’d want me to keep developing my voice, too — as a writer, as a young woman and as someone who unabashedly sings while in her apartment and her car. Recently as I was driving over the Howard Frankland bridge to Tampa, I flipped through the radio stations and stopped on “Love Shack” — one of Mom’s favorites. I belted it out and thought of me and her singing our favorite part together.

“Bang, bang, bang on the door, baby. You’re what? Tin roof … rusted!”

The next song I heard was Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You.” I could feel the goosebumps forming. Driving over the water, my hair blowing in the wind, I sang the message she wanted me to take away from the song:

“I will remember you. Will you remember me? Don’t let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memories.”

As hard as I try to search for signs from Mom, I’m sometimes too late. I’ll hear the disc jockey say he just played “I Will Remember You,” or I’ll look at the clock and it’ll be 7:25 p.m. And try as I might to hold on to what is dear to me, or what I need, I still lose a lot.

Recently, I lost my retainers again. I had put the retainers in a napkin when eating breakfast with my friends, whom I was visiting as part of a bachelorette party. I didn’t realize until the next night that I’d lost them, and even then I was afraid to admit it.

Those memories of searching through napkins in the cafeteria with the middle school lunch ladies came flooding back to me when I realized my mistake. I still expected to hear Mom yell. Instead, my friends joked with me about my efforts to keep my teeth straight.

“You seriously still wear your retainers at night? C’mon!”

The same feeling of guilt I felt when I lost my retainers as a kid resurfaced when I crashed Mom’s car a couple years ago on US 19 in Florida. There are certain things in life I can’t control, so I brace for the brakes. But sometimes, there’s just not enough time. Crash, crunch, burn. I plowed into the SUV in front of me, the hood of my car turning from a plateau to a peak. I cried. It was a ’93 bimmeny blue-colored Ford Tempo. Mom had bargained it down when it was brand new from $13,000 to $9,000. I knew when I saw it that I didn’t like that big blue hunk of metal sitting in the driveway. Really, I didn’t like that it was going to replace our old car.

Me and dad have gone through a lot together. When I was sick, he was one of the few people who believed I'd get better. He was right.

But I slowly gave the car a chance and watched as my dad regularly checked its engine, doing his best to take good care of the car that he hoped would someday be mine. Before the crash, the body of it looked good — very little rust, hardly any scratches. Whatever damage it had was concealed in places where broken beauty lies — under the hood, tucked away behind a tire, somewhere deep inside the engine.

There comes a time when we begin to realize that for as much as we try to make life work, it breaks. Things fall apart. So, we learn to mend them back together as best we can and hope the stitches don’t come undone. We learn to get new cars and accept life’s changes, realizing that just because something or someone has left our lives doesn’t mean the memories have, too.

*****

I’m grateful to have so many memories of my Mom. I remember all of the good times we had, but I try not to forget that she was human. When loved ones die, there’s a tendency to put them on a pedestal and believe they were all good. But life isn’t black and white. It’s the gray areas that make us complicated and complete; it’s the flaws that make us human. Mom tried so hard to be a flawless parent with a perfect daughter — a plan that inevitably exposed the ugly side of perfection’s pied and blemished beauty.

All of this might help explain why I’m a perfectionist and why I fear failure and loss. Looking back, though, I realize that for as big of a deal as my mom made about me losing things, she almost always replaced what was missing, even when she was sick and could hardly muster the energy to drive to the store. I would hug her out of gratitude and close my eyes, not wanting to let go.

I wish Mom could replace loss with love, with great big bear hugs that only moms can give. I wish I could just throw up my hands in frustration, ask “Why couldn’t you be here right now?” and have her answer me. For as much as I’ve moved on, I still yearn for my Mom to be here, to make me feel full again.

Food just doesn’t do it for me. Looking for a way to gain control after my Mom died, I started to monitor what I ate. Nothing tasted good anymore, and it didn’t fill me up the same way Mom’s food did. Since Mom wasn’t there to make me meals or leave me snacks anymore, why even bother eating? After all, those super skinny girls in the “Seventeen” magazines that I peeked at in the library probably didn’t eat. How else would they have such perfect bodies?

It’s so much easier to focus on food and your body than it is to feel.

I figured if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, then I could pretend things were still the same. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, then people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, the one who needed their love and attention.

Dad and I live 1,500 miles away from each other. I always look forward to the late summer, when he usually visits. Here we are on my front porch last year.

My battle with anorexia led to four hospitalizations, two stays in a specialized medical unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston, and a year-and-a-half-long stay at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for troubled girls in Arlington. I’m better — so much better than I ever thought I could be, thanks in large part to the choices I’ve made and to my supportive dad. But still, I struggle.

When I went home for Christmas, I told Dad I was craving one of the gingerbread men that Mom always used to buy. I didn’t buy one, though, because I figured I didn’t really need it. Too unhealthy.

Two days later, my dad handed me a bag from Panera Bread.

“Here, Mal, this is for you.”

He had a big smile on his face. I peered inside and saw a gingerbread man.

“Thanks, dad,” I said, pretending not to want the treat. “I’m not hungry now, though. I’ll have a piece later.”

But then I changed my mind. It hurt me too much to say no. I wanted my dad to know how much his gesture meant to me, so I broke off a piece of the smiling gingerbread’s head. It was harder than I remembered, the taste of ginger wasn’t quite the same, and there wasn’t nearly as much frosting as there should have been. Not like the kind Mom used to buy. The spaghetti and peas equivalent of Mom’s pasta primavera.

You wouldn’t think eating a gingerbread man’s head would be that difficult. But when you’re used to a routine, deviations make way for chaos and temptation. I often eat the same thing every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner because it helps me feel in control. When I’m feeling lonely — because my friends are out at dinner and I’m being a workaholic, because I miss my mom — my first instinct is to sneak something from the nearest candy jar, head for the vending machine or open the refrigerator door in search of nourishment. Other days, I don’t feel like eating at all.

I’m trying to find healthier ways to feel full, and to let go.

I’ve found that when we experience loss, we have a tendency to hold on to what we’re afraid will be taken from us. It’s understandable, but in doing so we can miss the point: everything that is good is a gift, freely given. When I’ve tried to hold on too tightly to the people in my life, I’ve missed the experience of the gift of their friendship, love and nourishment. To fill this void, I too often turn to food.

I know, though, that all the cookies and gingerbread men in the world can’t satisfy me. So I’m learning to fill the emptiness with something other than food, and to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. Mom would want me to. Sometimes, because I’m not perfect, I slip up. And that’s OK. I don’t want to keep playing pretend.

Advertisements

Road to Recovery Requires Time, Patience, Willingness to Share Your Story

Last winter, I heard from a volunteer at Germaine Lawrence, the all-girls residential facility where I was treated for anorexia from September 1999 to January 2000. The volunteer, named Andy, wanted to see if he could interview me for a video project he was putting together for Germaine Lawrence’s 30th anniversary gala. Of course I said yes. I wanted to tell my “success story” in hopes that others could benefit from it and see that it’s possible to heal from the wounds of the past.

I met with Andy for the first time when I went home for Christmas. At first I felt uncomfortable telling my life story to a stranger. But I could sense that he genuinely cared about what I was saying, so I let myself open up to him. About a week later he came to my house to take pictures of me, my dad and my grandma. I later mailed him other photos, as well as journal entries and poems I had written when I was sick. One of the poems was titled “Black Flower” — a metaphor for anorexia. When writing out the poem on a piece of scrap paper years ago, I drew a picture of a black flower on one side of the paper and a colorful flower on the other side to represent what I thought recovery would look like.

Life’s a lot more colorful now.

Andy used the poem in the video, which he recently showed at the Germaine Lawrence gala. The event attracted about 300 people and raised a significant amount of money for the girls undergoing treatment. I owe a lot of where I am today to Germaine Lawrence, where I was afforded the time to work on my issues and connect with staff members and a therapist who cared enough to listen to my story and who helped me work toward a new chapter in my life, namely recovery.

Recovery is a delicate balance between stepping toward the future and back into the past. The trick is making sure you don’t get stuck dwelling on life there. In revisiting my past, I’ve learned a lot about how losing my mom when I was 11 led me to have an eating disorder. Feeling as though I had lost control when Mom died of breast cancer, I sought to find something I could control. It seemed easy enough at the time to try to control what I ate. So I started to restrict my food intake, first depriving myself of meat, then sweets, then carbs. Little did I know, my attempts at finding order in life would lead to total chaos.

Fourteen years later, I still have a love-hate relationship with food. The hard part about being in a relationship with food is that you can’t ever really divorce yourself from it. For as much as you grow to fear and loathe it, you need it to survive. Food is something to be celebrated and enjoyed with friends. A labor of love you prepare and serve to your family. A fixture in your daily life that makes you feel both good and guilty.

When I’m tired or stressed, food becomes my savior and my enemy. It’s something I can indulge in one day and then deprive myself of the next. Others who have struggled with an eating disorder or disordered eating know what this is like. When you’re home alone and no one’s looking, you’re free to let your desires take over. So you go in search of the food that you’ve been craving but wouldn’t let yourself eat in front of others. You sink your teeth into the forbidden fruit, (which is usually in the form of apple strudel or blueberry cake), until a bite leads to a binge. When it’s all over, you scold yourself for getting to the point where you feel ashamed and gross, like a gluttonous girl with no self control. Then you restrict the next day to prove to yourself that control isn’t completely out of reach. You forget altogether what it’s like to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.

If only I were 10 pounds lighter, I’d be happier, you tell yourself. But if and when you lose the 10 pounds, you find yourself wanting to lose more. Or you focus so hard on maintaining your new weight that you rebel and sink your teeth into those chocolate chip cookies you’ve been resisting, or that ice cream you stuck in the back corner of the fridge, hoping you could trust yourself not to sneak a spoonful. How easy it is for one spoonful to turn into one serving size, or two or three or four.

The irony of disordered eating is that it’s rarely about food. It’s about the emotions that drive you to turn to food, or rebel against it, when you don’t know what else to do. It’s about the desires you suppress, and the problems you tried burying long ago, hoping they’d never resurface. I’ve learned that when I’m having trouble with eating, I need to try to find my emotions. They’re always there; it’s just a matter of deciding whether I want to acknowledge them or keep burying them. It’s a lot easier to shovel food inside than it is to dig for feelings.

I’ve done a lot of digging throughout the years. When I start to forget how far I’ve come, I think back to the days I would spend calculating how many calories I consumed and how many I needed to burn. Those were the days when I would lie in bed and exercise when I should have been sleeping. They were the days when I stopped hanging out with friends because I was afraid they’d make fun of me for being “overweight” — at 66 pounds.

I talk about these low points and others in the video that Andy put together. For months I’ve wondered whether I should post the video on my blog, and whether I should be so open about my ongoing steps toward recovery. My ambivalence stems from my fear of vulnerability and the uncertainty of knowing how others will react. I’ve found, though, that people tend to respond positively to stories about overcoming difficulties in life. At their core, these are stories about survival. We all need to tell our stories — not necessarily publicly, but at least to someone who will listen and let us know we’re not alone. I’ve decided that if my story can help even one person feel less alone, then it’s worth telling. Here’s to hoping my story helps you. …

Cooking Challenge: Make at Least One Homemade Meal Every Week for the Next Month

As much as I’d like to think I’m someone who cooks regularly, I’m not. I want to get better at cooking, though, and take the time to make myself healthy meals. After a long day at work I usually just throw together a salad, heat up a veggie burger or make an open-faced rice cake sandwich with tomatoes, hummus and cottage cheese. (Don’t laugh — it’s actually better than it sounds!)

I figure that if I set a reasonable goal of cooking one meal for myself each week, then maybe I can ease myself into a more regular cooking schedule and start to feel more comfortable around food. Sometimes the best way to accomplish a goal like this is to let others know about it and ask for their ideas and encouragement.

So, I’ve put together a list of recipes from Smitten Kitchen (my favorite cooking blog) and Martha Rose Shulman’s “Recipes for Health” series on nytimes.com. Each week for the next month I’ll cook at least one of these meals and write a related blog post. I’ll include pictures of the final product and let you know what the experience was like and how the meal turned out. It’s always easier to cook when you have people to cook for, so maybe I’ll invite some friends to eat with me and sample the meals I make.

If there are other relatively easy-to-make vegetarian meals that you think I should add to the list, let me know!

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Pasta with asparagus, arugula and ricotta

Black bean chili

Mushroom burgers with almonds and spinach (these look especially good!)

Garlic green beans or mixed bean salad

Asparagus and herb lasagna

Stewed peppers with tomatoes, onions and garlic (over rice or beans)

Red pepper risotto

Black bean tacos with feta and slaw

Spinach and chickpeas

Pizza with red and yellow peppers

Yum.

Stories about Motherhood, Childhood, Food & Journalism

I went through the articles I’ve posted on my Delicious page recently and realized that there are a lot of stories that have interested me lately. Not surprisingly, they have to do with journalism, moms, childhood and food — the subjects I like to write and read about the most. Here are some of the stories that have caught my attention throughout the past month or so:

Diary of a ‘Food Racist’: I like this piece from The Atlantic, which looks at how our associations with certain places trigger our desire for, and memory, of certain foods. The author of the piece explains that when she talks with someone from India, she daydreams of naan and saag with cubes of paneer. When she thinks of Google’s recent issues in China, she’d led to crave porky soup dumplings. She looks at whether “racist” is too strong of a word to describe her cravings and blames her mom for making her think of food in this way:

“Maybe racism is the wrong word. It is loaded and ugly and not nice. I certainly don’t have a blanket dislike for any group of people (I dislike most people equally). And I pride myself on my willingness to embrace other cultures and whatever they bring to the—literal—table. But I clearly have a nagging, deep-seated case of something that makes me frame everything in life through food.

“Frankly, blaming my mother is probably the safest bet. She’d agree, no doubt. When I was small, she went out of her way to make sure I wasn’t a picky eater by pounding her motto into my impressionable brain: ‘You don’t have to like it, but you have to try it.’ So I’d try new things and inevitably like them. Which led to an inevitable life of trying and inevitable liking. Maybe I just like too much?”

First Camera, Then Fork: A New York Times story about people’s obsession with taking pictures of their food. I’ve never been one to take photos of the food I’m eating, unless I’ve made something that I’m especially proud of. The part of the story that helped explain why people feel compelled to let the world know what they’re eating resonated with me the most:

“That some people are keeping photographic food diaries and posting them online does not surprise psychotherapists. ‘In the unconscious mind, food equals love because food is our deepest and earliest connection with our caretaker,” said Kathryn Zerbe, a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders and food fixations at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. ‘So it makes sense that people would want to capture, collect, catalog, brag about and show off their food.’ “

(Check out this interactive feature that accompanies the article.)

Why is Women’s Fiction So Miserable?: This Telegraph story suggests that “women writers really can’t win. We’re damned for writing fluffy, upbeat chick-lit about shoes and cake, damned if we write about domestic abuse within a geo-political conflict.” True, there is a lot of grimness in women’s fiction and nonfiction, but it undoubtedly exists in men’s fiction, too. I think a lot of people are attracted to grimness — either because they can relate to it or because it’s so far removed from anything they’ve experienced. That’s one of the beauties of books — they let us cross into foreign territory and then just as quickly escape from it.

Window Farming: A Do-it-Yourself Veggie Venture: This NPR story highlights the growth of urban agriculture and makes me think of one of my favorite childhood books, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Major cities aren’t all that conducive to gardening, but they’re a good place for people with green thumbs to flaunt their creativity. I’ve always equated gardening with patience, a virtue that seems that much more important in an urban area. If I lived in a major city like Manhattan, I think I’d need a garden — a patch of slow growth among the streets of a harried life, a reminder to slow down.

Natalie Merchant: Globe-Spanning Poetry: This NPR Music piece showcases Natalie Merchant’s new album, “Leave Your Sleep.” I’m not a huge Merchant fan, but I love the artistry of this album, which she describes as “a thematic piece about motherhood and childhood.” The 28 songs on the album are based off of poems written by poets from all different time periods and nationalities, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child” — a poem about an adult who’s trying to explain death to a child. Given that Hopkins is one of my favorite poets and that I can relate to the subject matter of this poem, I can’t help but be drawn to the song. I also like the more upbeat track, “Topsyturvey-World.”

An Essay by Anna Quindlen: The Amazon page for Quindlen’s new book, “Every Last One,” features a great essay about how being a newspaper reporter helped her become a better novelist. (Author Jennifer Weiner has shared similar sentiments in the past.) Here’s part of Quindlen’s essay:

“I learned, from decades of writing down their words verbatim in notebooks, how real people talk. I learned that syntax and rhythm were almost as individual as a fingerprint, and that one quotation, precisely transcribed and intentionally untidied, could delineate a character in a way that pages of exposition never could. And I learned to make every word count. All those years of being given 1,200 words, of having the 1,200 pared to 900 at 3 o’clock: it teaches you to make the distinction between what is necessary and what is simply you in love with the sound of your own voice. The most important thing I ever do from an editing perspective is cut. I learned how to do that in newsrooms, where cutting is commonplace, swift, and draconian.

” … Plot is like a perspective drawing, its possible permutations growing narrower and narrower, until it reaches a fixed point in the distance. That point is the ending. Life is like that. Fiction is like life, at least if it is good. And I know life. I learned it as a newspaper reporter, and now I reflect that education as a novelist.”

The description of Quindlen’s book is good enough to make me want to read it: “‘Every Last One’ is a novel about facing every last one of the the things we fear most, about finding ways to navigate a road we never intended to travel, to live a life we never dreamed we’d have to live but must be brave enough to try.”

Cheers to that.

What good articles have you come across recently?

Personal Essay Sparks Reaction from Dad, Friends, Strangers

I bought this plaque last week at a store in downtown St. Pete. I hung it up in my room as a reminder to keep writing.

When I published a personal essay about my mom and food last week, I wondered what people would say — or if they’d say anything at all. To my surprise, though, the response has been overwhelming.

Friends, coworkers, former teachers and strangers have commented on my blog and sent me Facebook messages, Tweets and e-mails. I copied and pasted all of their responses in a Word document (single-spaced, size 12 font) and it’s already more than seven pages long.

Their notes have served as a reminder of how many people — men and women — silently struggle with eating issues. Knowing this is incentive enough for me to want to keep writing about why I often turn to food as a substitute for feeling.

I worried that the essay would lead people to make false assumptions about what I eat and why I exercise. It might, but more than anything I think it has helped people — even those who couldn’t necessarily relate to the experiences I laid out. One editor wrote me an e-mail, saying: “Despite the fact that this 42-year-old male reader hasn’t shared anything like your experience I still found it relevant and moving. And I bet many others like me would too.”

That’s my hope. It’s also my hope that in sharing my story, others will feel motivated to share theirs, too. It can be tempting to want to keep our more painful stories to ourselves, for our own sake or for the sake of those we love and want to protect. I would argue, though, that most stories are worth sharing.

Even if we don’t feel comfortable writing about them for an audience, I think it helps to relay them verbally, or write them down for safe keeping. Our stories make us who we are; it would be a shame to forget them. That’s partly why I write essays about my mom — so that I won’t forget. So many of the memories I have of her are from when she was sick. I want to remember the good times, too, though.

My dad’s been helping me with this throughout the past week. After he read my essay last Wednesday, he began e-mailing me stories about my mom, some of which he’s never told me before. He has e-mailed me two “chapters” so far, starting off with the day he met my mom (she was 17, he was 19), leading up to their first date at a basketball game in Massachusetts. Today Dad e-mailed me to say, “The next chapter will deal with the Disco era, something that I would like to forget, but unfortunately, will haunt me for many years to come.” Uh oh. I can only imagine the funny stories that’ll come out of that chapter!

The stories he’s written about throughout the past week have meant a lot to me. Here’s my favorite one so far:

“Our favorite place to go was the Cape. The summer before we got married, we really wanted to spend a weekend together, something we had never done. It was 4th of July weekend. We drove to the Cape with no reservations, (no pun intended). Every place we stopped at had no vacancy.

“We finally found a place in Harwich, but decided that we didn’t like it, since the rooms were only separated by glass walls with curtains. We could see into the other room if their lights were on and ours were off, so we checked out as quickly as possible. We drove all the way to Provincetown looking for a hotel/motel room, with no success. I was determined to spend the night with Mom, no matter what.

“On the way back, we stopped at every hotel between Provincetown and the bridge with no luck. There was not a room to be had. We ended up checking into a hotel in Braintree, at 3:30 in the morning! By then we were both too tired to do anything but sleep. The next day we drove to the Cape and spent the day at the West Dennis Beach, before heading back home to Framingham. We never did tell our parents about our adventure.”

I like the idea of my parents sneaking away on an adventure together. I’m sure the story of their late-night ride will make it into one of my future essays. That’s the great thing about stories — they connect families, friends and strangers, all the while reminding us that for as much as we may struggle, we’re never really alone.

How Losing My Mom Led Me to Neglect a Hungry Heart

Last month, I mentioned that I had begun a Poynter course on personal essay writing. My goal in the course was to write an essay about how the death of my mother has affected my relationship with food — today and in the immediate aftermath of her death.

This isn’t an easy subject for me to write about. For years I’ve struggled with figuring out how much of my past I should share with others. I’ve shared part of it through the essays I’ve written about my mom, who died of breast cancer when I was 11. In recent years it’s gotten easier for me to write about her death and to not put her on a pedestal, as people often do when writing about loved ones who have died.

But writing more specifically about how my mom’s death affected me emotionally and physically is harder, in large part because it makes me feel vulnerable. I ask myself: When you write about difficult experiences you’ve faced, how much should you share? How do you express yourself in a way that others who haven’t had the same experiences can relate to? How brave should you be?

Mom and me in front of our house in Massachusetts after a snowstorm. Brrr.

I’ve decided to be brave. For the first time, I’m publishing an essay about my struggles with eating. I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should share something so personal, but I’ve realized that I don’t want to keep hiding this part of my life. Eating disorders are so often about hiding feelings, food and the desire to eat. Part of recovery is admitting that you are struggling and, in doing so, acknowledging that for as much as you try to be perfect, you can’t be.

There are ways to write about these kinds of struggles without making it seem as though you’re begging for sympathy. And I think the way you do that is to let recovery be the engine of your story — the narrative device that drives your piece forward and motivates you to want to continue moving forward, too. Healing, after all, involves movement — and a good pair of walking shoes. It’s about taking a few steps forward, a couple steps back, one step forward, and so on and so forth.

One of my favorite writers, Geneen Roth, has a hopeful take on healing, which she explains in “When Food Is Love“: “Life is what happens as you live with the wounds. Life is not a matter of getting the wounds out of the way so that you can finally live. Wounds are never permanently erased. We are fragile beings, and some days we break all over again.”

I’m still learning to be gentle with myself and to see the beauty in baby steps.

So, here’s my baby step toward writing about food and my mom. I plan to continue writing about this topic, so I’d really value your feedback on this post. I’m curious to find out what parts of the essay resonate with you, what you want to learn more about and what you think works or doesn’t work. More importantly, though, I hope you can connect to the essay and gain something from reading it.

********

Mom always used to surprise me with a snack when I came home from school. I remember looking forward to the treats, which were different every day. For whatever reason, though, I can’t remember the majority of them anymore.

All I remember are the cookies. Chocolate chip cookies. Butterscotch cookies. Girl Scout cookies. My favorite were the gingerbread men that Mom would buy from Market Basket. They were the sinfully soft kind, loaded with unhealthy frosting and a head made of solid sugar; the kind of snack that lures adults into indulging in calories and fat they don’t need but secretly want. To me, they tasted like home.

I’d savor the sugar, then jump on the couch and give Mom a hug. I’d rest my head on her shoulder and she’d ask me to tell her all about my day.

“What’d you learn today?” she’d ask.

Even when I was really little, I always loved to eat (and play with) the meals and snacks Mom gave me. Cheerios were clearly my favorite breakfast food.

“Weeelllllll ….”

I would go on and on, letting her know about the journal entries I wrote, the jump roping contest I competed in at recess, the A+ I’d gotten on my reading quiz. I’d always “forget” to tell her about the big word I stumbled over when reading out loud, or the math problem I pretended to know how to solve but got wrong.

Mom never went to college and wasn’t that well-read, but she wanted her only child to be. Actually, she wanted me to be the best at everything, so I tried as hard as I could to be the A+ student, the prized daughter, the perfect little girl.

Wrapped up in a package of perfection, I tried to avoid anything that would reveal the ugly truth about being perfect: you can’t be. I tried to control life’s blemishes and blunders, which became more prevalent in my life the sicker Mom got.

When you are 8 and your mom’s diagnosed with breast cancer, it’s easy to play pretend. You try to tell yourself that she’ll make it, that you can wave your fairy princess magic wand and make her all better. You believe her when she tells you she’s a soldier in a battle, that she’s the Little Engine That Could, that even though she’s lost all her hair, one breast and 35 pounds, she’ll survive.

Mom lost a lot when she was sick, but she never lost the desire to want to nourish me with food and love. The days when I came home from school, I always knew she’d be there to feed my hungry heart with hugs and kisses and fill my empty tummy with after-school snacks.

Then one day she wasn’t there. Well, she was, but in a frightening kind of way. I could tell that something was wrong when I came home from school and saw Mom on the couch. Her face was painted with pain, her forehead a road map of wrinkles, her eyes a wishing well of tears.

Seeing Mom so weak made me long for some sense of normalcy and nourishment — a hug, a kiss, a cookie. “Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked when I came in the door after getting off the bus.

“Maaaaaal,” she softly screamed. “Call your father. I can’t get up.” It was like those “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” commercials that Mom and I always used to make fun of. They seemed so fake, so laughable. This couldn’t have been more real.

Me and mom in Disney World, 1988.

I tried to lift her.

“C’mon mom, c’mon mom, move. Move!”

I called Dad because he always knew how to fix stuff. He rushed home from work, but he was too afraid to pick her up for fear that he’d hurt her even more. It was the first time I remember thinking of my dad as being helpless.

Knowing she needed medical help, he called 911 and we soon heard the sound of sirens. The EMTs couldn’t lift her either. “It hurts,” Mom said, shutting her eyes. “It hurts.” So they scooped Mom up in the blanket she was resting on and carried her onto a stretcher. BamBam! They shut her inside the ambulance and drove away.

It was late, and I hadn’t eaten dinner, let alone my afternoon snack. That night, dad made “the usual” — the ever-so-simple spaghetti and peas. I liked the meal the first five times we ate it, but after a while the spaghetti seemed to get harder, the peas mushier.

“Daaaaad. Again? Why can’t we have Mom’s pasta primavera? Or her macaroni and cheese?”

The grainy grossness was a rude reminder that Mom was too sick to cook and that hard as he tried, Dad just didn’t know how to nourish me in quite the same way.

“Maybe tomorrow, Mal,” Dad would say. “C’mon, you love spaghetti.” He worked full-time and was trying to take care of an ailing wife and a young daughter who craved the kind of care that only moms can give.

“I used to like spaghetti,” I said. “But it doesn’t taste good anymore.”

Dinnertime felt so lonely without Mom. Something was missing, and food wasn’t filling the void. It never really does. I missed Mom’s meals and my after-school cookies. I was tired of coming home to an empty house. I was tired of the hideous hats Mom wore to hide her baldness or to “make a fashion statement,” as she preferred to say. I was tired of seeing Mom confined to a bed when everyone else’s mom seemed healthy enough to attend school functions and cheer for their sons and daughters at soccer games.

Mom was just busy, I told myself. She was fighting in a battle and hiking up a hill. She was living out metaphors that, depending on whether or not you were playing pretend, suggested an ascension toward recovery or, more realistically, toward Heaven.

When Mom died, I felt empty and defeated. The “let’s play pretend” game was up and I’d lost. But I started it up again soon after Mom’s death, this time on my own. Mom wasn’t there to tell me she’d be ok, so I tried to be ok for her. I went to school the day after she died and told my sixth-grade teachers that I was fine and ready to move on. I wanted to be strong.

Me and Mom on Christmas morning. Taken about a year before she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Dad,” I said the day after she died. “I want to write a eulogy for Mom’s funeral.” “Eulogy” was one of those big words that I had heard Dad talk about behind closed doors. I remember looking it up in the dictionary, hoping I’d never have to hear one about my mother.

And yet, at age 11, I wrote one about Mom and read it at her funeral, composed and without tears. The eulogy, all 480 words of it, was my attempt to comfort everyone else and perhaps convince myself that all would be well. Part of it read:

 

“Everything happens for a reason, although, that reason is often hard to find. But believe me, sooner or later in life you will find that reason. Now we should all still cry, and we should always keep Robin in our hearts, but we cannot let it bother us for the rest of our lives. We can’t keep going back to that old chapter, but look forward to the new chapter in our lives, and just hope that it brings us the best of luck and much happiness.

“This is hard to do, I know, to find that new chapter, but we can all do it if we try. Just think, my mother, Robin Jo Tenore, is walking along the streets of gold, she’s having the time of her life. She no longer suffers from pain. She is now in the hands of God, she is now in Heaven. A place where she truly belongs.”

I remember feeling disconnected when I read the piece, confused as to why I felt the need to write about my mom’s death in a Hallmark card kind of way.

At the time, I thought I was strong. And I was, but I didn’t realize that being weak when we need to be can make us strong later on. When we cry, when we make ourselves vulnerable, when we readily admit that something as devastating as losing a mom just plain sucks, we’re being true to ourselves. Hiding these realities only delays the grieving process, making us surrender to sadness later instead of embracing it in the moment.

But try telling that to an 11-year-old.

Looking for something to control, I started to control what I ate. Nothing tasted good anymore, and it didn’t fill me up the same way Mom’s food did. Since Mom wasn’t there to make me meals or leave me snacks anymore, why even bother eating? After all, those super skinny girls in the “Seventeen” magazines that I peeked at in the library probably didn’t eat. How else would they have such perfect bodies?

It’s so much easier to focus on food and your body than it is to feel.

Me and dad have gone through a lot together. When I was sick, he was one of the few people who believed I’d get better. He was right.

I figured if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, then I could pretend things were still the same. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, then people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, the one who needed their love and attention.

My battle with food led to four hospitalizations, two month-long stays in a psychiatric unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston and a year-and-a-half-long stay at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for troubled girls in Arlington. I’m better — so much better than I ever thought I could be, thanks in large part to the choices I’ve made and to my supportive dad. But still, I struggle.

When I was home for Christmas this past December, I told Dad I was craving one of the gingerbread men that Mom always used to buy. I didn’t buy one, though, because I figured I didn’t really need it. Too unhealthy.

Two days later, my dad handed me a bag from Panera Bread.

“Here, Mal, this is for you.”

He had a big smile on his face. I peered inside and saw a gingerbread man.

“Thanks, dad,” I said, pretending not to want the treat. “I’m not hungry now, though. I’ll have a piece later.”

But then I changed my mind. It hurt me too much to say no. I wanted my dad to know how much his gesture meant to me, so I broke off a piece of the smiling gingerbread’s head. It was harder than I remembered, the taste of ginger wasn’t quite the same, and there wasn’t nearly as much frosting as there should have been. Not like the kind Mom used to buy. The spaghetti and peas equivalent of Mom’s pasta primavera.

You wouldn’t think eating a gingerbread man’s head would be that difficult. But when you’re used to a routine, deviations make way for chaos and temptation. I often eat the same thing every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner because it helps me feel in control. When I’m feeling lonely — because my friends are out at dinner and I’m being a workaholic, because it’s late and the guy I like hasn’t called yet, because I miss my mom — my first instinct is to sneak something from the nearest candy jar, raid the vending machine or open the refrigerator door in search of nourishment.

Dad and I live 1,500 miles away from each other. I always look forward to the late summer, when he usually visits. Here we are on my front porch last year.

I’m trying to find healthier ways to feel full, and to let go.

I’ve found that when we experience loss, we have a tendency to hold on to what we’re afraid will be taken from us. It’s understandable, but in doing so we can miss the point: everything that is good is a gift, freely given. When I’ve tried to hold on too tightly to the people in my life, I’ve missed the experience of the gift of their friendship, love and nourishment. To fill this void, I too often turn to food.

I know, though, that all the cookies and gingerbread men in the world can’t satisfy me. So I’m learning to fill the emptiness with something other than food, and to eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. Mom would want me to. Sometimes, because I’m not perfect, I slip up. And that’s ok. I don’t want to keep playing pretend.

Pursuing the ‘Craft of the Personal Essay’

Personal essay writing has always been my saving grace. When the spoken word fails, when I have the urge to get out my feelings, when I want to preserve a memory, I write.

In recent years, I’ve written a lot of personal essays that touch upon universal themes — mother-daughter relationships, loss and healing. I write about these things because I can relate to them, but also because I want others to read them and know that they’re not alone. So many of our life experiences are connected in some way or another, so I try my best to illuminate and make sense of them through writing.

Now I’m hoping to explore these experiences more in a Poynter/News University online group seminar called “The Craft of the Personal Essay.”

I’m in my second week of the four-week course and am learning a lot about different types of essays and about how to shape my ideas. My personal essay idea for the course involves nourishment. Specifically, I want to write about being nurtured (or not) — by my mother and by food. I hope to explore the ways that food has connected me to my Mom, the ways it pulled me apart from her and the ways it has fueled my memories of her.

I haven’t really written publicly about how food relates to my mom, but there are so many connections between the two that I feel the need to explore them more. I hope to publish my final product on this blog and, if it’s good enough, somewhere else. I hope you’ll offer your feedback when I post it.

Feel free to share your ideas for personal essays in the comments section of this post. We can work together to sort through them!

Will More Nutrition Facts Help Curb Obesity? Don’t Count on It

Shortly after slathering some cream cheese on my multigrain bagel Monday morning, I opened up the St. Petersburg Times to see a cover story with the headline: “Consuming Truths.”

Accompanying the story was a photo of the same type of bagel I was eating: “Dunkin’ Donuts multigrain bagel with reduced-fat cream cheese,” the caption read. “500 calories. 17 g of fat. 850 mg of sodium.”

I cringed, but ate the bagel and cream cheese anyway.

Calories and grams of fat, the Times reported, could start creeping up a lot more if health advocates who are pushing for restaurants to list nutrition information on menus get their way. Advocates believe the move could help curb obesity by making people more aware of their caloric intake.

Fifteen years after the government mandated that nutrition labels be printed on packaged foods, however, obesity among Americans continues to rise. This seems to suggest that while nutrition facts can make people more aware of how many calories, grams of fat, sodium, etc., they’re consuming, they aren’t enough of an incentive to stop unhealthy eating habits.

I agree that it’s important for people to be aware of what they’re eating, but I don’t think that giving them caloric information is the way to go about doing it. Too often, people focus on numbers as a cover-up for what what they can’t easily measure, especially when it comes to food.

I’m thinking in particular of those who have eating disorders. Calories become an obsession for them, something to be counted, written down and feared. They’re a distraction from all of the underlying emotions that cause people to restrict, binge, purge, etc.

To further complicate the problem, doctors often tell eating disorder patients how many calories they need to consume to reach their “goal weight” during hospital stays. While the patients become physically stabilized in the hospital, all of the underlying emotions and issues that led to the eating disorder continue to mount beneath the rising pounds.

The key to fighting obesity and other issues people have with food, then, isn’t to focus on numbers; it’s to hone in on what’s behind the problem of eating unhealthy. The problem, I would argue, stems from a lack of time, self-respect and community.

Americans are constantly rushing around by themselves, and many don’t have the time to give their bodies the care they need. So they turn to fast food, microwavable dinners, or no dinner at all. As the Times reported, “Most Americans consume one-third of their calories from food prepared away from home, whether at restaurants or as takeout from grocers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says almost half of those calories come from fast food.”

Flash back a half a century ago and people were eating meals together, not waiting in line at the drive-thru. Dinnertime didn’t mean stuffing your face with a Big Mac and fries while driving to an assignment, soccer practice or a doctor’s appointment; it often meant sitting down at the kitchen table and catching up with family or friends.

Eating in the company of others nourishes people more than they might think. I notice, for example, that I always eat more when I’m alone. Very often food, when used as a remedy for stress, fills a temporary void that leaves people feeling full psychically, but unfulfilled and empty emotionally. Then there is the opposite side of the spectrum — the loss of appetite people might experience when they’ve lost the sense of companionship they once had with someone. Take, for instance, the infamous “divorce diet” that accompanies divorces in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Given the ways society has changed throughout the past few decades, it’s easy to see why a lack of time and community has made this “bowling alone” generation so obese, so out of touch with how they’re fueling their bodies.

Rather than focus on how many calories people are consuming, then, why not focus on promoting the communal nature of food? I’m often amazed by how expensive some cooking classes are. What if the same health advocates who are pushing for more nutritional facts were to push for free or low-cost cooking classes in a local community instead? Offering such classes could be a great way to help people take the time to make their own food and come to understand what goes into the food they eat.

The cooking classes could also include a “food education” section, in which nutritionists or others who are well-informed about food could explain what the numbers on nutrition labels mean. Reading that something has 6 grams of fiber in it or 35 mg of sodium, after all, means little to people who don’t know what eating fiber and sodium does their bodies.

Along these same lines, why not offer people in the community opportunities to work on farms — to feel the dirt that their carrots grow in, to see the cows where their milk comes from, to hear the chickens that lay the eggs they eat? As one student who was interviewed in a recent New York Times piece about farm internships put it, “I’m not sure that I can affect how messed up poverty is in Africa or change politics in Washington, but on the farm I can see the fruits of my labor. By actually waking up every day and working in the field and putting my principles into action, I am making a conscious political decision.”

If access to farmland is a problem, health advocates in urban areas could start community gardens that residents could care for in communion with one another. Helping people cultivate an interest in locally-grown and organic foods would likely give them a better sense of how they might be able to trade in their daily Starbucks pastry for fresh fruit from the garden, and why that matters.

Developing a sense of community around food and an understanding of where food comes from and what it does to our bodies matters when it comes to healthy eating. Knowing that a multigrain bagel with reduced-fat cream cheese has 500 calories and 17 g of fat is a very small, if not insignificant, part of that.

I’m curious to see what others think about the idea of healthy eating and what we can do as a society to enourage it. What’s your reaction to this?

A Sunday Spent Eating Outside, Shopping at an Asian Market

Today I spent the afternoon with some friends who have a beautiful garden in their backyard. While making lunch — veggie burgers, fruit salad and crackers with hummus — we went out to the garden to get home-grown lettuce for our burgers, which we ate with fresh cilantro pesto. Yum.

As we munched on lunch outside, taking in the smells of the garden, I couldn’t help but admire what a cool backyard my friends have. The patio surrounding the garden is covered in brightly-colored flowers painted by a local artist who stops by the house from time to time to add to the artistic creation. Nearby, a hula hoop hangs on the branch of a tree.

Talking about gardening and fresh produce made us want to go to a nearby Asian market on 34th Street in St. Petersburg. (It’s actually called “The Oriental Market,” which seems politically incorrect.) It was fitting for us to go there, given that after lunch we had looked at about 150 photos my friend took during a recent trip to Beijing. We learned, from listening to the stories behind each photo, all about the Great Wall, the food, the people and the culture there.

A lot of the food at the market was similar to the food my friend had eaten in Beijing, but some of it she had never seen before. Understandably so. The store is filled with a wide variety of Asian produce, meat, sweets and more. It has two aisles full of cheap and elaborately decorated kitchenware, (I bought a spatula for $1.97); nearly three aisles of rice noodles (who knew there were that many different kinds of noodles?!); and freezer cases full of dumplings, edamame and more. There is also a ton of nail polish, which only costs $.50 a bottle — much cheaper than paying up to $7.50 per bottle at a drug store!

Naturally, I came away from the market with two bottles of pink and red nail polish, as well as a bag of edamame, a mango and a package of apple gummy — a chewy candy that’s similar in taste to Gummy Bears. The message on the candy’s packaging prompted me to buy it: “Every drop of fresh apple juice, carefully pressed from the reddest apples, shining in colors of the cheeks of a snow-country child, is yours to enjoy in each soft and juicy Kasugai Apple Gummy.” The color of the gummy does look like rosy cheeks, though not necessarily the rosy cheeks of a “snow-country child.”

I’m glad I bought the gummy and some Asian produce because I’m normally not very adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. When you’re with people who love to grow food and who are experimental with the way they prepare and eat it, though, it’s a lot easier to want to be adventurous yourself. Such was the case today.