Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Mom

14 years later, still finding signs that Mom’s with me

This Sunday, my Mom would have been 55. She died all too early at age 40 after a battle with breast cancer that robbed her of the ability to accomplish all her goals in life. The cancer weakened her physically, but it taught her to be a fighter — to bear the side effects of chemotherapy, to keep her family grounded, to move forward even when she felt like giving up.

I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, she’d say, pretending to be the Little Engine That Could.

I often think about all the milestones Mom would have experienced with me if she were still here. She would have gotten to see me graduate from college (an opportunity she never had growing up); land a job in the field I’ve always wanted to pursue; and carve out a life for myself 1,350 miles away from home.

My dad tells me Mom would be proud of me for accomplishing these things. I like to think that’s true. Tonight, he sent me a sweet note that made me think about how, even long after loved ones have died, we can find signs that they’re still with us and want us to be happy.

Here’s the note, titled “A special message from dad”:

Hi Mal,

Mom would be 55 this Sunday, hard to believe. I was looking at your baby book when I was cleaning up the room downstairs. I thought it would be nice to share with you the dreams that Mom and I had for you when you were born.

Mom’s dreams:
To love and respect your parents
To take care of your family
Always have a sense of humor and a caring smile
Be kind to others, so they will be kind to you
To be what you want to be when you grow up
To go to college

Dad’s dreams:
To always be happy
To always feel loved
To always give love
To always have a beautiful smile and a kind word for others
To obtain your goals in life
To live a life when you grow up that reflects the dreams of your childhood.

I am very proud of you, and Mom would be too.

Love,
Dad

It’s funny how similar my mom’s and dad’s lists are. For the most part, I think I’m living out their dreams. I just wish my Mom could be here to see them come true.

Advertisements

When moms say ‘you’re gorgeous,’ they mean ‘I love you’

I like to think that my Mom, who died of breast cancer when I was 11, sends me 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 time” — 7:24 — symbolic of her July 24 birthday.

Mom always used to call me gorgeous, so I couldn’t help but think of her the other night when I read this passage from “Stuffed,” a food memoir by Patricia Volk:

“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.

Finding the (real) recipe for mom’s macaroni and cheese

This week I started reading “Stuffed,” a food memoir by Patricia Volk. The book is a tribute to Volk’s family members and the food they made her growing up. Each chapter, which is named after a special type of food, is about a different family member. One of the things I love about the book is how Volk captures the way that food connects us to others. Food, she reminds us, is an integral part of our relationships. We go out to eat with our spouses, we cook meals for our kids, we share recipes with friends …

Food triggers memories of childhood, major events in our life, and the loved ones we hold dear. I can’t look at butterscotch chips without thinking of my maternal grandma, for instance. We used to make butterscotch cookies together a lot when I was a kid. Baking with Grandma was especially fun because I could break the rules; she always let me eat a handful (or two, or three) of the butterscotch chips and lick the spoon without worrying about how messy I got.

Spaghetti with peas reminds me of my dad because it’s the one meal he consistently cooked after my mom died. Coffee ice cream reminds me of a guy I used to date, and lemon loaves remind me of another guy I dated. After my relationship with these guys fizzled out, I found myself craving the food that reminded me of them, thinking it would help me feel closer to what I had lost.

Mac and cheese reminds me of my mom. She made the world’s best mac and cheese, or so I thought as a little kid. My paternal grandma, “Gramz,” has tried replicating it throughout the years, but it never tasted quite the same. Turns out, Gramz had been using the wrong recipe. We discovered this at Christmastime after my maternal grandma pointed out that Mom’s recipe came from my great-grandmother, not from the generic mac & cheese recipe we had been following. My grandma just mailed me the handwritten recipe, so today I decided to make it. It doesn’t taste nearly as good as Mom’s, probably because she improvised it, making minor changes here and there that didn’t make it onto the recipe card.

The look, taste and smell of the mac and cheese I made still remind me of her, though. Someday, when I write a memoir about my mom, you can be sure mac and cheese will be mentioned in it. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to perfect it.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try it:

Ingredients:

–1/2 lb Elbow macaroni

–2 cups grated cheese (American)

–1 cup hot milk

–1 cup buttered breadcrumbs (This seemed like way too much. I’d probably use a half a cup next time.)

Steps:

–Cook macaroni until tender.

–Place a layer of grated cheese in a buttered baking dish, then a layer of macaroni. Alternate until the dish is filled.

–Season with salt and pepper.

–Pour hot milk over the mac and cheese, then cover it with the buttered breadcrumbs.

–Cover the dish and bake for 30 minutes at 350.

Thanks for Your Race for the Cure Donations

I wanted to thank everyone who helped me raise money for the Race for the Cure. I ended up exceeding y $1,000 goal and raising $1,285, the majority of which will go toward local nonprofit organizations that offer screenings, breast health education, and treatment projects for those who are medically underserved. About 25 percent of the $482, 875 raised will also go toward breast cancer research.

I didn’t run the 10K nearly as fast as I had hoped; I was aiming for 7:45-minute miles but ran 8:30 miles because stomach cramps hit me about halfway through the race. Still, I’m less concerned about my time, especially since this is just the start of the race season here in Florida. Most of all, I’m just happy I met my goal and that so many friends, family members and even strangers donated to a cause that’s near and dear to my heart. It’s amazing how much spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter helps!

During the race, I thought of those who donated and the people in their lives who they said have been affected by breast cancer. I also thought of the two people I ran the race for — my maternal aunt and my mom. I know they’d be proud.

Running the Komen Race for the Cure in Honor of my Mom, Aunt

Me and mom in Disney World in 1988.

On Oct. 2, I’ll be running in the Florida Suncoast Komen Race for the Cure. It’s a race that’s near and dear to my heart, as my mother and my maternal aunt both died of breast cancer at a young age. My mom was only 39 when she passed away, and my aunt was in her early 50s.

Given this family history, I can’t help but worry that someday I might get breast cancer. There’s not a whole lot I can do to prevent it, though, except do my best to live a healthy lifestyle and try to raise money for cancer research.

I’ve been passionate about this cause for several years. In college, I helped start my college’s Relay for Life efforts and was always moved by all of the people who came out to show their support for cancer research. It made me realize how many people have been affected by cancer, directly and indirectly.

Though I hate asking people for money, I’ve been asking people to donate what they can, even if it’s just a few dollars. I first let people know about the race earlier this month on Facebook and Twitter and got donations from friends and from acquaintances who I haven’t talked to in years. In just a few days, I raised more than $500, so I upped my fundraising goal from $100 to $1,000.

Now I’m starting to reach out to more people in hopes that they’ll help me reach my goal. The money for the race goes toward breast cancer research and local nonprofit organizations that offer screenings, breast health education, and treatment projects for those who are medically underserved. If you’re interested in donating, you can visit this page for more information.

I’d greatly appreciate any contribution you can make! With every stride I run and every dollar you donate, we’ll be making steps together toward finding a cure.

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. …

Mother-Daughter Song Stirs Memories of Happier Times with Mom

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

Not long ago, I rediscovered a tape of me and my mom singing together. We had made up the song together the night before Mother’s Day when I was about 7 or 8, and I recorded it on my Fisher Price tape player. Now at age 25 I treasure the song. It’s the only recording I have of my mom, who passed away from breast cancer when I was 11.

Rather than just letting the tape sit in my dresser drawer, I re-recorded the audio, made an MP3 version of it in iTunes and uploaded it to my blog using Podomatic. The song will no doubt make you laugh, and some of the lyrics won’t make any sense at all. But that’s what makes it so fun to listen to.

You can play the song below and read a related essay I wrote to help put the lyrics in context. I’ve included the song lyrics at the end of this post. As always, I welcome your feedback.

********

I hated going to bed as a little girl. 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. She 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.

Though Mom called me her “little girl,” I wanted to be a big girl. 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.

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

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.

Everyone tried to protect me and tell me Mom would be OK. But I still worried that one day I’d wake up and she’d be gone. So I tried to stay awake to savor every moment I could.

The day Mom died, 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. As an 11-year-old, I wondered how people could be happy when it seemed the whole world should be sad.

Skipping snack time, 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.

Me and Dad.

“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.

When you’re 11 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.

Recently, 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.

Fisher Price tape recorder. Classic.

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.

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

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. This past weekend 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,” which Mom dedicated to me before she died. I could feel the goosebumps forming. The song, which I hadn’t heard in months, often comes on the radio when I’m thinking about Mom or when I’m having a hard time. She’s always been good at sending me signs. 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.”

Sometimes I still weep, and that’s ok. I’ve gotten to the point where I can also laugh — when I think of Mom bobbing her head to “Love Shack” or when I hear her singing our mother-daughter song. These memories remind me that even though my mom’s not here anymore, she’s still very much a part of my life. The older I get, the more I realize I’ll always be mommy’s little girl.

********

Here are the lyrics:

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

Me: You can tell I told you that a million times, but I tried to tell you the right reason why, ‘cuz here’s my mother and she’ll sing tonight. And here she is, we’re watching “In Living Color” Tonight. Here she is …

Mom: Well I’m waiting for Dad to get out of the shower so we can have some coffee together. Then we’ll relax and read the paper and we’ll talk about today’s news. So I’ll say goodnight to Mallary, Mallary, she has to go to bed. I love her so dearly, yes I do indeed, Mallary it’s time to go to bed.

Me: Ohhhh I don’t want to go to bed! But it’s a school night you can see, so all my mothers and dads will not compare to me. Cuz 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. And here’s my mom and she’ll sing to you this song. I don’t know what it is but I think it’s a good song. Here’s my mom.

Mom: Goodnight sweet baby, I’ll tell you a story before you go to bed. I love you so dearly I hate to see you away from me. But I’ll sing this song to you. Goodnight sweet Mallary go to bed, I love you very much. See you tomorrow. Have a nice dream.

Me: Then I’ll see you tomorrow and then we’ll have breakfast eggs and an English muffin. Tonight I had two snacks and I had good snacks too. We’re recording this song and it is a long song too. But it’s good, you knew, that that’s true, today is a nice day out, you know. You know, I tried to pull my pants up by my shirt so I could get cooled down. You know, by my shirt. And I had a pink shirt on, I tricked my dad by going in on this song. Well, here’s my mom, you can tell that’s true, here she is you don’t know what she’s gonna do. Oh ma, come on!

Mom: I’ll sing her song again, I’ll have to say goodnight to you. Goodnight and sweet dreams, I’ll end this song. Goodnight to you and God above.

Me: This is the last song and I’ll be singing it. And it is almost time to go to bed. That you can see is why I’m ahead. I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet but I will now. So bye, bye, bye for now.

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!