Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

Tag: Personal writing

My not-so-simple response to the question: ‘So, why did you become a vegetarian?’

Earlier this summer, I ate a piece of red meat. It was the first time I had eaten meat in two-and-a-half years, and for a while after, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My boyfriend had given me a tiny sliver of beef from his enchillada after I made a deal with him.

“l know how much you love mushrooms,” I told him sarcastically. “I’ll eat a piece of your meat if you eat one of these mushrooms off my plate.”

“You won’t do it,” he said, knowing that when someone tells me I can’t do something, I usually try to prove to them that I can.

“Oh yeah?”

I put a mushroom on his plate and he put a piece of beef on mine. A look of disgust on my face, I cut the meat in half, closed my eyes and broke the rules. I expected it to taste unfamiliar. Instead, it tasted like home. In the few seconds that it took to eat it, I was reminded of my dad grilling hamburgers and my mom sticking a fork in one and putting it on my plate.

Mom used to love meat — especially when it came from a fast food joint. Burger King Whoppers were her favorite. She wasn’t overweight, but she knew what she liked to eat and wasn’t afraid to indulge herself. I wasn’t either. I remember how much I enjoyed biting into Whoppers. The mayonnaise and ketchup mixture would ooze out of the bun onto my little hands. More often than not, it’d end up on my shirt.

Mom and I also went to McDonald’s at least once a week for lunch. She was convinced that the Happy Meal toys would be worth something someday, so we started collecting them. I think Mom liked the cheap price of fast food as much as the taste of it. She was always on the lookout for bargains, especially when it came to food. She loved getting free food at events, and often went grocery shopping on the weekends just for the free samples. Whenever our local grocery store had deals on lobsters, we’d flock to the store, peer into the lobster tank and buy the biggest ones. When we got home, Mom would start boiling a pot of water and then take the lobsters out of the grocery bag. She’d put them on the kitchen floor next to the washing machine, aka the starting line. The kitchen table a few feet away was the finish line.

“On your mark … get set … Gooooooo!” she and I would yell in unison.

The lobsters, their claws closed shut with rubber bands, would start crawling. Sometimes, they charged ahead. Other times, they’d just sit there or start meandering in the wrong direction. Whichever lobster was farthest away from the kitchen table after a few minutes went into the pot first. You’d hear the lobster let out a little scream and see its antennae moving around. Mom would put the lid on the pot and I’d wave goodbye.

Mom and I had fewer lobster races after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37. The chemo made her lose her appetite and feel nauseous. Eating began to seem more like a chore, a means for survival. Mom would sit in front of her plate and play with her food, a look of pain on her face. Eventually, the cancer spread to her bonemarrow, her liver and her brain. She became so weak that she stopped eating altogether and had to be fed intravenously.

When I was 11, Mom lost her battle with cancer. Though I could see her getting sicker during her three-year battle with the disease, I wasn’t prepared for her death. I had still been holding onto the hope that, someday, we’d be able to start up our Happy Meal toy collection again and hold more lobster races. These things just wouldn’t be the same without Mom.

The night she died, Dad and I tried to watch “America’s Funniest Home Videos” as we usually did on Sunday nights. Canned laughter ensued as we sat in silence. I wondered how people could be happy when it seemed the whole world should be sad. Skipping dinner, I went to bed feeling empty.

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

“No. I just want to be alone,” I said, even though I wanted nothing more than to hug him and cry.

I pulled the covers over my head and stared into the darkness, unsure of how to express what I wanted and what I was feeling. In denial, I pretended things were fine and told myself not to be sad.

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

In the days following Mom’s death, I pretended to be strong. I wrote a eulogy at her funeral and tried to convince everyone that everything would be ok. “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,” I said. “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.”

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 losing a mom is nothing short of devastating, we learn to see the value in being honest with 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.

For as much as I wanted to help others move on to the next chapter in their lives, I was stuck. I tried clinging to the past as a way of hiding from the reality that mom wasn’t coming back. Feeling as though I had lost all control, I turned to something I could control: food. I started monitoring what my dad ate and told him that he should stop eating so much red meat and start eating more vegetables. I soon realized, though, that Dad was going to eat as many chicken wings and ribs as he wanted, no matter how many times I told him not to.

So I started controlling my own food intake. I had a health teacher at the time who said red meat was fatty, and that you shouldn’t eat too much of it. It seemed like a logical choice, then, to remove it from my diet. Soon after, I cut out all meat — and almost all foods except for fruits and vegetables. I figured if I stayed the same weight that I was before Mom died, I could pretend things were still the same. If I wore my hair in pigtails and pretended I was forever young, people would care for me. I’d be the little girl, the one without a Mom, who needed their love and attention. I’d be special.

As I continued to lose weight, I saw my dad grow weary. He, too, was losing weight because he was so worried. Mealtimes often ended with a fight. Dad’s sweet, innocent girl who got straight A’s and never talked back to her parents gradually became more and more argumentative.

“Stop telling me what to do!” I’d yell.

“Mallary, you need to eat. Please, just a few bites.”

“No! I’m not hungry.”

“Mallary, you haven’t eaten all day and you’re wasting away to nothing. You can’t keep doing this to yourself.”

“Dad, you’re overreacting! I’m not doing anything to myself. I’ve got this under control, ok? Just leave me alone.”

“Mal …”

“Leave me alone!”

Then one night he scared me.

“Mom fought so hard to survive,” he said. “Now you’re just letting yourself die.”

I knew he was right, but I pretended not to care. I went to my room, slammed the door and started exercising. The thought of being able to eat a Happy Meal, let alone feel happy, was beginning to seem more and more like an impossible dream. Along with doing leg revolutions in bed at night and shaking my leg whenever I sat down, I would jump — as high as I could. It sounds so odd now, but at the time I didn’t care what people thought. I wanted to burn calories, and if that meant jumping and making a fool of myself, then so be it. I jumped in the grocery store aisles, in the library and at church, embarrassing my dad and grandma.

They pleaded with me to stop, but for as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t. I felt so alone.

My dad admits now that he felt as though he was losing his little girl. He realized he couldn’t help me on his own, so he took me to my pediatrician, who simply said it was “normal” for pre-teen girls to be picky about eating and to cut out foods such as red meat. The doctor couldn’t have been more oblivious. Knowing that my weight loss was more than just a side effect of being “picky,” my dad contacted one of my mom’s old friends — who was a nurse — to ask her where he could take me to get help.

A few days later, I was standing on a scale at Children’s Hospital in Boston. At 66 pounds, I was fragile and secretly longing for an excuse to rest — to lie in a hospital bed like Mom did and not have to jump or shake my leg. I got a lot of cards while I was in the hospital. Most of them said, “Get better soon!”

If only it were that easy.

I was put on a specialized meal plan and had to eat a certain amount of calories each day. Meat was on my list of “forbidden foods.” For protein, I instead chose foods like cottage cheese and hummus. A lot of anorexics will tell you that these are “safe” foods and that meat is a “scary” food. The thought of eating meat quickly sparks images of people chowing down on a McDonald’s hamburger or a Burger King Whopper. It’s easy to equate meat with gluttony and fear — fear that if you eat just one bite of meat, you’ll gain weight.

I feared that anything I put into my body would make me fat. I would draw pictures of snowmen in my journal and scribble the word “ME” next to them. I’d write out everything I had eaten on a given day and then tally up the number of calories I had consumed. But I hardly had time to talk about these journal entries or the origin of my eating disorder while in the hospital. I went to therapy sessions, but the staff was more concerned with stabilizing me physically. I left the hospital feeling physically stronger but emotionally weak.

After four hospitalizations and two stays in the psychiatric ward at Children’s Hospital, I went to a residential treatment facility where I stayed for a year-and-a-half. The rule for eating disorder patients was the same there as it was in the hospital: If you didn’t eat your meal within 30 minutes, you had to drink Ensure supplements. If you didn’t drink the Ensure in 15 minutes, you’d “get the tube.” Several times, I ended up drinking the Ensure. I’d stare at it for 10 minutes and then chug it in the last five minutes so I could avoid having to be fed intravenously.

“Mom fought so hard to survive,” I remembered my dad saying. “Now you’re just letting yourself die.”

With time and the help of a therapist, I began to understand how my feelings about food and my mom’s death were tied together. I started gaining confidence and began finding ways to ground myself in the present rather than hiding in the past. I tried different types of foods and eventually began eating meat. For whatever reason, I don’t remember exactly when I started eating it again, or how I felt when I did.

I kept eating meat when I left the residential treatment facility in September 2000, and continued to eat it through high school and most of college. Then toward the end of college — likely because I was worried about the changes that would come with graduation — I started cutting red meat out of my diet. I tried to convince myself that I didn’t like it and that I didn’t need it. Two years after graduating college, I cut out all meat and fish. If I’m going to cut out red meat, I told myself, I might as well go all the way.

I liked hearing people’s reactions when I told them I was a “full-fledge” vegetarian. Even more so, I liked the attention.

From the non-vegetarians:

“You don’t eat meat? You don’t know what you’re missing!”

“You don’t even eat fish? Wow!”

“You’re going to stop being a vegetarian once you get a whiff of these awesome barbecue chicken wings.”

“I don’t know how you do it!”

From the vegetarians:

“Oh. my. God. Did you read ‘Skinny Bitch‘?! That book TOTALLY made me become a vegetarian.”

“I saw ‘Food Inc.’ and it made me never want to eat animals again.”

“I don’t know how people eat meat. It really grosses me out.”

“I feel so much healthier being a vegetarian.”

Inevitably, people from both ends of the spectrum ask: “So, why are you a vegetarian?”

It’s one of the hardest questions for me to answer. There are so many reasons why. Usually, I respond by saying that I don’t like the idea of eating animals. Sometimes I’ll also mention that my mom didn’t cook a lot of meat for me when I was a kid. That’s true, but it doesn’t account for the fast food trips we’d make.

While I hate the idea of animals being killed for human consumption, that only explains a small part of my reasoning. My decision to become a vegetarian is partly a manifestation of the idea that I should always be looking for ways to cut calories. By being a vegetarian, I can cut certain foods out of my diet without raising eyebrows. I don’t have to explain why I’m not eating meat or fish; it’s understood.

But how do you explain that to someone, especially someone who doesn’t know you’ve struggled with an eating disorder?

I’m healthier now than I ever imagined I would be. I can go out to eat with friends and family. I can treat myself to gelatto when I’m craving it. I can cook meals — including meat dishes for others — without feeling grossed out or fearing that the smell of food will make me gain weight. I can eat without having to be told to do so.

But still, I struggle.

I hide and hoard food. When I see free food I think of Mom and grab as much as I can. Then I feel guilty for taking so much, so I eat it in secrecy. Some days, I go for long runs and hardly eat anything. Other days, I binge. To prevent binges, I buy fresh salads and wraps every day so that I won’t have to keep food at home. But as anyone who struggles with overeating knows, there are always ways to find food.

I’ll eat just about anything during a binge, but I’ve never turned to meat or fish. This ability to control part of my food intake even when I feel so out of control is proof that my vegetarianism isn’t just about feeling “special” and getting attention. In large part, it’s about genuinely not wanting to eat meat. Now I just need to find more ways of filling the gap between what my body needs and what I’m willing to give it.

We can learn over time to listen to our bodies — to eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. We can tend to the wounds of the past and work not necessarily toward “full recovery” but toward a process of healing. To heal, we have to recognize the progress we’ve made and not be hard on ourselves when we stumble. I try to avoid catastrophic thinking by reminding myself that one bad day of eating doesn’t have to ruin my entire week. When I start to slip into old habits, I think of something my grandma often says: “I live every day my kids didn’t get to live.” After she lost both her daughters to breast cancer, she promised herself that instead of focusing on what she’d lost, she’d focus on what she was still lucky enough to have.

Someday, I want to have kids of my own. I want to cook for them and make eating a fun and communal experience. I want to take them up north to visit my dad so he can grill them hamburgers and spoil them with ice cream. I want to lead by example and teach them to listen to their bodies. I want to be healthy enough to see my kids go to prom, graduate high school and start their first day in college — moments my mom never got to experience. Mom would want me to experience these things, and to be happy and healthy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever fully overcome my struggles with eating. And as much as my boyfriend would love to see me eat a beef enchilada someday, I’m not sure I ever will. I do know, though, that being with him has helped me normalize my eating habits and made me happier. And it’s helped show me that, especially during tough times, being with someone is so much better than being alone.

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.

Comments from last week’s post a motivation to keep moving forward

Whenever I write about my relationship with food and my mom, I’m always humbled by the number of people who send me messages to say they related to what I wrote about. My last blog post — a narrative comprised of several personal essays I’ve written throughout the years — generated a lot of meaningful responses.

Longreads, a site that posts long-form stories, posted a link to it. Friends and strangers commented on the post, and some people messaged me to say that they, too, have struggled with an eating disorder and found comfort in knowing that they weren’t alone. These are the messages I hold dear; they remind me why I need to keep sharing my story so that in helping myself, I can help others. I measure the success of a piece not just by how cathartic it was for me to write, but by how many people say they saw a piece of themselves in it.

I got just one note with constructive criticism, which I expected; it’s hard for people to offer criticism on a piece that’s so personal. The person said she thought the part about my eating disorder came too abruptly at the end, and she wanted to see me write more about this. That is my intention; I just need some time to sort out what I want to say and how I want to say it. I’ve had enough time to process my mother’s death, so it’s easier to write about it with depth and perspective. When you’re still struggling with something, though, it’s harder to write about it with the distance you need to look back and make sense of it all.

I think one way to approach it is to start developing other characters in my narrative — particularly my dad and my grandmother. They were there with me throughout my eating disorder and saw me at my worst. Writing about my relationship with them will inevitably mean writing about food and how they helped me through my difficulties with eating — and in some cases perpetuated these difficulties.

One of my mentors, Roy Peter Clark, has always said that a page a day equals a book a year. My goal, then, is to try to write for 30 minutes a day. I have to be realistic and acknowledge that some days I won’t have time to write, but I’m going to try my best. I think getting in the habit of writing regularly about food and relationships will make it easier to confront some of the issues I’ve been too afraid to commit to paper.

I’ve also been reading a lot of food memoirs and essays for inspiration. I’m reading “Best Food Writing” — part of a series of books that contain the year’s best essays on food — and I just started reading Dayna Macy‘s “Ravenous” tonight. I plan to read “Day of Honey” by foreign correspondent Annia Ciezadlo next. Reading about others’ experience with food gives me ideas and the motivation I need to move forward in my own efforts to write a food memoir. And so do your comments!

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.

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.

Funny take on where the Babysitters Club girls are today

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw this Awl story about what the members of the Babysitters Club are up to these days. Growing up, I was a huge Babysitters Club fan and even started my own club. I hung up handmade flyers around town to make the locals aware of my babysitting skills (or lack thereof), and surprisingly landed some gigs. I still keep in touch with one of the moms who responded to my flyer and consider her to be a dear family friend.

As weird as it sounds, the Babysitters Club characters were like my imaginary sisters who came to life whenever I started reading. I found comfort in reading about young girls my age, and could relate to much of what they went through. As an only child, I looked to books for entertainment and was “that girl” who read a book while walking two miles to and from school every day. I was the girl who befriended the school librarian and who used to “steal” my parents’ flashlight so I could use it to read under the covers at night. I’d hold my finger next to the flashlight’s on/off switch so I could quickly turn it off if I thought Mom and Dad were going to come into my room and tell me to stop rebelliously reading.

I would feign sleep for even longer when reading Babysitters Club books about Mallory. I had never met another Mallory in real life before, so I gravitated toward my fictional counterpart, even though she spelled her name with an “o” and looked nothing like me. For whatever reason, Mallory’s name was often accompanied by a drawing of a smiley face, so I used to draw the same type of smiley face under my name whenever writing out my name at school.

It’s been years since I looked at a Babysitters Club book. (No really, I swear!) The Awl story reminded me of the girls’ quirks, and it puts a funny twist on “where the characters are today.” If you’re not familiar with the Babysitters Club series, the story probably may be hard to relate to. But if you liked the series as much as I did, then you should know …

Kristy started up a softball league with her partner Tori and works in the Baltimore public school system. She met Tori while doing Teach for America and seems to be doing pretty well for herself.

Claudia is a graphic designer who makes intricate wire jewelery. She has a live-in boyfriend named Arthur, and she wears crazy glasses, plays the upright bass and now eats sprouts instead of sweets.

Boy-crazy Stacy pursued a career in acting and modeling but couldn’t book any jobs. She had an affair with the owner of a Los Angeles club, of which she is now co-owner. She has some problems she needs to work through but is at least trying to carve out new opportunities for herself. This spring, she’s launching her own line of handbags.

Maryanne apparently doesn’t know how to use the Internet. And she didn’t marry Logan! Tear. I knew they broke up, but I always hoped they would rekindle their love for each other. I remember reading about their middle school romance and thinking Logan was a cutie, at least based on the cover illustrations of him.

Dawn has “kind of gone off the deep end.” She owns and operates a self-sustaining llama farm, wears lots of bucket hats and makes her own yarn. The only Babysitters Club member she talks to regularly is Mary Anne.

Mallory graduated from Riverbend boarding school with honors, then went to Regis College, where she majored in women’s studies and English. (Go Mallory!) She ended up getting pregnant, though, and had to drop out of school. Known for her red frizzy hair and oversized glasses, Mallory has some mad skills when it comes to playing Mario Kart for Wii.

Jessi seems to be living a relatively normal life. The talented ballerina, who always wanted to be a professional dancer, joined a dance company but was forced out of it due to a knee injury. Now she’s in physical therapy school.

Shannon, the overachiever of the group, is now a competitive dog breeder. (Talk about randomness!) She especially likes the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and has so far raised just one champion dog, Puttencove Promise.

Logan didn’t do so well later in life. He got caught up in a gang called The Badd Boyz, was arrested for stealing car radios, dropped out of Student Council and even ditched the Babysitters’ Club. Not cool, Logan, not cool.

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.

Starting off 2011 with a fresh perspective, new goals

It’s been a while since my last post. For the month and a half leading up to Christmas, I felt as though life kept sprinting ahead of me and I couldn’t keep up. We had just redesigned the website I write for — Poynter.org — and we were short-staffed at the time. I needed to find a balance between reporting stories and overseeing the new How To section of the website. I’m excited to curate, edit and write stories for this section, and I enjoy being given additional responsibilities that will help me learn and grow as a journalist. But the additional responsibilities were unnerving at first.

Switching from the old site to the new one instilled a sense of loss in me and it disrupted my usual routine. Having lost my mother at age 11, any sort of loss always seems exaggerated and takes me a little while to get used to. I write about change all the time when covering the new ways that journalists are telling stories, so I realize its importance. But experiencing it is much more difficult than writing about it.

Luckily, I have a supportive boss who recognizes that transitions and changes in workloads can be difficult. We talked about the importance of having something constant in life when your professional or personal life gets chaotic.  Running is a constant in my life that helps me feel grounded. When I run in the morning before work, I get less antsy and feel better about myself throughout the day. I also find that running motivates me to go to bed earlier and eat better. When I get stressed, I tend to stay up late and then my eating gets thrown off, which in turn affects my mood.

Photo of the collage I made during the holidays.

Visual aids also help me. When everything else seems to be changing, I can look at these aids as a reminder that it’s possible to restore order amidst chaos. Handmade collages that feature photos of things that relax and motivate me are especially helpful. Having a break over the holidays gave me some time to make a collage, relax and do other things that I enjoy but can’t always make time for when I’m swamped — running, being with friends and family, browsing bookstores, reading for pleasure. And it reminded me that I need to make time for these things on a more regular basis. So, as part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ve put together a list of my goals for 2011, many of which are aimed at personal fulfillment. I always feel fulfilled when I’m accomplishing a goal at work, or when I’m taking time out to be good to myself. With that in mind, here are my goals:

1.) Do yoga once a week. I used to go to yoga on a pretty regular basis, but then I stopped. I figured I was getting a better cardio workout by running, and I didn’t want to spend money on yoga classes. I always felt so relaxed when I did yoga, though, so I want to make time for it, even if it means spending a few extra dollars.

2.) Find time every day to do something that makes me happy. I recently bought a ceramic plaque from Target that has a saying about making yourself happy. Spending time with my friends and boyfriend, blogging, painting my nails, listening to music, watching movies (and really watching them rather than doing five other things at the same time), all bring me joy.

3.) Acknowledge at least one work-related accomplishment that I’m proud of each week. By the end of the work week, I usually focus on what I haven’t done rather than looking back and recognizing what I have done. I realize, though, that it’s better to look at what you’ve accomplished along the way rather than only doing so after you’ve finished a long-term project. When you regularly recognize your accomplishments, you can keep better track of how you’ve improved and what you want to get better at.

4.) Run at least one half marathon. I wanted to run a marathon in 2011, but I have to see if I’ll have time to train for it. (I’d love to run the San Francisco women’s marathon in November.) At the very least, I’d like to run the Gasparilla half marathon next month or the women’s half marathon in St. Petersburg in November. I ran my first half last year — the Disney Princess Half — and felt such a great sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line.

5.) Cook more. Every year, I tell myself I want to start cooking more, but I always have difficulty following through. By the time I get home from work, I’m tired and don’t want to cook. I usually just throw together something quickly but rarely cook a hearty meal for myself. Having people to cook for helps, so I think the more I can embrace the communal spirit of cooking and eating, the better.

6.) Continue to be a Big Sister. Being a Big Sis has given me a chance to volunteer and be around kids again without taking up too much of my free time. I’m involved with the school-based Big Brothers Big Sisters program, which means I visit with my Little Sis at her school for an hour once a week. This is a little more manageable than trying to find time after work or on the weekends to get together.

7.) Be more decisive. I’m sometimes indecisive, in part because I don’t want to make a decision that would go against what someone else wants. (Can you tell I like to please people?) I’d like to get better at making decisions and then confidently following through with them.

There are a few words that I want to keep in mind as I venture off into 2011:

Gray: I have to remember that not everything has to be black or white. I want to start asking more questions like, “What are our options?” Maybe that story I’m working on, for instance, doesn’t have to be done tomorrow. Maybe there are other options that will give me more time to finish my story and tend to other work that needs to get done that day.

Balance: I need to strike more of this. We all do!

Moderation: As my grandma says, when it comes to eating, everything in moderation is OK.

Rest: I often underestimate the perks of a little R&R.

Fun: I got a Mary Engelbreit calendar for Christmas that says “Have! More! Fun!” on the cover. This is similar to the motto that my college friends and I shared — “Fun Before Work.” Though we almost always put schoolwork before fun, we looked at our motto as a reminder to have fun even when we were bogged down by finals, classes and extra curricular activities.

What are some of your resolutions and/or words for 2011?

Celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Providence College’s Student Newspaper, The Cowl

Saadia Ahmad/Providence College

Last weekend I spoke at the 75th anniversary of my alma mater’s student newspaper, The Cowl. The coordinators of the event asked me to write about how my experience as editor-in-chief of the paper helped prepare me for my job as a journalist. I talked about this, but I also wanted to explain why it’s still worth going into journalism even despite all the turmoil the industry has faced. Not many students from Providence College go into journalism, but I wanted to encourage current Cowl staff members to give the profession a try and to be open-minded about nontraditional forms of storytelling.

I felt grateful to have the opportunity to speak at the event and meet current and former Cowl staffers, and enjoyed spending time with them. About two dozen of us went into The Cowl office after the event and took part in what amounted to a journalism geek fest. We all crowded around old issues of The Cowl and reminisced about the stories we had written or the pages we had designed, getting overly excited about our time on the paper. The experience reminded me of the sense of community I felt whenever I put the paper to bed in that tiny Cowl office with others who cared about journalism. All those late nights were well worth it.

As a follow-up to my speech (which I’ve copied and pasted below), my boss asked if I wanted to write a personal essay that would tie together the 75th anniversary of The Cowl and the 35th anniversary of The Poynter Institute, which both took place this month. I was having trouble finding a link between the two, so I started to write about my mom. Whenever I write personal essays, I find it easiest to start off writing about my mom, in part because doing so feels both comforting and familiar. I ended up writing an essay that tied together my mom, both anniversaries and my opposition (and eventual affinity for) the Web. I’ve gotten a lot of thoughtful e-mails this weekend from people who have said they related to the essay, which you can read here.

And here’s my speech …

Let me start off by saying that one of the best, and worst, parts about being editor of The Cowl was pulling all-nighters every Wednesday. The other staffers and I would edit and lay out stories until the wee hours of the morning, energized by the rush of working on deadline. The journalism nerd in us would come out in full force as we debated whether to use a four-column or five-column layout, or whether the serial comma was really necessary or just wasted space.

Most Wednesdays, the associate editor and I would stay in that tiny, sometimes smelly, Cowl office — which was nicknamed the “windowless hovel” — until 4 or 5 a.m. every Wednesday.

We’d read over headlines and captions one last time before putting the paper to bed, knowing how important it was to catch the pesky typos that would slip through spell-check. When editing, I’d often think back to my freshman year when Cowl Advisor Richy Kless showed me a Providence Journal article about Donald Rumsfeld. The headline read in big bold letters: “Rumsfeld’s Pubic Role is Shrinking.” By “pubic,” of course, the ProJo meant “public.”

The importance of paying attention to detail is one of the many valuable lessons I learned while on The Cowl. Being editor also made me realize how rewarding — and challenging — it can be to lead your peers. Effective leaders, I learned, assess what needs to be improved and then set reasonable goals to see that these improvements are made. They reward staff members who are doing especially good work, and they take the time to train others who need their help. Perhaps most importantly, good leaders are never too proud to learn from others; they see their role as both a teacher and an avid learner.

Being editor of The Cowl helped me gain confidence in myself as a leader and made me realize the power that student journalists have to give voice to the voiceless, hold the powerful accountable and reveal the truth. So often we hear about the importance of “veritas” at Providence College. The term couldn’t be more applicable to journalists, who help create a more informed society by seeking truth and sharing it with others. As St. John’s gospel notes, the truth will set you free.

And so will change.

Having a willingness to change will keep you from getting trapped by antiquated conventions. Now more than ever, accepting change has become crucial to surviving — and thriving — in journalism. I realized the importance of change in journalism during my freshman year on The Cowl. At the time, Frank Caliva and other editors helped launch TheCowl.com. They created big promotional posters that said, “‘IT’S COMING!!:, hoping to stir up some excitement among those in the college community.

Going online was a huge step for The Cowl because it showed that the paper was ready and willing to start experimenting with the Web. Campus newspaper websites provide student journalists with the opportunity to develop online skills, and they’re especially beneficial to alumni who want to stay connected to the paper from afar. But interestingly enough, for as plugged in as college students are, many prefer the print version of their student newspaper to the online version.

We recently reported on this at The Poynter Institute and found that there are a few different reasons why this is the case: student newspapers are free, they’re easy to get a hold of, and they’re a tangible conversation starter.

A spring 2010 study conducted by Student Monitor, a New Jersey company that surveys college students nationally twice a year about their reading habits, found that 56 percent of students surveyed say they don’t even know if their campus newspaper is available online. Interest in the print edition, though, remains high, with 63 percent of students classifying themselves as light or frequent readers of the print edition of the campus newspaper.

For as happy as I am about the success of the print product on college campuses, I think it in many ways reflects the “bubble” of college life. In the journalism industry at large, the print product is suffering. This reality makes that little thing called change all the more important.

When I was in college, I tried to avoid the changes in the industry. I was convinced that newspapers would always be people’s primary source of news and information. I was convinced that the Web was threatening the medium that I had wanted to work in all my life.

I was so resistant to the changes in journalism that I wrote an editorial for my local paper suggesting as much. Newspapers, I wrote, are “the wave of the future.” “The need to tell stories,” I went on to say, “is about as necessary as having a newspaper in hand while drinking your morning coffee.”

This was coming from a girl who, for a while, preferred her Smith Corona typewriter to a computer, and who thought the Web was just a “passing phase.” Now, ironically, I work full-time on the Web as a writer and editor at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. I work with author Roy Peter Clark, vice president of the institute, who graduated from PC in 1970 and was an editor on The Cowl. (He often talks about his crusade to change the newspaper from “the creepy Cowl, with all its cultish connotations, to the spirited Owl, that wise and reliable sentry in the darkness.”)

Anyhow, at The Poynter Institute, I cover the media industry and regularly report on emerging trends and the intersection of journalism and technology. Reporting on this intersection meant I had to start using the tools I was writing about, and it forced me to start peeking over the wall I had built between myself and the Web.

In writing about the media, I’ve found that the journalists who are succeeding are the ones who won’t settle for the argument, “Well, this is how it’s always been done.” Journalism is always changing and evolving; there’s no time to be afraid of experimenting with new ways of telling stories.

Social networking sites and mobile technology have provided us with new and exciting opportunities to find story ideas, share content and reach new audiences. Newspapers have caught on to this, but they still struggle to remain relevant in a 24-hour news cycle.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think newspapers will ever get back to the place where they once were — relevance wise or revenue wise. In recent years, newspapers have had to lay off staffs, consolidate their print product and close bureaus. Some newspapers have shuttered entirely.

But there are plenty of signs of hope. News outlets are starting to hire again. Journalists are seizing these new opportunities, and in some cases, they’re leaving their full-time jobs at traditional news outlets to work for online news startups. They’re doing this, they’ve told me, because they believe these sites are integral to the future of journalism and they want to be part of that future.  I can see their logic.

Sites such as Politico, TBD, Salon, Slate and ProPublica (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009) have all emerged as credible news sources that rely on traditional values — truth seeking, ethics and a commitment to accuracy — but aren’t afraid to use social media and new tools to cover and share news. These sites, as well as some legacy print and broadcast outlets, are hiring younger people for newly crafted positions such as social media editor, community engagement director, and mobile manager. They see experimentation and risk-taking as an inevitable part of the job.

The success of these new startups brings to mind a Semisonic lyric that Father Shanley quoted during his 2007 commencement speech: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” he said. (As a side note, I have to say I thought it was pretty cool that Father Shanley knew that song!) Right now, young journalists in particular have a chance to be part of something new in journalism. Even though parts of the industry are struggling, there are more opportunities than ever for all of you to help guide the future of the profession — online, on air and even still in print.

As a young journalist, I’m optimistic about the future and am excited to be working in an industry whose fight for survival has paved the way for change and innovation. Embrace these changes, take the lessons you learned from all those late nights on The Cowl, and ask, “What have we been doing forever and how can we start doing it differently?” You might just be surprised by what you come up with.

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.