Money Woes

            Money was a problem when our kids were young. We had our house, chosen in a price category so that I could be a stay-at-home mom. We never missed a payment as that was a priority, but there were times when the refrigerator was a tad empty.

            No one went hungry unless they chose to abstain from whatever was put on the table. Our meals most often consisted of chicken, ground beef and chuck roasts. Pasta, rice and potatoes rounded out the meal. Oh! And canned vegetables.

            Part of the problem was that I wasn’t much of a cook. I had a trusty cookbook that relied on canned soups. The recipes were easy to follow and tasted good. On top of that, they were hearty.

            When boxed Hamburger Helper came out, they became a staple in our diet. Self-contained meals, simple directions and required adding very little.

            My kids didn’t wear new clothes until they were about eight or nine. I was an expert thrift store shopper. I found nearly new onesies, shirts, shorts and pants. Dresses and slips. Coats, sweaters and light jackets. Even rain boots.

            They usually had brand-new shoes, unless the hand-me-downs were like new. When they began school, uniforms were new, a huge expense.

            I also sewed much of their wardrobes, especially shorts, dresses and anything made out of cotton. The machine was old and not very good. Before I left for college, I bought the cheapest model Sears had. That way, even away from home, I could make me new clothes.

            At some point I upgraded, which was a wise decision. The new machine gave greater variety of stitches, which came in handy for seams and hems. It also had a terrific buttonhole maker. My daughter has that machine now.

            We always had two cars. Mine was the Ford Pinto my dad made me buy when I really wanted a fancy Mercury sports-type model. Mike had an obnoxious orange Taurus. We drove them until repairs were useless.

            We replaced those vehicles with other used cars. Repeated repairs kept them running. I drove the kids to school and ran errands. Mike commuted to work.

            We joked that we had bought the mechanic a boat, a luxury car and a vacation cabin. Many times, we’d pay for one car, then turn in the other the next day.

            When my kids were a bit older, I got a job teaching preschool for the local recreation department. I think I earned just over two dollars an hour. The biggest advantage of the job was that I only paid half the normal fees for any class offered.

            My kids learned to swim at the Plunge. They did gymnastics and my daughter took pottery.

            That salary helped keep milk in the fridge and fruit in the house. It paid for camping trips so we’d have vacations. And it gave me something to do other than be a mom.

            Teaching preschool led to a career as an elementary teacher and then later a high school teacher.

            I remember taking the kids scavenging for aluminum cans. We’d go to construction sites and walk the grounds. We found a lot of cans, and when we were really lucky, dropped dollars. One time I picked up a crumpled bill to discover that it was a twenty! That was a lot of money.

            Money might have been a problem, but we were happy.

My Inheritance

            My mother’s family was incredibly poor. They owned their clothes, which were mostly hand-me-downs from wealthier relatives, a few pots and pans and some utensils. Whatever they had traveled with them as they moved from one farming job to another.

            With packs on their backs, they’d trudge around the Ohio River area, occasionally crossing over into West Virginia.

            My grandfather could not read. His math skills were poor and when his coffee was only available in cans, he’d make the shop owner open the can and weigh the grounds on the scale. He was afraid of being taken advantage of.

            For much of his last years Grandpa was a tenant farmer. The land was way up in the hills, a long walk. He had no wagon, cart, mule or horse. When he worked the fields, he’d walk for hours, leaving early in the morning, coming home well after dark. He was in his eighties, still working as a farm hand.

            My mother explained, often, that she only had one pair of shoes. She’d go barefoot no matter the weather. On school days she’d carry her shoes over her shoulder, putting them on when she reached the schoolhouse. As soon as class was over, off they’d go.

            At times her family lived in the woods, camping under the stars or building shelter out of branches and leaves. If they were lucky, someone would let them live in a barn during the winter.

            It was a rough life. As soon as my mother turned fourteen, she left home, moving to Dayton, Ohio to live with an older sister. That sister helped my mom get a job at Woolworth’s, a job she loved.

            In fact, when I was a teenager, my mom got hired at a Woolworth’s near our home, and despite her eighth grade education, worked her way up to manager where she oversaw purchasing, sales, and some bookkeeping.

            We never lived near my grandparents. Whenever we did visit, we left early in the morning for the long drive, heading south through the countryside. We’d stay for a bit, then make the drive home, arriving after dark.

            I hated their house. The coal-fired furnace terrified me. To me, it represented the fires of hell, only made worse when an uncle would pick me up and pretend to stick me inside.

            There was no running water. The outhouse out back smelled pretty bad, the wooden seat had splinters and huge spiders lived in the corners of the ceiling. Flies circled about, landing on you as you took care of business.

            They never did get electricity. Back then we didn’t have a television, so not having one didn’t seem odd. My grandmother had a treadle sewing machine, something I found fascinating. My grandmother loved showing me how it worked. The rhythmic sound of the peddle mesmerized me. And the things she made!

            My grandmother was a terrific seamstress considering the lack of tools. She hand-sewed squares, triangles and diamonds into the most beautiful quilts. Each one was made of bits and pieces of overalls, shirts, dresses, anything that was no longer wearable.

            She also had made every rug in the house. She showed me how she’d weave together scraps, tying them together as she went. The weave grew longer and longer, turning into a multicolor rope. That would be woven into an ever-lengthening spiral, then sewed together. They were soft on the feet and intriguing to look at.

            When both of my grandparents had died, within months of each other, my mother dreamt of getting one quilt and one rug. Because we lived so far away, my dad had to arrange time off in order to drive my mom there.

            Her siblings lived nearby, so had first access to anything of value. Granted my grandparents owned nothing that, at the time, was marketable. However, those quilts were what everyone wanted.

            Grandma had made at least five. When we visited, I’d beg her to show them to me. She was a shy, quiet woman who didn’t like to bask in the glory, so it took quite a bit of persuasion on my part. Even at my young age, I appreciated their beauty.

            By the time my mother finally got to the house, her siblings had claimed every quilt, every rug. They had taken the metal cup that everyone drank out of. Gone were the clothes, which would have been faded and stained. My grandmother owned no jewelry, or that would have been gone as well.

            My mother was so distraught that she sought solace in the barn at the back of the property. She walked about with tears in her eyes, fingering her father’s old tools. None of them were usable anymore, which was why there were still there.

            Up on a shelf something caught my mother’s eye. Reaching high overhead, she wrapped her fingers around the thing. It was the tool her father used to remove kernels off the cob. It looked like a can opener, which most likely it was when new. Grandpa had attached a leather strap to it.

            He’d slip his fingers under the strap, then rake off the kernels. The strap was stained with his sweat.

            Holding it brought back memories. My mother slipped it into her dress pocket and after saying goodbye, headed home. She never told anyone that she had it.

            I admired it. Imagining grandpa working with it allowed my mind to create original stories. The fact that not only had he created it, but that his sweat stained it, endeared it to me.

            Many years later when my mother’s mind began to fail, she insisted that my siblings and I claim things in the house. My brother got first choice, and even though my sister was the youngest, she got second.

            Every time I’d mention something I’d like, one of them had already claimed it. Until I thought of Grandpa’s tool.

            I was told I’d have to wait until my mother died before I could take it, one day she surprised me by placing it in my hand.

            That was my inheritance: a reminder of where my family came from.

Lesson Learned

We should have known better.  No.  Let’s say that I should have known better than to bring a birthday cake into someone’s home, without asking first.  That sounds a little strange, true, but it’s an unwritten “law.” You should never, ever do anything, no matter how seemingly innocent, without getting permission beforehand.

My birthday is in August.  Now that our “children” are living on their own, birthday celebrations lack luster.  A card and a bouquet of flowers routinely show up on the dining room table.  Sometimes we’ll go out for dinner.  That’s as exciting as it gets.

One summer my husband and I were visiting family. My birthday had passed, but after celebrating a relative’s birthday with a trip to an incredible mountain lake, I thought it might be fun to celebrate mine as well.

After church on Sunday, we stopped at Albertson’s to pick up some needed items.  As we walked the aisles, the idea came to me to buy a birthday cake.  I pictured excited faces hovering around a lit cake, everyone waiting to see if I could blow out fifty-nine candles.  I imagined how happy everyone would be to share the passing of another year of my life.

We found the bakery department, and there, to my delight, was the perfect cake. Tiny blue and yellow flowers danced across the top.  Deep green ivy held hands with the petals, and a pure white garland graced the sides.  Someone must have ordered the cake, and then not shown up.

With pride, I toted the cake to the house, The relatives were still at church, so I placed the cake in the only open space, at the end of the kitchen counter.  Knowing that a hungry family would soon descend upon the house, I fixed my lunch, settled at the table, with the intention of being out of the way.

All seemed to be going according as I hoped until the relative arrived home. When she saw the cake, something went terribly wrong.  Fire shot from her eyes.  Her jaw clenched into a knot the size of Philadelphia, and the hoods over her eyes would have done nicely as capes for a dark knight.  With a mighty sweep of her right arm, the cake flew off the edge of the counter and landed, splat, on the floor.

Then she exploded into a tirade of reasons why the cake was unacceptable.  She screamed for what felt like an eternity, but was probably no more than five minutes. 

This is not a wealthy family and food was never wasted. Yet, the perfectly fine cake was now in the garbage.

I cleared my lunch items off the table, and when the woman went into another room, I removed the cake from the can. The plastic container had not opened, so the cake was not polluted by grime.  It had landed on one side, causing the icing to flatten and smear, but the rest of the cake was intact.

I set the cake back on the counter.

The husband had been watching the entire scene. I looked at him with tear-filled eyes and said, “I only wanted to celebrate my birthday with you.  I apologize for buying a cake without asking first. I’ll carry it out to the garbage after dinner.”

With tears pouring down my face, I went downstairs, to our room. I sat on the bed, speechless. I had no idea what I had done wrong and didn’t know what words to say that would explain what had just happened.

Ten minutes later the husband stuck his head into the room. He had written his email address on a paper and asked me to send him a message. He replied shortly after I sent one off. Apparently, it was a fasting Sunday, something that always triggered explosions of anger. He said that when she’s famished, she often throws childish tantrums.  He apologized for her behavior, and wrote that they would enjoy the cake later.

The next morning Mike and I got up well before dawn, as planned, to begin our trek home.  Despite the husband’s explanations, when we went upstairs to leave and I saw the cake still there, unopened. I felt empty, as if the very air had been sucked out of my lungs.

I learned a very important lesson: never bring anything into the house that has not been pre-approved. 

            I wasn’t permitted to have a voice, to express opinions until I went away to college. My father was a bully who saw nothing of value in me except for the possibility of marrying me off to someone with a bit of money. My mother rejected me because I had no interest in being her. My brother was often a friend and playmate, but he could also be cruel. My sister was much younger, and due to some health issues, the apple of my mother’s eye.

            When I learned about middle-child-syndrome, at first I believed that I had fabricated the ways my family treated me. That I had exaggerated it all, that none of the punishments and constraints had ever happened.

            There is a possibility that my memories are distorted, but not to that extrent. I know that I was a victim of both emotional and physical abuse. Those things happened.

            Because of my low position in the family, I felt that I had no voice. That nothing I said or thought mattered. This was reinforced by laughter, taunts and even commands to keep my mouth shut.

            And it wasn’t just at home that I felt powerless. My teachers seldom called on me and so when they did, my mouth seized up and no words came out. My classmates laughed each time and my teachers would give me a look of derision. I learned to sit low in my desk and to keep my thoughts to myself.

            It wasn’t until a kind high school math teacher saw something in me that no one else ever had that I began to speak. Anytime someone was needed to solve a challenging problem, I was the one he chose. At first he let me work in quite, but after a while, he insisted that I explain the steps.

            It was hard, but I spoke.

            Because of his support, eventually I began using my voice in my Spanish class. I tried answering questions in my English class when called on, but somehow I never got it right.

            There was an incident in Spanish 4. My teacher criticized my ac cent. I responded in a stream of fluent Spanish that got me kicked out of class for a week. After that he called on me with great regularity. By speaking up I had earned his respect.

            When I went off to college I was beginning to develop a voice. I could speak up in some classes, but not all. I managed to major In Russian without demonstrating a mastery of the language. I loved to show off in math, but then the department chair told me I was wasting my time majoring in math. He left me both speechless and distraught.

            After college I got a job as a customer service rep for a major furniture store. Day after day I had to answer the phone and be polite as irate customers yelled at me. I had a script to follow. Without those written words, I would have been mute.

            My next job was with the federal government. I had to go out in the field and knock on doors, demanding back taxes. I was terrified the entire time I held that job. I found excuses to hang out in the office, but I couldn’t do that every day. As time passed, as I gained experience talking to total strangers, my confidence grew.

            It was still challenging, but I did what I had to do.

            I had dreamed of being a teacher since I was quite small. When I had my first child I had no idea of what to do with him. Our city’s recreation department had an inexpensive parent-child education class that gave me ideas of activities. As a participant, I also had to teach the little kids at least once a week. I enjoyed it! Sitting on the floor with adoring eyes gave me the power to speak, to sing, to dance, to laugh.

            From there I earned my elementary teaching credential. When I stood in front of my third-grade class for the first time, I felt at home. I loved being the one helping them learn. I felt a deep responsibility to take them further than the curriculum asked and that meant helping them to find their voices.

            Helping them helped me as well. We grew together.

            I discovered that I knew things that many of my peers did not. I led workshops and spoke up at trainings. My principal considered me a mentor and I took that role seriously.

            Being a mentor at work gave me the strength to take active roles in my church, in my kids’ activities and even to initiate a summer educational program. With each success, my voice grew louder and stronger.

            I’d like to report that my voice is freely used, that I have no problems speaking up, but that would be a lie. When in a crowd, I tend to sit back and listen. When with strangers I revert to my childhood silent self. But when I am with friends, I look for opportunities to add something to the conversation.

            While my voice is not loud, it does appear in comfortable situations. I am still reserved, but I am no longer afraid of sharing opinions and thoughts. I love hearing what others have to say, but I also want them to know what I have to say.

            I found my voice. And I love that.

Being Considered

            Until recently, I’d never given much thought to how many times those words pop up.

            For many of us, it began when we were quite young. “Being considered” to acceptance into a private elementary school. In some religions, you are “considered” for participation in Holy Sacraments.

            You’re “considered” when applying for a scholarship, job or internship. Same when trying to get your first credit card as well as when purchasing a car or home.

            Admittance into the college of your choice requires a waiting period while you are “being considered”.

            Over and over throughout life we sit around, waiting impatiently, as our merits are being weighed. Are we smart enough, talented enough, skilled enough? Even though physical appearance is not supposed to be a defining characteristic, it is if your skin color isn’t right or you weigh too much or aren’t “manly” or “womanly” enough for whatever image the college/job/internship wants to project.

            At my age I thought I was well past “being considered”. I’m a retired wife, mother and grandmother. I’m not trying to join any clubs or organizations. I have my routines that are familiar and comfortable. I’m not looking for adventure. I just want to be accepted as a write.

            This week I received a welcome email from a literary magazine that I’d been longing for. A story I’d submitted was “being considered” for publication, contingent on my making the recommended edits.

            Of course, I made the changes and resubmitted the story, knowing full well that it will still fall into the category of “being considered”.

            Ever since I began sending out stories, I’ve sat, with baiting breath, hoping to “be considered”. It’s what every writer dreams of. Knowing that someone, somewhere, sees value in what you’ve written and wants to include it in some type of publication.

            So, I won’t complain about “being considered”. Instead I will count my blessings as I wait, with fingers crossed, for the next word.

My Story

            The concluding song in the musical Hamilton asks the question, who will tell my story. It got me to thinking about my own story. Certainly, my grown children know me, at last the mother-me that raised them. But do they truly know the adult me that I am now?

            In recent years our oldest son has been including tidbits of praise for who we are and what we have done over our lives. He praises us for being active, for traveling and doing things even as we age. His words touch me where it brings tears and feelings of joy.

            But I wasn’t just a mother. I was a wife, a teacher, an administrator, a writer, a friend and a person who kept busy doing a variety of things. I belong to three writers’ groups and two book clubs. I hike with a friend two days a week. I love movies and the theater. I love how technology has opened my world.

            I am a sucker for sad animal videos. If I had given a dollar to every charity that featured beaten and starved animals in their ads, I’d be broke.

            Books call my name. I will never have the time to read every book in my pile, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more.

            While I am not into fashion, I love to shop for clothes especially after losing eighty pounds. Certain textures and styles speak my name. Colors and patterns as well. If after buying and wearing something it doesn’t make me feel good, then I put it in a giveaway bag.

            I won’t wear torn or stained clothing. That’s because of my younger years when all I had were old clothes an aunt had given my mom.

            I love spending time with friends. Going for a walk or eating out makes me very happy. While I am more of a listener than a talker, hearing someone else’s story keeps me connected to their lives. That means a lot to me.

            When I do get to spend time with my kids, I don’t have to do fancy things. I am content being in their presence. I love sharing a meal with them, strolling through a fair or even a big-box store, taking dogs for a walk, watching their favorite shows or sports teams. Seeing the responsible adults that they have become fills me with joy.

            As a teacher I worked hard. I’d visit my classroom on weekends to change bulletin boards, grade writing journals, correct spelling workbooks and rewrap books whose covers had torn. Before the year began, I’d hit every sale and buy all the supplies my students would need for the year. Even when money was tight, I’d spend mine to make sure my students didn’t have to go without.

            In my early years of teaching, I had to wear conservatively-styled dresses. I was a large woman and found it difficult to find anything in a store, so I made my own. I also sewed my kids’ shorts and a suit for my husband.

            I overcame my years growing up in a dysfunctional and overly critical family. I fought against the stereotypes that women couldn’t study college-level math. I persisted when others gave up.

            Understanding the learning never ended, I returned to college over and over, all in the hopes of increasing my ability to better serve the needs of my students.

            Recently a friend told me that she chooses to focus on the positive things that had happened to her. That simple comment made me reexamine how I remembered my early years. Perhaps instead of focusing on how I was mistreated and misunderstood by my parents, I should recall family trips to a cabin by a lake, playing badminton in the backyard,  eating my mom’s apple dumplings and building tents in the family room with my brother.

            It’s easy to talk about the beatings and foul words directed my way, harder to search for the happy days that I’d conveniently pushed into the back.

            This is my story. This is how I want to be remembered. I just hope that someone will be kind enough to share it after I am gone.

Looking Back

            Do you know what’s like to be trapped in a body that you dislike?  I do.  I have been “fat” my entire life.  My outer body is covered with pudgy layers of rolling fat, while my inner body strives to be thin, luscious, and downright sexy.

            When I was in fourth grade I attended a Catholic elementary school in Dayton, Ohio.  We were poor, and so I wore hand-me-down uniforms and carried the dog-eared books belonging to a previous student.  Before the school year began, my mother drove me into town for the annual used uniform giveaway.  I hated this ritual.  Because of my weight, she dug through the small pile of plus-size jumpers, most of which had seen better days.  No longer navy blue except where food stains darkened the fabric, these uniforms marked me as both “poor” and fat. 

            Fourth grade was a year of becoming aware.  This was the year when my older brother explained that there was no Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus.  This was also when I discovered how others saw me.

            Sitting in church one morning during the mandatory Mass, the girl next to me poked me in the thigh.  She then made her hand bounce high in the air, over and over, mimicking playing on a trampoline.  That was bad enough, but she wasn’t finished mocking me.

After making sure that the other girls nearby could see, the girl She tucked her skirt down tight over her six-inch wide thigh, measured with both hands, and then held those same hands over my much larger thigh.  The difference was startling enough to cause a riot of giggles up and down the pew.

Several days later I went into the girls’ bathroom during recess, something I tried to avoid for I knew that some of the more popular girls chose to hang out there.  But, when you have to go, you go, hoping that it won’t be too bad.

As expected, there were several sixth graders inside, lounging against a wall or checking themselves out in the mirror.  When I entered, almost in unison, their eyes focused entirely on me, seeming to scan my plump body. A look of pure disgust erupted on what I saw as rather sophisticated faces.  I froze in place as I hesitated: should I leave when I really needed to use the bathroom or stay?

I chose to bustle into the nearest stall, lock the door behind me and cry. I didn’t use the facilities right away because I didn’t want them to hear me pee. But I could hear every word they said.

            One girl whose voice I recognized said, “Fat people stink.  Don’t you agree?”

            “It’s because they pee their pants,” Mary Beth Saunders said.

            “It runs down their legs when they walk,” Sue Anne Watson added.  “It leaves streaks that won’t wash off.”

            “I hate fat people.  They’re disgusting,” Wanda Belter said.

            “If I was fat, I wouldn’t eat anything until I got skinny,” Mary Beth said.

            “I’d kill myself,” said Sue Anne.

            “Not me,” added Wanda.  “I’d ask my mother to tape my mouth shut so I couldn’t eat and then I’d stay home until I lost weight.”

            When the bell rang to end recess, they left. Taking advantage of the quiet, I took care of business. My eyes were watery the rest of the day.

That night, I took a long look at myself in the bathroom mirror.  I realized that I truly was fat.  When I wiggled my arms, my rolls of fat quivered. I assumed that my thighs did the same even though I couldn’t see them in the mirror.

When I bent over, I couldn’t see my toes, let alone touch them.  I did examine my legs for streaks, which I thought I did see. My image repulsed me so much that I went into my bedroom and cried for hours.

            I had little control over what I ate for whatever my mother fixed, I was expected to consume. I could give myself smaller portions, which I did do, therefore beginning my first diet at the age of ten.

Dieting, for me, became a life-long pursuit. I didn’t understand nutrition and there was no one to advise me, so I grew older as the fat me.

As a teen, I wanted to be the voluptuous woman I saw in magazines, but had no idea how to get there. I was an active teen, playing kickball with the neighbors, whiffle ball with my brother, riding bikes for miles around our neighborhood and bowling in a league.

All that activity made no difference. I continued to be overweight.

The “inside” me was quite demanding.  She made me feel guilty if I ate the cookies and candy that I loved, but even “her” guilt didn’t change what I did.  At one point I believed that the “inside” me got tired and simply gave up.

            When I graduated from college and finally had my own money, I became a confirmed shopaholic.  There was nothing that charged my battery like a mall.  It was as if there was a competition to find the best bargain, and I rose to the occasion.  As I strolled in and out of stores, I admired the svelte garments on display on the ultra-slim mannequins, imagining myself as one of them.  Sometimes I touched the fabric, pretending that I was considering buying whatever they were wearing.  But then reality would slam my forehead, crimson colored my neck and cheeks, and I would dash away, off to the fat ladies’ department where I belonged.

            One time. Against my better judgement, I went shopping with a bunch of relatives.  My husband’s sister was getting married, and everyone was in search of a dress to wear to the wedding.  We went in and out of a mass of stores, pawed through racks and racks of clothes, and spoke about how well the colors of different fabrics blended together. 

They all found things to try on.  They all bought perfect outfits.  But not me. I never once pulled a dress over my head.  Why?  We never got close to the fat ladies’ clothes.

            I preferred to shop alone.  That way I could go into Catherine’s or Lane Bryant or the Women’s section of Penneys and not die of embarrassment.  There was no way I was going to drag the relatives into one of those stores, so I found a nice, empty bench and sat there, watching the crowds as I waited for them to finish.

Years later a truly great friend invited me to go shopping with her. She understood what it was like, because she was also overweight.  When we were together we forgot about size because we saw the real person underneath.  When we went shopping, we tried on clothes, helped each other make decisions and shared our good finds. Unfortunately she lives hundreds of miles away.

            There were days when I convinced myself that I looked pretty darn good.  If I was wearing an attractive outfit that hid the lumps and bumps, I felt sure that no one could see the lumps and bumps underneath.  I would head off to work feeling happy and proud.  I knew that it was a myth, but when not one person sent even a tiny compliment my way, even I understood that I was fooling no one.

Fat people are invisible except in stores that cater to fat people. Otherwise slim people seem to have the ability to not see obese persons.  In fact, even if there is an accidental contact, one shoulder brushing against another, the slim people pretend as if nothing has happened.

I have heard thin people say that the obese choose to be that way because they gorge on cupcakes and chocolate.  That may or may not be true.  Genetics and simple physiology play a part in how easily a person gains and sheds pounds.  Another consideration is that an overweight child is extremely likely to remain overweight into adulthood. 

If you are born into a family of obese individuals, the odds are that you will also be obese. This is what I felt caused my problems. My paternal grandmother stood a little over five feet tall, but hit the scales at well over two hundred pounds.  I am built just like her. 

My mother believed that a fat baby was a healthy baby. Every picture taken of me at those early ages showed me with rolls of fat down my arms and legs. My mother fed the cellulite, which plumped me up like a marshmallow.  I’ve spent years trying to reverse the damage.

I have tried a number of weight-loss programs.  I would lose some, then put it back on. One time I lost a grand total of twenty-nine pounds, then after an operation that kept me inactive, put them all back on.

This was disappointing as I had gone down four sizes in pants and three sizes in tops.  Even then, however, I was still obese.  That was the frustrating part.  I worked so hard to lose those pounds, and yet I continued to be trapped in a body that I disliked.

If I could go back in time and change just one thing, one thing that would forever alter the events in my life, I would appear as a thin person.  That child would be popular.  Kids would choose me first when dividing up for teams.  I would be invited to birthday parties and get tons of Valentine’s cards.  When my birthday came around, everyone would beg to come to my party.

As a teenager I would go to school dances always with a handsome beau on my arm.  Cheerleading would be my passion, and as a dancer I would reign supreme.  When I went shopping, it would be with a gaggle of friends, giggling as we strolled through the mall.  Fun would be my middle name.  I would never be lonely.

No longer trapped in an obese body, I would have an opportunity to be a flight attendant, the career of my dreams.  Think how different my life would have been:  Zipping here, there, everywhere, always surrounded by friends!

Even if I had been thinner at that time, there are some things that I would not change.  I have a husband who loves me, no matter how puffy my thighs or how many rolls fell across my stomach.  My children are my pride and joy, and I had a job I loved. I have had a good life, and despite my weight, I was relatively healthy.

I wish that society did not disdain the obese.  Unless you have worn that body, you do not know what “trapped” truly means.

Thankfully I am no longer that person on the outside, but the “inside” me still thinks I am obese. Whenever I take a look at myself in a full-length mirror, I don’t believer that the person looking back at me is truly me.

One thing I will never do is look at an overweight person with disdain. I felt it most of my life and didn’t like how it affected me. I wish that everyone would feel the same.

The History of a Struggle

            After being yelled at once again, I flew into my bedroom and collapsed upon my army-regulation-taut bed.  Tears coursed down my cheeks as my fists pounded my pillow, the only allowable outlet for the rage rushing through my body.

            The offense?  I can’t recall.  It most likely had something to do with my sister.  I was seven years older but couldn’t see what difference age made in the realm of discipline.  She was practically perfect in the eyes of my parents while I was the demon child.  Her hair should have been Goldilocks’ yellow and the purity of her heart should have matched Sleeping Beauty’s.  I was the Ugly Duckling, the orphan in Dickens’ novel, the Cinderella of the evil stepsisters. 

            At the ripe old age of thirteen I decided that life at home was unfair and I should run away.  At that time, we lived in the small rural community of Beavercreek, Ohio, several miles outside of Dayton.  There were more farms than people and the population of cattle exceeded that of the entire town.  No buses came near and the closest pay phone was over a mile away at a Chevron gas station.

            I had very little money.  When I shook out the coins from my piggy bank it totaled almost three dollars.  Not enough to go anywhere.  Not enough to buy much more than a couple of meals at a burger joint.

            As darkness fell, I contemplated my options.  Once my parents were asleep, I could sneak out of the house and walk into the woods at the end of our lot.  I was confidant that I could find my way out to the main road about a half a mile away.  From there I was unsure where I would go, but anywhere had to be better than home.

Stealth would be critical.  I pictured myself following the road, hidden from view in the darkened recesses of the woods.  If I made it that far there was a major intersection. From there I could go north or south.

            If I turned south and could walk that far, I’d end up in Dayton.  That would be the logical way to go, except for the fact that I knew little of the city.  This was the 1960s, a time of racial unrest all across America.  There were parts of town that would be too dangerous for a naïve white girl, and so I ruled out the city.

North would take me deeper into farm country.  The land was flat and unbroken by stands of trees, culverts or any other form of natural hideout.  I imagined myself sleeping in barns and sheds by day, traveling by dark of night in order to avoid detection.  However, I was terrified of horses, cows, sheep, and goats, and so knew I could never share a stall with any of them.

If I continued west following the road that paralleled the forest, I would end up in the town of Beavercreek.  There was no Post Office, bank, fast food restaurant, or bus station.  There was a police station, but I believed that the police would only return me home without listening to my concerns.

My high school was miles outside of town, deep in farm country. There were some houses along that route that could offer hiding places under porches and behind bushes, but I was terrified of spiders and bugs.  I pictured myself dashing from house to house, hiding until the coast was clear.  Stealth was my new middle name and cleverness clung to my shoulders.  Until I remembered that I had no money.

That left turning around and heading east, back past the woods and my housing development.  Eventually I would reach the main road that went to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Along that stretch was a gas station, A & W, Kroger’s, and a five and dime store. If I got that far, I figured I could get a job at Kroger’s in the produce section, as I knew about fruits and vegetables since we grew all that we ate.  But no, that was too close to home.

All night long I planned scenarios that I believed would never work.  I was too young, too naïve, too scared of my own shadow, and too paralyzed to take action.  My only recourse was to stay in a house where I felt unloved and to make the best of my situation.

As the morning sky lightened to a silvery gray my tears had long since dried and my heart had sealed itself from additional hurt.  I made several resolutions that I was determined to keep: never speak to my sister, avoid my mother and father, speak only when commanded to do so, save every penny, seek an escape route, and stay numb.  These were perhaps not the best options, but they were all I had.

They stood me well.  By not speaking to my sister, I avoided painful spankings.  When I was blamed for something she did, a regular occurrence, I took the punishment as bravely as possible. I complied with any orders given without protest even when I knew they were unfair. 

By avoiding my parents, I was able to stay out of arguments about preferential treatment.  I answered when questioned, in as few words as possible.  I did as told, even when my parents increased my list of chores. 

I saved money, forgoing new clothes (which I had to buy for myself while my sister’s were provided), no records which I loved and no teen magazines.  Slowly my pennies turned into dollars, building into a tidy nest egg.

I kept my grades up, especially once I was told we were moving to California, the land of community colleges.  With surprisingly mature long-range vision, I saw that my only way out of the house was through a college education.  I set my sights set on earning a scholarship. I chose the hardest classes and spent hours every night rereading text and memorizing facts.

The most challenging promise I had made was to keep my heart numb.  I cry way to easily, and my feelings can jump from ecstatic to miserable with the slightest provocation.  To keep myself on track I wrote reminders on my calendar.  I filled my school bag with notes to myself.  I taped signs on the head of my bed, inside my closet door, and on the book covers of my textbooks. Even so I slipped.  Over and over I allowed my family to break my heart with their lies, their cruel comments, their physical abuses, and then hated myself for forgoing my pledge.

The struggle was never-ending.  At no time could I let down my protective walls, for when I did, a knife slid in and cut my heart.  The walls got thicker and taller as I sealed myself into a prison of my own making.  I became an expert at repair work, for with each failure on my part, I had to plaster the holes and toughen the exterior of my heart.

After years of doing this, there was no “me.”  I was a student with no personality.  A friend to none and a silent force without power.  An emotional wreck inside, but inhumanly serene on the outside.  A plastic face masking tear-filled eyes. 

Because of my excellent grades I won a scholarship from the state of California.  My parents would not let me leave home that first year, so I enrolled in the local community college. The work was easy. In fact, I was frequently told to transfer out of the easy class into the next level. In this way I prepared myself for my sophomore year when I would be permitted to follow my brother to the University of Southern California, my yearned-for haven. 

Off and on I made a friend or two.  We partied, talked long into the night, and even studied together, until I discovered that most of these so-called friends were only interested in my brain.  I dated a few boys and got serious with two.  Both of them walked away when I respectfully declined to participate in recreational activities that required my sacrifice to their enjoyment.  I was sexually abused by my brother’s best friend, but didn’t report it for fear of being accused of lying.

During the summer before my senior year I applied for a position as a residence hall advisor.  I interviewed and was turned down.  When I inquired as to why, I was told that it was too negative, too hard on myself. I got angry.  Very, very angry.  I walked around with a furrowed brow until I admitted to myself it was true.

I had worked so hard to seal myself off from pain that I had also closed doors to enjoyment.  So with the same level of determination that I had applied to keeping myself numb, I turned to joy. 

I removed all my self-imposed boundaries and became a party-girl. There were lots of, late-night frivolity which sometimes caused me to take potentially life-threatening chances.  Determined to forge a fun-loving personality out of a rock, I took the high road and plunged off a cliff.

After years of trespassing into the land of fun and games, I realized this was not the path to success and freedom from home. In order to get back on track, I resurrected my defenses and kept them in place for many years. 

Unless you’ve lived the life of an abused child, you cannot understand the day-to-day struggle to stay safe and sane.  As a teacher I’ve come across damaged children who did not build defenses and who were consequently seriously hurt. 

I wanted so badly to heal them, there was little I could do to glue together the broken pieces of their lives.

There were times when I felt as if I was down in a deep, dark well, trying to scale the walls into the light.  I would get close to the top, make what I considered a friend, have some good conversations, and then slowly sink back into the depths when the friend did not act as an equal partner.

I am sure now that I was deep in the throes of depression. I might have benefited from psychiatric care, but where would the money come from? Time healed me.  Through work in a fulltime job I began to see myself as a person of intelligence, a person who succeeded, a person who survived. My defenses disappeared and I found true friends and true love.

My life was a struggle, one that is now thankfully behind me, locked in the recesses of my heart. The struggle made me stronger, more able to confront the difficulties of life.

My history is one of challenges. While I couldn’t overcome them all, I did climb out of the well into the light.

Food Memories

            When I moved into the graduate student housing at USC, for the first time, I no longer had a meal plan. I was now on my own for all three meals, frightening for someone who didn’t know how to cook.

            I quickly figured out how to fry an egg, so fired egg sandwiches with American cheese and mustard became a staple along with cold cereal, toast and jam. Lunches were often bologna sandwiches with pickles, more American cheese, mustard and mayonnaise. On occasion I had the fried egg sandwich for lunch as well.

            Dinners usually came out of a can. Soups were the most prevalent choice.

            My brother also attended USC. He had a car and so would drive us to second-hand food stores where we could buy damaged goods for a fraction of the normal price. I learned to cook things out of boxes, greatly expanding my repertoire.

            I relied on these foods until I got married, when I felt an obligation to become the food provider. By saving and redeeming wrappers from Campbell’s Soup cans I was able to get a cookbook that used some flavor of soup in every meal. The recipes were easy to follow and required simple ingredients. My confidence grew with each recipe I tried.

            I bought more cookbooks, some of which are still in our cabinet today. Even with increased options, I tendered to stay with the tried and true.

            As a parent I tried to fix a hot breakfast almost every day, reserving cereal for rare occasions. I got good at pancakes and French toast, but I failed at oatmeal. Mine was always a lumpy mess.

            My mother canned fruits and vegetables and made jams that were quite delicious. I felt compelled to do the same. I poured through cookbooks until I’d find a recipe that looked doable.

My specialty became applesauce cooked in a crock pot. I’d add cinnamon because my kids liked it that way, and stop the cooking when there were still chunks. We went through lots and lots of applesauce.

I still relied on boxed and packaged foods such as macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper and noodles. Lots and lots of noodles. Canned vegetables were preferable over frozen, probably because I’d turn frozen into mush.
            In time I attempted pork roasts, pot roasts, meatloaf and homemade soup. The soup tasted like dishwater, so no more of that. Using soup as an ingredient, I could make tougher, cheaper cuts of meat edible.

What I prepared provided sustenance, but was not creative or even things of beauty. Our family didn’t go hungry unless a child refused to eat.

Considering how my weight skyrocketed over these years, one would have thought that I was an amazing cook. I was not. My skills had improved since college, but I never added an ingredient that wasn’t in the recipe, never altered preparation or cook time. The basics got us by.

So, why did I become obese? I have a love affair with cookies and candy. I was pretty darn good at making cookies, plus they were often on sale, so there was almost always a package or two in the house. I failed at fudge-making: mine came out as soup. Fudge became a special treat, one that I could not resist.

I could make a moist cake from a box mix, so there were lots and lots of cakes. I didn’t need a special occasion such as a birthday: I made a cake because I wanted one.

My mom had made a tapioca pudding that I loved. I bought a box of tapioca and cooked it up. It came out pretty good, so now we had pudding. Jello as well.

A pattern emerged. I could make sweets better than I could provide healthy dinners.

About twenty years ago my husband took on the job of cooking dinner. Things improved greatly with one caveat: he loved sauces and gravies. Almost every meal he made contained at least one of those two. He was also not a fan of most vegetables, so they were often missing from our plates. We never went hungry, I was relived of cooking duty, and so I was happy.

My relationship with food is mixed. As a child I was often punished for not cleaning off my plate. I spent hours crammed into an old high chair in front of the stove, condemned to be there until I ate every last remnant of cold food.

I knew the old sayings about starving children, but I didn’t care. If I didn’t like something, I wasn’t going to eat it. Period.

My childhood diet was carb-heavy. My mother believed that a fat child was a healthy child and so she worked hard to keep me fat. I was doomed from the start. Years of putting on weight created a situation in which it would take years to get it off. Over and over and over again.

When I first decided to end the cycle I enrolled in a course at Kaiser. I learned about nutrition, about balance, about control. I lost thirty pounds over twelve months. When they told me I couldn’t repeat the course for a fourth time, I forgot what I had learned and the weight returned.

I joined a gym. I exercised almost every day, after work, and both days on weekends. I lost some weight. It came back when I had a knee replaced.

Walking in water was supposed to be good for my knee, so I found an indoor pool a twenty-minute drive away. Every morning I was there, bright and early at six in the morning. When I got the okay from my doctor I switched to lap swimming. I had put on weight after the surgery: I lost a bit of it.

After seeing commercials on television I turned to Weight Watchers. I returned to the practices I’d learned at Kaiser. I lost some weight, put it back on, over and over.

My obsession with food, with sweets, was powerful and pulled me down. I’d swear I wouldn’t eat a cookie and then I’d consume three or four. I wasn’t going to have ice cream, but then I’d have a bowlful.

As time passed health issues derailed efforts to lose weight. Another knee replacement kept me from the gym. Then I fell and broke my ankle. I chipped my elbow removing my laptop from the trunk. I fell going down steps and fractured the bone below my knee replacement. Another six months of limited exercise put on the pounds.

Mu love affair with sweets was hard to tamp down. I tried, really I did, but the call was too great and my willpower too weak. I loved food, loved to eat, loved the socialization around eating, loved sitting at a table waiting for food to arrive. Much of my childhood had been spent being hungry, so it was as if I was making up for it, over and over again. No amount of self-ridicule or negative self-talk curbed the appeal of food.

I am grateful that my husband learned to prepare low-calorie foods. He changed the way he cooked in order to help me. No more were serving dishes set on the table. No more were meats drowned in sauces.

Meals now included fruits and vegetables. Carbs were limited in frequency and size of serving. He grilled more, stewed less. He still prepares food that I don’t like, but less often.

I’d like to report that food no longer takes center stage: it doesn’t. I can be satisfied with a tiny bit of rice, a scoop of mashed potatoes or a half-cup of noodles. There are a lot of meats that I prefer not eating, but I make sure I have the correct portion anyway.

I discovered a love of fresh fruits and vegetables, two things we seldom had growing up. No longer do I drink hot chocolate or egg nog when it’s in season. Instead I consume water and other calorie-free drinks.

All the changes I’ve made, all the miles I’ve walked, all the obsessions I still struggle with, continue to be a burden. I understand that sweets will always call my name, so when I hear a cookie speaking, I reach for a banana. When I yearn for ice cream, I turn to grapes.

It’s interesting to me how child who hated eating as much as I did, managed to get as fat as I was. Because of this I understand that the same child is still here, still dreaming of sweets, still hearing their call. And if I succumb, that obese me will make a comeback.

A Thanksgiving Lesson

            I am not a particularly good cook. In fact, I am a pathetic cook because I have no interest in cooking except for the simple act of putting food on the table. I can usually follow a recipe, but there’s no guarantee that the finished product will look or taste as advertised.

            The problem goes back to my teen years when my mom insisted I learn to cook. She’d make me stand next to her and watch every move she made. It was incredibly boring. I needed to study. If I didn’t earn straight As I’d be punished. My allegiance went to books, so I’d stand next to her with book in hand.

            That meant I wasn’t paying attention. So when I was told to replicate her concoction, I couldn’t. My mom cooked from memory, not from books. Unless she wrote it down, there was no way I could produce the item. When she did record her recipes, she often left out an ingredient or a crucial step.

            One year my family decided that my husband and I should host Thanksgiving dinner. Mike is a good cook, so he took charge of the turkey and gravy, leaving me to handle the rest. I pulled out every cookbook I owned to find recipes for dressing, green beans and pumpkin and mince meat pies. I chose the easiest options.

            Things were in the oven or on the stove when my family arrived. Altogether there were fourteen hungry people crowded into our house. Fortunately we had planned snacks of cheese and crackers for that kept the kids happy and held the adults at bay while they downed mixed drinks.

            There was only about thirty minutes to go before the turkey would be done, the gravy could be made, the potatoes mashed and the green bean casserole put in the oven.

            The adults were getting restless. They had arrived with a preconceived notion of when the meal would be ready and we were not meeting their mental deadline. I was anxious. While everything looked okay, what if my concoctions didn’t meet their approval? My family could be obnoxious when disappointed, so as time ticked by and tempers began to flare, I knew things were going horribly wrong.

            Then the power went out. One moment the stove was working, the next it wasn’t. Was the turkey done? The beans? Potatoes? Everything appeared to be mostly done, but what if it wasn’t? You can eat the side dishes even if they aren’t quite finished, but you can’t serve an undercooked turkey.

            We waited for the power to return, but after thirty minutes it was obvious that it wasn’t happening. My dad and brother offered advice laced with sarcasm, almost as if it was something we had done to switch off the power.

            My husband is a calm, easy-going man. He moved the barbeque into the backyard and lit the coals. When it was ready, he placed the turkey outside. Everything else went into the still-warm oven.

            The troops, however, were impatient, frustrated and hungry. They had allotted only a certain amount of time to be at our home and that time was ending. Either food would be served or they would leave. The options were not politely phrased.

            I hung out in the kitchen pretending that I knew what I was doing and that things were in hand. Mike monitored the turkey, which meant he was outside leaving me inside getting the brunt of the criticism.

            When the turkey was finally done, I was able to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. As he cut and placed meat on a platter, I pulled everything out and got it on the table. He made the gravy and poured it into the bowl.

            Dinner was served. People sat. Grace was said. The food was edible even though most things weren’t hot. Tempers settled. A bit of peace entered the house.

            Just as the last of the dishes were being rinsed off, the power returned.

            People left, some bearing leftovers.

            The meal worked out, but never again would I host a family meal. The stakes were too high and I refused to bear the brunt of their anger when the fault lay not in something I had done, but in the failure of the power to stay on.

            Later on Mike helped me understand that things had worked out despite my nervousness and fears. After all, food had been served. No one left hungry unless by choice.

            That Thanksgiving was over thirty years ago, but it left an indelible mark. Never again, I told myself, would I host a family gathering.

            Little did I know that when my mother-in-law died that my husband’s family would decide that we would host a brunch for sixty people. I announced that I would cook nothing. I would take care of paper goods, but that was it. The family would have to prepare every dish and clean up afterwards.

            Guess what? I held to my pronouncement. When cooking was happening, I stayed out of the kitchen. I picked up no dirty dishes, washed not a single thing, refilled no snack bowls and did not monitor the ice chests of drinks. I found myself a quiet place away from the crowds and stayed there for the five hours that people were in my home.

            One failure was sufficient to keep me from ever cooking for a crowd. Even though I had had not control over the power going out, blame was still laid at my feet. If my husband’s family wanted a party, they would have to shoulder the effort. Never again would I shoulder the mantle of responsibility.

            It’s amazing how liberating it is to refuse, to loudly proclaim that I would not be in charge. If only I had applied that motto to other areas in my life, things might have been different. But that’s another story for another time.