Defying the Odds

Neither of my parents went to college. In fact, my mother never attended one day of high school. None of my aunts or uncles or even not one cousin enrolled in college. It just wasn’t something that was done in my family.

I was fourteen when I began dreaming of going to college. Because of a lack of family history, I really had no idea what college was about. For me, it was a means of escape. If I could go to college, I could legally move out of the house without first being married. And I had no intentions of marrying as a teen.

My academic career was less than glorious. Kindergarten was not mandatory back then, but my parents sent me to a private school because of fears that I was backwards. They were right. Unlike my classmates, I did not know my colors or shapes, knew nothing about the alphabet and was weak in numbers.

I worked hard, though, because I wanted to please my teachers. I graduated and went to first grade, still a bit behind, but with enough skill to get into the Catholic elementary school.

I struggled, to say the least. By fourth grade I was still not a good reader. I was embarrassed to be the weakest student in my class, and so, when my reading group was called to the front, I hid at my desk. Stupid, yes. Logical, though, when considering the embarrassment factor.

At home, determined to improve my skills, I erased all the answers on my worksheets, lined up my dolls and made them do the work. I repeated this process over and over until I could get the correct answers every time.

I truly believed that working with my dolls is what turned me into a scholar. It was not the help of a teacher, for I cannot remember a single time when someone helped me. I also know that it was not due to anything my parents did as the only time they checked my work was to see if I was earning As. If not, then a spanking ensued.

I stayed in one Catholic school or another until seventh grade. I continued to be one of the weakest students, but thankfully, others were in worse shape than me. The one thing that I was really good at was penmanship. I loved the whorls of cursive. The flow of one letter blending into the next was a thing of beauty.

Once math started making sense, I excelled there as well. Numbers could be trusted to always mean what they represented.

Unlike letters, which changed sound on a whim. I did not know the difference between a long vowel and a short, could not explain why some words rhymed with cow and others, spelled similarly, did not. How would and wood sounded the same and that there were many versions of there, you’re and too.

I transferred to a public school for eighth grade and promptly fell in love with my teacher. He was the first male teacher I’d ever had. I would have done anything to please him. In fact, when he assigned a research report on a college, when I found a Bennington College (his last name), I chose it as the subject of my paper.

Once in high school, everything fell into place. My hard work paid off. I was no longer the bottom of the barrel, but sat comfortably at the top. I was repeatedly on the honor roll and earned certificates right and left. I excelled in Latin and math and got by in English and Science, even though in both of those subjects, I often felt I was reading in a different language than all the other students.

Toward the end of my freshman year, my parents made plans to move to California. I researched colleges there and was pleased to discover the existence of community colleges which were practically free. It meant that I would be able to go to college!

This was a dream come true. No more worries about being married off to a Neanderthal neighbor. I could focus on a dream that meant more to me than any other dream I’d held before.

In California, I found high school work incredibly easy. My grades were the highest I’d ever had and I excelled in Spanish, Math and PE. English was still a struggle, but with hard work Science and History were subjects I mastered.

I told myself that I had the skills to go to college, and believed it.

In my senior year I applied to a variety of colleges, including one in Ohio near where my grandmother lived. I was accepted in every one. All I needed was financial assistance, which came in the way of a full scholarship to any college in the state of California.

When the news of my scholarship reached my high school, my counselor called me to her office. She pulled up my records, then proceeded to tell me that I’d never succeed in college, that I should consider getting a job and getting married.

When I left her office I was seething. I swore that I would prove her wrong. I told myself that at the end of my first semester of college, I would bring her my grades and show her that I had the skills to succeed.

And I did.

Her response was one of surprised shock. She apologized for assuming that I would fail, and then praised me for my hard work.

To me, earning her praise was the first of many highlights in my academic career. No one had believed in me, but I did. I told myself I could do it, and I did.

 

Earthquake!

 

When I was a senior in college I lived in an apartment suite with three other girls, one of them from Japan. Three of us were used to earthquakes as we all lived in northern California. The fourth girl, who was my roommate, had never experienced an earthquake and so had no idea what to expect.

I was quite seasoned in that department, for when I arrived in California in June of 1964 there was a rollicking earthquake that sent me sprawling on the floor. I watched in horrified amazement as telephone poles swayed back and forth, leaning so far as to give the impression that they were soon to fall. Nothing so dramatic happened, but that quake left a lasting impression.

Over the next several years as I lived in various houses around the Bay Area, I had felt many small quakes that made me a bit nervous, but not as terrified as the first one. In fact, it seemed that the more quakes I felt, the less they disturbed me.

In September of 1979 I transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The first year I lived in a towering residence hall. From my seventh floor room, I often felt the building sway. Each time it upset me, thinking that at any moment the whole thing would crumble to the ground with me trapped inside. To defray some of my fears, I stood at my window and watched nearby buildings sway along with mine, thinking that if they didn’t fall, my building wouldn’t either. Afterward I never saw any evidence of destruction.

One beautiful spring day I was up on the roof sunbathing. I had lathered myself up and gotten comfortable with one of my textbooks. I grew sleepy and just as I began to drift away, a rolling quake hit that brought me to my feet. From my lofty perch, close to the railing, yet far enough that I wouldn’t fall off, I watched neighboring buildings sway. Sirens went off, fire engines zoomed past and a series of ambulances raced down the streets.

To the best of my knowledge, no one got seriously hurt, but a few older folks supposedly suffered heart attacks.

The following year I moved into a large multi-bedroom house that was sponsored by the Soroptimist Organization. All the girls in my building were low income like myself. The organization allowed us to live rent-free as long as we maintained excellent grades and were never in academic difficulty. We also had to keep the facility spotless and host the organization whenever they chose to hold fundraisers.

Over a period of several months earthquakes regularly shook the house. One time I was sitting on the toilet. I imagined myself being found in the ruble with my pants down. That frightened me so much that from then on I tried not to stay in the bathroom for any longer than absolutely necessary.

The number and intensity of the quakes intensified as the year went on. Because the building was old and shook in a frightening way, I was afraid to live there, so for the next school year I applied to the senior dorm across campus and was accepted.

I had not visited the building before move-in day, so I was surprised to find that it was about the same age as the Soroptimist House. It was also located near to train tracks which caused the building to shake and sway whenever a train went by.

I convinced myself that it didn’t matter the age of the building or the periodic shaking for I was happy to live with other seniors and to be free from the overarching demands of the Soroptimists.

Unfortunately that year was a particularly fertile one for earthquakes. We were shaken regularly, but seldom while we were in the dorm.

When one hit whenever I was in class we were evacuated into the quad, a grassy area in the center of campus. It became an expected ritual. Earthquake, evacuation, sitting under the shade of a tree. It was almost bucolic and definitely lured me into a false sense of security.

Early one February morning in 1971, around six, the building shook with such ferocity that my three suitemates were all awakened. At first we gathered in the kitchen which separated our rooms, when as the shaking intensified, we split apart so we could stand under a door frame, supposedly the safest place.

My roommate was so terrified that she fell at my feet, grabbed my ankles, and begged me to save her. I uttered as comforting words as I could, but I was scared that I was going to die. The shaking seemed to go on forever.

When it finally stopped, my roommates and I discovered huge cracks running down our walls and chunks of plaster that had fallen in our showers and on our beds. We were evacuated to the street, where we stood in our nightgowns, clustered in groups of equally frightened students.

When we were allowed inside, we dressed for class and headed off. Later on we heard on the news that the quake registered 6.5 and caused heavy damage to buildings, highways and bridges. It threatened a reservoir in the San Fernando Valley, which leaked a steady stream of water that, thankfully, did not flood low-lying valleys.

Our building survived. While we were at class, maintenance came in and cleaned up the mess. When we returned to our suite, fresh plaster covered the cracks.

For days afterward our building shook. There were a series of mini-quakes that hit at all times of the day and night, but even after they stopped, we were sure that each passing train was another quake.

Years went by when only periodic mild quakes rattled us in the San Francisco area. None of them rattled me like the one in 1971. Each time one hit, I’d stop what I was doing, look around for cracks, decide whether to get up and look for a safe place in which to be, but then when things stopped shaking, I continued doing whatever it was that I had been working on.

Things changed in October of 1989. I had just picked my kids up from a friend’s house when the sidewalk moved like waves. The surge was so strong that my friend and I were thrown to the ground. My eight-passenger van rocked and rolled. My kids, who were inside, looked at me through the back windows and screamed.

It was terrifying. Not only did the sidewalk buckle, but telephone poles swayed back and forth with such ferocity that it was surprising that they didn’t bend over and crack apart. We were all so shaken that we didn’t move for several minutes after things settled down.

My first thoughts were to call my husband, but I had to wait until I got home to do so.

Later we learned that it was a 6.9 quake that caused substantial damage and killed 67 people and over $5 billion in damages.

I am grateful that we have been blessed with calm years since then, but I am ever alert for the next one.

I’d also like to report that I have an emergency bag packed and ready to go, but that would be a lie. It’s almost as if I don’t prepare, it won’t happen, but that’s a stupid way of thinking.

Meanwhile I’ll think about that bag and hopefully, act on it soon.

 

 

 

 

 

A Halloween Memory

The only part of Halloween that I ever liked was the endless pursuit of free candy. From the time my brother and I were in middle school, we would roam miles from home knocking on doors on streets that we barely knew. It took us hours, and at times our pillow cases would become so heavy that we’d go home, empty them out, then head out again.

I hated wearing costumes. I disliked having my sight blocked by masks, I detested makeup, and despised trying to come up with something to wear that resembled a costume. My most frequent costume was that of a hobo as all I had to do was put on overalls.

When I was thirteen my middle school decided that it would celebrate Halloween and that all students were expected to dress in costume. I panicked when I heard the announcement. It was bad enough to walk about my neighborhood under cover of darkness. This would mean parading about campus under fluorescent lighting!

I worried about this for days. I was a painfully shy girl who never raised a hand to ask or answer a question in class, and now I was going to have to expose myself to potential ridicule if I chose to dress in an unpopular or outmoded outfit.

When time ran out, the only thing I could come up with was my mother’s WAC (Women’s Army Corp) uniform from World War II.

What seemed like a good idea when I got dressed in the morning, quickly became a terrifying experience once I arrived at school.

My teacher, thrilled to see the old uniform, made me stand in front of the class and share my mother’s story.

To make matters worse, much to my dismay, she sent me up and down the hall, dropping into every single classroom to share. At times I barely got out a few words as this required me to speak before students I did not know.

It was such a horrible experience that I did not go out trick-or-treating that night and for several years after.

Not Just a Story

My mom seldom talked about her past, but when she did, her stories were riveting.

She was born a child of poverty, the second oldest amongst a passel of children. Her mother, my grandmother, grew different kinds of herbs, vegetables and flowers. Grandma was a quiet woman who wore soft, well-washed cotton dresses up until the day she died.

The only house they lived in, that I knew about, was primitive. There was a wood-burning stove for cooking and a pump for water. A tin cup hung by the pump for anyone who was thirsty. Heat was a coal pot-belly stove in the main room. It terrified me.

One time an uncle opened the door, picked me up and threatened to throw me in. I screamed and cried until he put me down. Then I scuttled as far away as I could in the tiny house.

My grandmother made her own lace and sewed by hand even though she had a pedal-operated machine. She made beautiful quilts which she pulled out whenever we got cold.

When my brother smashed my plastic doll to pieces, she made it a body, slip, underpants and a dress. I cried when she gave it to me. Even though I was quite young, I understood how wonderful my grandmother’s work was. I still have that doll today.

My grandfather was a tenant farmer who moved his family around to wherever he found work. They most often lived in southern Ohio, near a town called Gallipolis. Sometimes they crossed over the Ohio River into Virginia. At no time were they comfortable financially. In fact, they would have been considered dirt-poor farmers, except that they never owned any land.

My grandfather knew how to hitch a mule to a wagon and how to grow crops, mostly corn. He was a quiet, thoughtful man. He seldom spoke in my presence after I reached school age. My grandfather was embarrassed that he didn’t know how to read or write, and once I learned, then he had nothing to say.

I never understood why my grandparents weren’t more loving, why they didn’t offer hugs and kisses. My mother wasn’t big on hugging either, so I thought it was just the way things were.

While my grandfather couldn’t read, he understood weights and measures and the value of money. Every day he would walk down the road to the store and buy whatever they needed. He watched as things were measured and packaged to make sure he was not cheated. When things started being canned and bottled, he was dismayed. One time he made the store owner open the can of coffee and weigh the contents. Only then would he purchase it.

My mom did go to school. She was not the best student, but she enjoyed her time in the one-room schools that she attended. Often she had to walk through deep snow wearing only a thin coat, cotton dress and old leather shoes. In the spring and fall, she walked barefoot, her shoes tied and dangling over her shoulder. It was important to take care of those shoes, for without them she could not go to school.

When she completed eighth grade, her parents did not have the money to send her away for high school, so my mom repeated that grade two times even though it was hard.

At the age of fifteen she moved into the city to live with a sister. She got a job at Woolworth’s, a five-and-dime store, and worked there for many years.

When World War II started, my mom enlisted in the Army. At a post in Florida, her main job was to carry buckets of water to palm trees. She knew it was a stupid job, but she did it until something better came along.

When an opportunity arose to be a phone operator, which meant connecting calls using cords that plugged from one hole into another, my mother gladly took the position. She must have been good at it, for that remained her job until her enlistment was over. In civilian life she worked as a phone operator for a hospital and then for the federal government.

One night, as the war continued across the pacific, mom awoke to a feeling that something was crawling up her leg. In panic, she bent her leg at the hip, a poor choice, because she pinched a black widow spider. Of course, it bit her. She fell violently ill and, according to her, nearly died. Once she recovered, she was sent home in her uniform, which she wore proudly.

My mom moved back in with her sister. There was a USO in town that frequently held dances for the servicemen, even after the war ended. It was at one such dance where she met a handsome man. They danced and talked and then she brought him home to meet her sister. The man was hungry, so he went to the pantry and took out the last can of food and ate it all by himself. The sister was angry at the man’s arrogance. My mom was intrigued.

They married within months, but continued to live with the sister until they found a place of their own. Within eight months my brother was born. Interestingly enough, my mother claimed that the pregnancy was full term, that he was not born prematurely, and that she was not pregnant when they married. When I got older I understood what the early birth meant, but my mom never changed her story.

A year and a half later I came along. My earliest memories are of a home in what my mother called the projects. It was a small house with only two bedrooms, but a huge porch that stretched across the front. My mom did have a job outside of the home, but being a housewife then was hard work. We were lucky enough to have a washing machine, but it was the old-fashioned type with a wringer that terrified me. I hated watching my mom feed clothes into the wringers, fearing that her fingers would get caught and fall off.

By the time I was old enough to go to school, we had moved to a larger house in the suburbs of Dayton. There was a large backyard, big enough for a swing set, a dog house and a garden. It was here that my mom learned how to drive. She had to, if she wanted me to go to Kindergarten.

My mom decided that I was a slow learner, a backward child, who wouldn’t succeed in school without help. This was a difficult decision, as kindergarten was not free back then, and so it placed a financial hardship on the family. But my mom thought it was important, and so she drove me to school every day, even when the roads were deep with snow.

When I started first grade, my mom returned to work as a telephone operator. She left for work about the same time that my brother and I headed off for school, and didn’t come home until after my dad. She fixed dinner, did the dishes, made sure we were clean and tidy and took care of the house. That’s what women did then, all the housework with no help from the men. My mom was not the best cook, but there was always food on the table.

When I was seven my sister was born. It was a rough time. We were told that my mom had had a nervous breakdown and that we had to keep quiet so as to not upset her. Thank goodness it was summer, so my brother and I spent hours outside. We were not allowed in the house from morning until evening for fear of disturbing Mom’s sleep. I saw very little of both my mother and my sister during that time.

My dad took over the cooking. He burnt most things and undercooked others, but expected us to eat everything he served.

We moved when I finished fourth grade, this time to a house in Beavercreek, Ohio. It was a rural area, far from the city. Nevertheless, my mom drove us into town so to attend the Catholic elementary school. She also took us to the library, all the time driving an old, flat-black business coup that had no backseat and no heat. We sat on piled of blankets and in the winter we wrapped up in the blankets and laid on the floor to try to keep warm.

One time, just as we pulled into the library parking lot, flames shot out from the hood. My mom knew what to do. She sent my brother and I inside to search for books. My mom sat in the car, letting it cool down. When it was time to leave, she got under the hood, tweaked a few things, then started the engine. It worked! She drove us all the way home, probably smiling with pride.

That house used a septic tank for waste disposal which sometimes developed problems. After watching my dad dig into the dirt to reveal the lid, remove it, and dump treatment into it, my mom knew what to do. The next time it backed up, she took a shovel and went to work. I don’t know how she lifted the heavy lid by herself, but she did.

For years afterward she bragged about digging up the septic tank. It was something to be proud of, for it showed her determination and independent spirit.

During my freshman year of high school, my mom’s health went downhill. I didn’t understand what was happening, just that sometimes she seemed unable to breathe. Her doctor said that we had to move, that she had asthma that was triggered by the humidity, and so my dad sold everything and drove us to California.

It was quite an adventure. My favorite part was seeing Pike’s Peak in Colorado and the Native Americans on the reservation in the desert. My least favorite was the field after field of corn and the heat of Arizona.

Somewhere in the desert we developed car trouble. We stopped at a little service station for help, but my dad did not trust the mechanic, so he wouldn’t let the man fix our car. It was blisteringly hot and we had nothing to drink. We also had no money to buy water, so we sat in the car, getting thirstier by the minute. The store owner came out more than once, offering water, but my mom would not take it. She did not want to feel obliged.

Considering her humble beginnings, my mom did quite well in the working world. Once we settled in a rented house in South San Francisco, California, she got a job at a little five and dime store and within a few years became the weekend manager. She kept track of register receipts, placed orders, and conducted inventory. When the store closed due to competition, my mom quickly found a job at a pharmacy, but it was a longer drive from home. She had to go by freeway, and that terrified her, especially in the fog and rain.

Her next job was with the federal government as a phone operator. Once again, she rose through the ranks and became a trainer. This was about the time that equal employment forced agencies to hire minorities and the disabled. Her office hired a blind man.

At this time, calls were still connected by moving cords from one lighted hole to the next. How was a blind man going to see the lights? My mom thought about this for a long time and played around with various creations. Eventually she designed a tool that allowed him to do the job. She received not just a certificate honoring her invention, but a little bonus. She was so proud. In fact, that was probably her proudest moment.

My mom’s story was probably not that unusual. She was unskilled with limited education, but with great determination. She was hard-working and willing to do any job. She was independent and proud of it, even though she continued to be a regular housewife at home.

After phone operators were no longer needed, my mom got a job washing pots and pans at the local school district. It was not full time work, so she also worked at a community college doing the same thing. Leaning over a deep sink, day in, day out, scrubbing out remnants of food was hard on her back. Her hands turned bright red and the skin peeled off, even though she wore thick gloves. Soap got into her eyes, causing burning and intense pain. Even so, she kept at it until physically she was unable to perform the job. By this time she was well past retirement age.

My mom did have one last part time job that she got after her seventieth birthday. She discovered that she could get paid for delivering phone books. She and my dad got up early in the morning, loaded up his truck with books, then spent the day putting them on porches and doorsteps. It was an exhausting, poorly-paid job, but she did it with pride and determination.

Once my mom was no longer able to work, she collapsed physically and emotionally. Dementia set in, robbing her of her memory and her will to fight. She died in her sleep, a fitting ending to a life lived in extremes.

 

A Never-ending Battle

There are days when I feel like giving up.

Why do I have to sit and watch friends devour delicious looking food while I nurture my cup of low calorie soup and a bland garden salad? I so badly wanted the Thai curry that I read and reread the description so many times that I could taste the savory sauce, but, no, when you’re fat you don’t get to eat things like that. At least not in public.

Why do I feel guilty when I buy a bag of candy to bring home to share with my husband? When the clerk scans the bag, I feel like she stares at me wondering why a fatso would buy candy in the first place. I want to rip open the bag and unwrap a piece, stick it in my mouth and chew, all the while daring her to say something because people like me aren’t supposed to eat candy. At least not in public.

Why are public toilet stalls so narrow and the seats so low? Do the architects only envision skinny people using them? To be comfortable, truly comfortable, I like to use the handicapped stall, and I would, except for the evil-eye looks that you get when you emerge. And then I feel guilty because “normal” people fit in “normal” stalls, so there is obviously something wrong with me.

There is an assumption that all fat people eat themselves to death. That fat individuals sit in front of the television stuffing their mouths with bonbons while they feast on soap operas. That fat people don’t even bother with paper plates but eat right out of the bag, devouring everything inside. That fat people choose to be fat and refuse to do anything to change their status.

If only the scoffers knew the hours I put in at the gym. All the laps I’ve swum and the miles I’ve done on the elliptical and bike. All the weights I’ve lifted and the trainers I’ve hired and the steps I’ve climbed, all in an attempt to control my body.

If only they sat with me day in and day out and saw what I put in my mouth. All the fruits and veggies. The limited amounts of carbs and “bad” sugars. If they looked at my plate and saw all the white space in between each item and realized that I only take one helping and often don’t finish that.

Let’s talk about clothes. Designers don’t cater to fat people. Beautiful fabrics and styles are only for the emaciated. Fat people get frumpy looking old-lady sacks in cotton that pull and bunch in all the wrong places. Don’t they realize that fat people want to look nice? That they want to wear clothes that feel good, that hang just right and sport fabulous colors? The selection is so limited and the styles repetitions of what fat people have been wearing for generations.

Dressing rooms are not designed to make fat people look half-way decent. Often they are so poorly designed that fat people have to turn sideways in order to open and close the door. Often there is no chair or bench so that you have to stand to undress. Almost always there are mirrors on three sides so that a fat person can see their naked body from all angles, in glorious detail, a reminder that they don’t belong in a dressing room pretending that they’re going to find something that fits.

Cars and airplanes and theaters and restaurants are designed to let fat people know that they aren’t welcome there. Try squeezing a fat body between arm rests and sitting there for hours. Imagine holding your arms across your body for the entire voyage so as not to encroach on your neighbor’s space. Imagine what it feels like when you enter and see the expressions on people’s faces, hoping, praying that you aren’t going to sit next to them.

Even doorways and hallways conspire against fat people. Some doorways are so tight that a fat person feels like turning sideways in order to squeeze through. The same is true for walking down aisles, as in an airplane. Imagine what it feels like to look down the aisle and see arms and legs and bags sticking into the narrow space and wondering how you’re going to get through the obstacle course without annoying too many people!

Sometimes homeowners place furniture along walls that have to be passed through in order to get to the bathroom. Or furniture is arranged in such a way as to create a maze which requires turning this way and that in order to get through. Imagine how it feels to know that people will be watching, with mouths hanging open, waiting to see if the fat person will successfully navigate the path.

More than anything I hate the repeated failure.

I’ve know I was fat since I was three and saw a picture of myself standing next to my ninety pound mother. I was so puffed up that I had folds of fat at my wrists, ankles and elbows. My tummy stuck out like a barrel. I didn’t know the word fat then, but I learned it in Kindergarten when my classmates teased me and called me fatty. When the neighbor kids invited me to play games in which, no matter what they called it, the rules required that I stick my butt high in the air in order for them to laugh about the size of it.

From 1st through 7th grades I attended Catholic schools that required uniforms. Because we were poor, I never had a brand new one, but instead wore the hand-me-downs from give-away day. There was never any choice for someone my size. My mom would walk to the end of the table, sort through the three or four in my size, and pick out two that weren’t too badly stained or faded. Now hear the teasing about being too big for new clothes, about being so fat that nothing fits and picture tears running down my face.

About this time a new cigarette came on the market, Tareyton. My brother loved the name. He turned it into Terry weighs a ton and would follow it with pretending that his finger was a needle that could puncture my thigh, followed by a whistle that indicated excess air spewing forth.

In fifth grade, sitting next to a classmate at church, I heard laughing. I looked toward the sound, only to discover that every girl sharing the pew with me had tucked their skirts under their thighs which were thinner than just one of my leg. From then on I hated church.

I attended two different high schools and was the fattest kid in each. This was when I learned the torture of PE. Imagine undressing in front of dozens of thin girls, day after day. Imagine lining up, buck naked, to go into the shower, where the only salvation came at the end when a teacher handed you a postage-stamp sized towel. Hear the snickers. Hear the derision.

It made no difference that I was one of the best athletes. Give me a sport, any sport, and I could play better than most of my peers. Did I earn respect? No.

Make me run laps around a field and I come in dead last, every time. My sophomore year I decided to train on my own. Weekends and nights I’d run the track, around and around, stopping when it hurt too much to continue. Did I lose weight? No. Get any faster? No.

Over the years I have dieted. I have lost weight. Lost more weight. Lost even more, but then would get stuck, still at fat. Then I’d put on weight. Lose some. Gain back even more. Lose a bit. Gain back lots more. Up and down, over and over, until now, at my age, I’m stuck in a cycle of miniscule changes.

I’d like to be thinner. I’ve never wanted to be skinny like a model, but thinner, yes. I’d like to go to a meeting and not be the fattest person in the room. To sit with my church choir and not be the fattest person there. When I’m a reader at church, to believe that the congregation is listening to the words I’m proclaiming and not looking at the size of my butt as I climb the steps up to the ambo.

I’d like to go into a department store, a regular store that sells stylish clothes to beautiful people, and know that I can find a variety of things to buy. I’d like to have racks and racks of clothes to pick through. I’d love to be able to go shopping with a friend and know that I can shop in the same part of the store where she can shop.

But at my age I find that I’m giving up.  I’m tired of the fight. I lack the energy to keep pretending that someday my body will look like other people’s. I’m tired of weighing in every Saturday only to discover that sometimes I’ve lost a fraction of a pound or that I’ve gained three pounds in two days. I’m tired of walking through life with my eyes locked on a distant target, imaging that if I can’t see people looking at me, then it isn’t happening.

I also know that I cannot succumb to my frustrations. That I will not give up, because if I do, then I am admitting to myself that I am a failure. Have been for over 66 years. And as my birthday approaches this week, I understand that my health is being compromised in ways that I have yet to discover.

I don’t want to die young. I don’t want my body to give up on my and cut my life short. I have too much to live for. A husband who loves me. Wonderful children and their significant others of whom I’m proud. Grandchildren that I love spending time with and whom I want to remember me as a kind, loving person, not as a fat lady. (Unfortunately they have been old enough for some time now to ask why I’m so fat!)

I am angry at myself for failing at losing weight. I am angry at the world for having no room for people like me. I am angry at the many industries that cater only to skinny people when the vast majority of people are no longer skinny.

I don’t want to give up, but I am tired of the fight.

Confessions of an eight-year-old Criminal

 

Yes, it’s true. I was a thief.

I can’t recall ever stealing something from my family, not stooping to raiding my mother’s purse, for I understood that such behavior was unacceptable. I also understood that we had very little money, so what would be the purpose of taking the few bills my mother did have?

I did yearn for things. In fact, at times the desire was so all-consuming that it was all I could think about.

My mother shopped most frequently at what she called the five-and-dime. It was an all-purpose store that sold everything from deodorant to fabrics to toys to books. At that point my reading skills were just developing, so books did not hold me in thrall.

It was the paper umbrellas that got me. They were in a bin, all opened, showing off their beautiful pastel colors and wooden bodies. They called to me, over and over. More than once my fingers reached for one, intending to ask my mother to buy one for me, but when she did catch me, she slapped my hand away.

My desire escalated to such a point that I could not turn away. Could not fight off the feeling of wanting to possess just one. Just one paper umbrella.

I told myself that the store owner would want me to have it. That if the owner knew how badly I wanted it and knew that there was no extra money for frills, that the owner would walk over and tell me to pick the one I most wanted.

And so when my mother’s attention was focused on something further away, my hand snuck out and I took the pink umbrella. I stuffed it in the pocket of my shorts, hoping that it didn’t break.

At first I smiled because I now had an umbrella. Then I began to shake in fear of what my mother would do to me when she discovered that I had stolen it. I reached into my pocket to put it back, but at that moment, my mother insisted that I follow her to the register.

I expected the owner to read my face, to see the dishonesty in my eyes, but she didn’t. I knew my mother would catch me, for nothing got past her, but she didn’t.

When we left the store, I thought alarm bells would ring and the police would be called and I would go to jail, but none of that happened.

All the way home in the car, I waited for the angry words of disapproval, but they didn’t come. In fact, it wasn’t until hours later when my mom walked into my room and saw my playing with the umbrella that anything awful happened.

She didn’t spank me, but she did take the umbrella away.

Later that evening when my dad came home from work, my mom confronted him with the evidence that his daughter was a thief. His outrage was both painful and immediate. He removed his belt and repeatedly struck me on my backside until I was sure that it must have been bright red.

The next day my mom drove into town, parked in front of the store, and escorted me to the counter. She stood there as I confessed, arms crossed over her chest and an indignant look on her face.

The owner didn’t want the umbrella back, which made me very happy, but that happiness was short-lived. My mother would not let me have it. Instead she pushed me out of the store, lecturing about how I had embarrassed her and that I was lucky that the owner was not going to press charges.

When school started I was signed up for a Brownie Girl Scout troop. I don’t remember asking to do this, so since we had limited funds, I’m not sure why my parents insisted that I belong. Maybe they thought I’d develop morals or that, since I was socially awkward, that I’d learn to belong.

Things went well the first few meetings, but then the yearning struck again when the leader placed a package of brightly colored rubber bands on the table. Oh, I wanted them! Not just the two we were supposed to use for our project. No, I wanted the entire bag!

I was transfixed by the myriad of colors sitting there, waiting for me to pick them up. They called my name, begging me to please take them home.

I remembered the umbrella incident, so moved away, thinking that the call would lesson, but it didn’t. Instead it intensified to the point that all I could think about was the rubber bands and what it would feel like to own them.

When it was time to clean up, all the girls pitched in. The bag was one of the last things left on the table. I reached for it, hoping that someone else would beat me to it, saving me from myself, but it didn’t happen.

To me, this was a sign. A miracle. Those rubber bands were supposed to go home with me. I held them in my fist and walked toward the tub were all supplies went. The closer I got, the harder my heart beat until it was pounding ferociously in my chest.

At the last minute I veered and went to my bag. I slid the package in with my homework, zipped it up, and then stood by the door.

Like before, I expected to be caught by either my leader or by my mother. Neither happened. I was able to get the rubber bands all the way home and hide them in my room.

I never derived any pleasure from them because I was too fearful of being caught.

Eventually I snuck the package outside and stuffed it in the garbage can.

That was my last foray into the criminal lifestyle.

I still wanted things as passionately as before, but the threat of being caught and disciplined was too much.

Whenever something called my name, I forced myself to walk away. I might not have been the best student, but in this case, I learned my lesson well.

Resurrecting Memories

 

I was afraid of you from the very beginning.

As far back as I can remember, I cannot recall

A single incident in which you held me in your arms,

Consoled me when I was sad,

Comforted me when I was ill,

Or sheltered me when I was distressed.

I cannot remember any words of encouragement,

But rather the tone of disappointment

When once again I failed to be the girly girl

That you expected. Demanded.

You did complete forms when I wanted to go to college

And when I bought my first car,

But beyond that I only sensed frustration

And anger and rage

Expressed with almost demonic glee

Whenever I slighted your sensibilities,

Causing you to discipline me with hand or belt

Or word, the most painful of all for those hurts never ceased.

I feared your homecoming after a day of work,

For I never knew what your mood might be and

How it would affect me.

If you were angry, I’d be the recipient of your anger.

If you were frustrated, I’d be the outlet.

It got so that I hid away in my room

Whenever you were around

For I never knew when you’d explode

And I’d be the nearest target for your hands.

I’d dream of living in a different family.

One filled with love. Soft voices.

Encouragement. Joy. Laughter.

Kind arms.

I convinced myself that I was adopted,

Like the kids in stories who were abused

By their adoptive families,

As an explanation as to why you treated me

The way you did.

That helped me move past my deep-felt hurt.

I never forgot the things you did.

The way you spoke to me in derision.

The lack of your love.

But more than anything,

I never moved past my fear.