My Mother & I: Forged by Food
We Began Without
When I was five or six years old, I got out of bed with a sore throat. I'd been waiting all night because I knew waking my mom would break her. I tiptoed into our kitchen, the overhead bulb dim and casting a waxy light. The cabinets were painted a hunter green, the linoleum permanently darkened. My mom was only 24, inconceivable she was solely responsible for a tiny human, no reward and all need.
She used to mix Chex, Honey Grahams and Sugar Smacks together in big plastic bins, convinced this stretched the cereal. Tipping the bin up, she listened as I complained of my sore throat. I was attuned to the smallest changes in her mood, anxiety, fear, and worry.
A golf-ball size chunk of soured milk plopped into my bowl, splashing milk all over me and the table. I would stink like rotted milk for the rest of the day as we sat in the ER, my sore throat actually strep. My mother looked at me, at the hunk of cheese in my cereal, and collapsed on the table, where she sobbed, a keening that made me feel complicit in the milk's souring and my strep throat.
Two weeks later, close to Christmas, she gave me a stuffed bear and put me on a plane to Naples, Florida, to live with my grandparents.
Love is a Clean House and Cake at Night
My grandparents' home gleamed with floor-to-ceiling mirrors in the living room, a 50s beach dream left behind. My memories of their house have the same feeling as sinking into the mattress at an expensive hotel. Their plush carpet. Their kitchen, painted yellow and lined with simple wood cabinets. We made beds while living there. We ate dinner at the table every night while watching the news.
In their house, routine transformed into feelings of safety.
My grandfather, a walnut-brown 2nd-generation Yugoslavian, had dropped out of school in the 8th grade. He worked construction most of his life, but eventually secured a position with the Florida Wildlife Preserve. He saved a manatee once. I clipped this out of the newspaper because I hadn't known people like us could be heroes.
He ended evenings with a slice of Entemann's powdered cheesecake. Sometimes Colby cheese and crackers. The safety, the comfort of always having enough, the pleasure of thickly sugared dough, it all welded these moments forever to my heart.
Feelings can be locked away as long as you need them, and I would return to their comfort over and over throughout my addicted life.
Love and Candy in the Sunshine
Eventually my mom joined me in Florida, met my step-father and got pregnant with my brother. My mother hoisted our household on her back and took care of us all. Her life was not easy. It's important you know that.
The first time I remember using food the way I would later use drugs, I was in fourth grade. We were newly living in Kentucky where my step-father might find work. He and I bickered over my mother's attention, both of us jealous and needy. As an amends, and because he loved me, he brought me a king-size Snickers bar from the gas station.
I sank down and lay across the back seat of our car, the sky crystalline above. I peeled the wrapping away and nibbled the candy, carefully stripping each grain of nugget until only the braided peanuts and caramel were left. Dense warmth pooled in my chest and spread outward, ribbons of sky unfurling, everything right because there was more than enough on this day. We were unworried, and we showed this to each other by enjoying luxury foods.
We were a tumultuous household, my parents exhausted by menial labor jobs that never paid enough for the basics. Lack, struggle, money stretched too thin. It brought the meanness out in us, pressure building until two or three of us wound up in a fight we'd later need to fix.
While my grandfather carefully sliced a piece of cake for the evening or set aside a set amount of crackers, we ate with abandon as a demonstration of the good times. For birthdays, we went back for 3 and 4 pieces of cake, complicit with our murmurs of special occasions. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, we ate the candies and cookies as quickly as they came out the oven, a family joke.
We practiced love by removing boundaries and limits, even as those things kept us safe. We ate until we were sick, watched TV late into the night, had pancakes for dinner because what other special thing was there? We sacrificed our safety in all kinds of ways to show others we valued them, and this was most often taught through food.
The Past Lives in Me
I've written before about the click-and-groove inevitability of addiction locking me onto a path. A thought sparks, a crackle of electricity, and I'm propelled forward by a force outside. Now that I've stopped practicing this with substances, it visits me with food.
It's the same pattern. I thrive in moments of crisis and pressure, so I neglect walks, deep breathing, moments stolen from work to prioritize calm and health. Driving home, I grip the steering wheel, edge through stop signs, the pressure building in my chest. A thought - ice cream or candy or brownies. I fixate on the moment of relief, pinpoint focus conjuring that first bite over and over, the way the tension in my chest washes away.
I have an image of my mom that haunts me. A few years ago, my grandparents and I all came home for Christmas at the same time. My mom harbors fantasies of a big happy family under one roof, and she can never understand why it doesn't work out that way. The night before my grandparents leave, they get into a fight in the kitchen. I watch as my mom shrinks, all 400 pounds reduced to her pleading child-self for her parents to stop fighting.
Later that night she's alone in the kitchen on the rolling chair she uses to move around and cook. The stove provides the only light, casting the kitchen in shadowy yellow. In front of her, a sheet cake we'd gotten for her birthday, my mom a New Year's baby forced to share her birthday with the holiday season, nothing ever her own. She is not crying and doesn't necessarily appear sad. She seems vacant, the fork slowly moving from the cake to her mouth. The house silent. My mom alone with the comfort that never fails us.