My grandmother has thin hands that wrap around the knife in a way that is intimate. She holds it while she peels the skin off a potato. She allows the skin to curl into ringlets, do acrobats mid-air, and then hover before it falls into the drain of her sink. “It’s Mae,” she tells me, referring to her knife. “I could never peel a potato without this knife.”
Even though the winter is inwardly collapsing and the snow is whiting out the sky like a blemish it tries to forget, the only heat in my great-grandmother’s home comes from the oven. My nanny never turns her furnace on unless it’s a necessity, a leftover habit from a Depression-era childhood. “Have you been out today?” she asks us as she parts the sheer curtains that cover the window overlooking the brick alley.
“Well, yes,” I reply. “We came here.”
She tells me she has been wanting to “get out,” but that she doesn’t want my grandmother or aunt to yell at her about her safety, so she is glad that we stopped in to make her less stir crazy. She asks if we have eaten and we tell her that we have, but still she makes toast and butter, fried eggs, and bacon as she starts the coffee.
“No perfumed coffee here,” she says, like she always says, making a joke about the fact that my husband, Miah, and I buy flavored coffees. We sit on the yellow oak kitchen chairs and sip. Miah inhales the breakfast as if he hasn’t already eaten, and I smile from across the table.
Nanny’s kitchen has provided a nexus for our family. The birthdays we celebrate together include a “stovetop buffet” that Nanny has spent hours preparing. Despite the meat hot in a pan full of gravy, despite the multiple sides, despite the yeasty hot rolls that expand and fill and globe outward like a pregnant belly, there is still the need for more. Someone brings dessert. Someone brings a shrimp tray. Someone else brings the spinach dip in the rye bread bowl and a cheese ball. We eat like this on Thanksgiving, on Easter, on Christmas, on the fourth of July, on birthdays. We find reasons when there are none. We don’t meet as a group unless there is a meal attached.
My youngest daughter doesn’t eat the food. She won’t eat mashed potatoes or meat. She will eat a roll with butter and some salad if there are tomatoes. She will not eat the cake or pie afterwards. She will not eat green beans or deviled eggs or shrimp. At home, we have learned what she will eat. A bologna sandwich, chicken nuggets, fried egg — no toast. When she was two, we began keeping a list of foods that she would eat on a notepad that stuck onto the refrigerator door.
. . . from her infancy my family tried to train her to love the starchy warmth of bread and to top that bread with more flour and butter and grease. We tried to train her to eat like we all eat, but she resisted it.
In our family, no one has ever been a bad eater. Bianca was fed biscuits and gravy in Nanny’s kitchen when she was six months old and, though I mildly protested when my great-grandmother first raised the spoon to her open mouth, there was no stopping it. You let people in their eighties do pretty much whatever they want, short of killing someone else. Either way, from her infancy my family tried to train her to love the starchy warmth of bread and to top that bread with more flour and butter and grease. We tried to train her to eat like we all eat, but she resisted it.
In my own house, the dietician came to talk to us about our daughter. The pediatrician had recommended that she give us a little help, that my daughter have what she called “intervention.” They told us tricks for putting on weight and told us foods that we could sneak into other foods. They gave us cardboard boxes full of milkshakes designed to bulk you up, but she wouldn’t drink them. We tried sneaking them into hot chocolate, mixing them with syrups, camouflaging them with spoonfuls of regular milk, but nothing worked. She would not drink.
“Butter!” the dietician told us. “Pour melted butter on everything. Add whole cream to her food. Make it a game to see how many different ways you can add calories to what she eats.”
I step on the scale with clothes off; I’m the kind of person who needs the truth to be raw, with no potential to negotiate the weight of my clothing or jewelry. As I catalogue the foods I ate the night before, I try to weigh them against the amount of exercise. A bowl full of spaghetti and meatballs versus a half hour of playing the Wii fit? The numbers register and I use my phone to snap a picture of the number on the scales. I am down to 182, a whole twenty-three pounds from my starting weight of 205.
My daughter would not grow the way other children grew. She would not expand or stretch, but stayed in the same size clothes. Still, I didn’t want her to grow the way the dietician wanted her to grow. In West Virginia, I thought, there has to be a way to make a child catch up to her peers without teaching her habits that are killing our families and have been for generations.
Nanny’s father, they tell me, ate steak and eggs every morning of his life and finally drew his last breath when he was in his nineties. He didn’t survive on grease and starch, he thrived on it. He was skinny and tough and hard working until the day he died. But that’s the difference. Nanny’s father did field work, tended to animals, plowed lands that would have stretched over our suburban sprawl. We feed our children the same diets and sit them in front of a computer where they pretend to garden as real life ticks away.
My nanny plays the feed-the-baby game. When she gets a bite in her mouth, and that bite is chewed and swallowed, it’s like she has scored a goal. It’s a victory. My nanny has fed us all and, despite her skinny legs and frog belly, my littlest will be no different. When we go to dinner, my nanny feeds her every tomato from the salad bowl and she lets them soak in a puddle of ranch dressing. She puts butter and jelly on multiple rolls and she watches as she eats. Mouth tight lipped in a smile, she shakes her head at the tiny girl across from her. “She’s the prettiest of all my grandbabies,” she says as I look around frantically to make sure there is no one nearby who might not like that comment. For a minute, I wonder if I should tell her she shouldn’t say those things, but again, at her age, who am I to try to tell her what she should and shouldn’t do? They are things she has always done.
At 174 pounds exactly, I celebrate. I have crossed a threshold from obese to just overweight. I think of someone I can call to share the joy I feel, but come up with no one because, in reality, who else would see being overweight as something in which to rejoice?
When the doctor orders tests for celiac disease, cystic fibrosis, and parasites for my daughter, I am a wreck thinking about the lifetime struggle she could have, if she even manages to have much of a life. The week the tests are supposed to be back, I call in repeatedly for the results. They tell me I should wait until I can get an appointment to see the doctor, but that appointment is a month away. I tell them no, that I would like my daughter’s test results right then. They tell me that I’ll have to come in to the hospital because HIPAA prevents them from being allowed to give medical results over the phone. While I know that isn’t technically true, I follow their orders and go to the hospital that afternoon.
I am sent to the counter where they process the labs, and wait with my elbows on the same counter they rested upon the day the tests were performed. This time I am alone, with no pale faced toddler resting on my hip. Her blood work was done on her third birthday, and the technician remembers me. She asks how the birthday went as she pulls up my daughter’s file.
The tests are all negative.
“Ugh,” I say to myself as I pinch a roll of belly fat and stand in front of the mirror. I turn sideways as I lift the roll, squeeze my stomach together, and try to imagine myself thin.
“Don’t do that,” my husband says as he looks up from a magazine.
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because you’re beautiful,” he tells me with a thin lipped smile.
I want to be able to tell him that I’m glad he thinks so and really mean it. Or even find the feminist in me and tell him it doesn’t matter what he thinks about my body. It’s mine, after all, and I’m the one that needs to like it. I don’t, though. I simply go back to lifting the flap that hangs like a lip over my pelvis. I imagine taking scissors and cutting it in a straight line and think about how, if I could just get rid of this damn belly, then I would actually be beautiful.
I miss being truly fat. I miss the roundness of my chin in pictures and the way my cheeks poofed out like a harvesting animal. I miss it because I was resigned to it. I was fat and that was life. I ate what I wanted and had learned to believe I couldn’t lose weight. Now I know otherwise: I know that the weight can be lost. And if that’s true—if I do have control over my body—then maybe what I told myself has always been a lie. Maybe every inch that my arm fat hangs down from my bone, every ounce of muffin top I have when I try on new jeans, is my own fault. Not genetics. Not the region in which I grew up. Mine. Because I don’t have enough self-control to make myself perfect.
The doctor rolls his eyes at me when I refuse to let him cut Bianca open. He wants to do exploratory surgery to find a source of her issues with weight gain and, to do so, he feels it would be best to put her under, cut into her, and play Operation with her tiny organs. It’s the anesthesia that scares me most: the idea that he could put her to sleep and she might never wake up. I try to explain that. If he was looking for something specific, I tell him, if he had an idea of what he wanted to find, it might be different. But I won’t let him cut her open just to look around.
His face is blank as he asks me: “Did you drive a car to get here today?”
I trust him less and wonder if this manipulation works on anyone. “Yes, of course,” I say, “But—”
“Do you know how much safer this surgery is than riding in a car?”
I meet his blank gaze and without blinking I respond, “Riding in a car was necessary. This is not.”
We stand that way for several minutes and I wonder if he is unused to mothers like me who won’t blindly allow him to do what he wants to their children. I wonder if he’s used to the power struggle we are engaged in. He adjusts his clipboard into the crook of his elbow and clears his throat.
“That’s fine for right now, but if we can’t resolve this then I will have to insist that we do the surgery later.”
Unsure what power he has if she doesn’t gain enough weight, I resolve never to find out. I tell myself that I will try harder to make her grow. When she is sitting still, I think, I will feed her. Every time. I won’t say no to anything sweet . . . it doesn’t matter what makes her bigger as long as she grows.
On Thanksgiving, we make apple butter as a family in my aunt’s backyard. My grandma calls me into my aunt’s house and asks me to assemble her pineapple casserole before she puts it in the oven. She tells me to simply pour the canned pineapple into the casserole dish, cover the syrupy fruit with a bag of shredded cheddar cheese, and crumble Ritz cracker over the concoction before baking it until it gets melted. I follow her directions, then wonder what the hell I’m supposed to eat.
The smoke is a thick gray that smells like burnt cinnamon and no matter how many times I change my body position, the smoke follows right behind, lapping at my clothes
and hair like a hungry dog.
Afterwards, in the backyard. I stir the apple butter. I feel like a witch as I hold the heavy tool we use to stir—I’ve asked my grandmother what to call the long stick with a rounded iron blade, and she says it’s called “the stirrer”—because the apple butter bubbles and pops from inside an antique cauldron. The smoke is a thick gray that smells like burnt cinnamon and no matter how many times I change my body position, the smoke follows right behind, lapping at my clothes and hair like a hungry dog.
My cousin asks me how I’ve managed to lose so much weight and I tell him that I have found substitutions for everything. When I want ice cream, I eat a small serving of sherbet instead. When I want some soda, I drink unsweet tea. I have become an expert at living off less.
I know that my frame has become smaller and less broad because I have lessened my intake and that I look thinner in the holiday pictures this year. I know that the embellished fishnet tights I wear under my black boots make my legs look like long poles, rather than short stumps. I know that people who aren’t family would probably notice me as I stand in my flippy skirt and stir as smoke curls up through my long brown hair. I also know that when I go into the kitchen where everyone is feasting on cheese covered pineapple and soup covered broccoli, I won’t be able to swallow as I try to eat.
I can’t hold onto this thought. The fear of consumption, I know, is consuming me. It is something I resist, the same way I resist the rolls and the starch and the whip cream covered pumpkin pie. I think instead about what it feels like to no longer be the girl in my family who would “be so pretty if she just lost some weight.”
But there is something bittersweet about that loss, that part of my identity that I don’t want back. Even while I am proud, I miss knowing that my looks aren’t something I have to work at. I miss the comfort of a plate piled high with warm food, the comfort of not having to weigh out the pros and cons of every bite I take. Where once my weight was something I only thought about when someone else pointed it out, it has become the thought pattern that consumes me. The thing about being the girl who would be pretty if she were thin is that it gives you the hope that losing weight and becoming that girl is possible. Once you accomplish losing the weight, there’s no more hope—only the fear that it will return.
I look at Bianca, who sits on the carpeted floor playing with a toy farm. Her cousins surround her and, even though she is one of the oldest, she is the smallest. She will likely never know what it is to struggle to make yourself smaller in the world, but someday, I imagine, even though there was once a doctor so worried about her tiny frame that he wanted to cut her open, there will come an age when she will no longer be encouraged to be bigger. Later, when all the cousins meet again for Christmas and the little children have children of their own, no one will flip through the family photo albums and talk about the boniness of Bianca’s forearm or the way her collarbone stuck out from under the neckline of her little red dress. She will just be the girl who was the prettiest of all the grandbabies, the one my nanny would croon at as she asked me: Couldn’t you just stare at her all day? I will forget that even as I feared she would never grow, a voice in my head has always been happy that she will simply be pretty, never pretty if.