Infrequent Potatoes

April 7, 2015 · 35 comments

Mom_Dad

I was a particularly tiny baby; my mother didn’t know that she was pregnant for six months (being unable to get her antique garnet ring off was a clue; she went to the doctor at her teenage niece’s suggestion) and the diagnosis sent her into a tailspin. In a shaky picture of my parents taken by my grandmother in Carl Schurz Park, the evidence is barely noticeable: there is my mother, the East River over her shoulder and Queens behind her in the distance, her wrists so slender and lithe even in her ninth month that her charm bracelet, heavy as Marley’s chain, would slide off her hand until she had a few links removed. There I am, the incontrovertible affirmation of her pregnancy, and nothing more than a minuscule bump under her pink and white cotton blouse. My mother carried me to term, almost to the day; I weighed four pounds at birth which, for scale, is more or less the size of an average supermarket chicken.

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My mother at the Washington Square Park Art Fair, nine months pregnant. June, 1963.

The words my mother uses to describe me as an infant: spindly, delicate, tiny, petite, exquisite, dainty, fine-boned, wispy. Not being one to nurse — I would have wound up with a chest like your grandmother’s, she says — she fed me tiny amounts of formula, botching the instructions given to her by my first pediatrician at New York Hospital. I screamed all day and all night for my first three months, until our next door neighbor in Yorkville, a gorgeous German woman with a face like Marlene Dietrich, told my mother that I was probably hungry; she instructed her to fill my bottle with thinned-out oatmeal, cut an X in the nipple, and let me eat. She did, and at last, I stopped crying. I also ballooned up like a scaled-down version of The Michelin Man.

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No longer the size of a chicken.

Eventually, the oatmeal weight fell off me: like most middle class American children of the Sixties and Seventies, I was fed a regular diet of meat, chicken, fish, lamb, and, because I was almost always anemic, beef liver, which looks surprisingly like beef liver. I shuddered at its jiggling, squidgy presence; my grandmother, who cooked most of our meals, broiled it until it took on the consistency of a stiff brown sponge, and my mother served it to me on our heavy burnt umber earthenware next to two flaccid spears of canned asparagus; there was no bread at our kitchen table, no rice, no pasta, and infrequent potatoes. My mother and I drank Tab by the bucketful, going through a six pack every two days. By the time I was four, I had become an unwitting adherent to something resembling The Atkins Diet; I was so skinny that my mother shook me into my school leotards like a pillow into a pillowcase. When I went into first grade, I carried damp tuna sandwiches made on Diet White bread, which disintegrated into a dense brick of bleached mush that curled itself around my red plaid thermos like the letter C by the time I arrived at school.

As I wrote in Poor Man’s Feast, when my mother went off to have her hair done every Saturday, my father — not someone I would call corpulent, but certainly not thin — secreted me away for fancy lunches that were as enlightening as they were forbidden: I learned what happens when you apply a coating of egg and flour to trout, saute it in hot butter and bathe it in wine and lemon juice. I learned what happens when you slice potatoes to a thin film, layer them in a shallow copper dish, and blanket them in cream. I learned what happens when you roll a crepe around warm apricot preserves and dust it with confectioner’s sugar and chopped hazelnuts. And I learned to keep my mouth shut once I got home, because food was the enemy of the body.

My mother went back to work when I was eleven; my grandmother stepped in after school and fed me regular grilled cheese and bacon sandwiches, potato latkes, pizza, and, because she loved him, Arthur Treacher’s fish and chips. All that food fueled my raging tennis addiction; I played it every day, for hours. My mother never noticed what I was eating because my grandmother chose not to tell her, but also because all that tennis turned my skin and bones into solid muscle. I became a swimmer and my shoulders broadened; I hit puberty and the chest that kept my mother from nursing me as an infant was suddenly mine. My mother’s desperate, hysterical need for thinness, achieved by starving her teenage self in order to be the model and television singer she eventually became, was a blip on my genetic screen. My body rebelled in the most profound of ways: I was no longer skinny. As a teenager, I began to resemble almost every woman on my father’s side of the family: thick-boned, solid, muscular, and zaftig enough to acquaint me with the bitter flavor of self-consciousness.

“You’ll lose that chest if you drop some weight,” my mother said when I started college, as though That Chest was a disembodied entity unto itself, with a mind and government all its own, like Texas. At school, the freshman fifteen worked the other way for me: with everyone gorging themselves on pizza and East West lasagna at the cafeteria, I ate nothing but taco-flavored Doritos and Diet Coke in my dorm room, but only when my roommate wasn’t around. I came home that October, fifteen pounds lighter.

My mother was confused and irate a few years later, when I went to work for Dean & Deluca, and attended cooking school at night: I wanted food in my life. I wanted to understand sustenance, and to find that almost spiritual connection that comes from feeding your self, and others, thoughtfully and well. I wanted to recreate a family table of goodness and peace, where food was not the devil, and it didn’t have to be hidden.

My body responded to the stress of her furious consternation with uncanny irony: surrounded as I was by masses of food every day and night, the pounds cascaded off me without my even trying to lose them. My nails went brittle and my hair thinned, and then fell out. My thyroid was off kilter and my heart rhythm wonky and I passed out twice — once in the walk-in, once on the loading dock while signing for a Sid Wainer delivery — but man, did my body look great: my fat jeans were a size two, my everyday pair, a zero.

“Okay,” she said, as though I was competitively orchestrating my weight loss, “you win. You can stop now.”

Over the years, my body has settled like a house; the Title Nine catalog invariably arrives when I’m feeling sluggish and thick. My knees and hips creak, and I have a bottle of Aleve in every bag. No matter what — no matter how many steps I take, no matter how dedicated to my FitBit I am, no matter how much yoga I do, no matter how often I go to the gym, no matter how much I cut out wine or sugar or infrequent potatoes — my weight travels along a five pound continuum: sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down. Like my mother when she was pregnant, I gauge change by how tight my rings are. On the days when I can’t get them off, I don’t go to see her; I don’t tell her why.

Recently, she came to stay for Passover and Easter; I saved my beloved matzo brei — the crack cocaine of my people, which I make once a year — for the breakfast after our seder. That morning, we sat at my dining room table while she drank a cup of hot water and watched me lift my fork to my mouth; she glared violently at it, and me, like we were the devil incarnate. I pushed myself away from the table and took my plate into the kitchen; I stood at the sink and ate with my back to her, hidden from view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 35 comments }

Write-Back.

March 6, 2015 · 19 comments

ChapterOneArt

It’s either a brain tumor, or maybe because I’ve had Lyme Disease four times. It could be the fact that I’m like fly-paper during the summer (seriously; when I’m around, Susan doesn’t even need bug spray), and the town I live in was hit with West Nile Virus last year. Maybe my body is overreacting to my experimenting with gluten again since I discovered that all those starch-based, non-wheat breads made my cholesterol soar. I suppose it could be Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Hashimotos (I have all the symptoms and it runs in my family). Or it’s Ebola. Maybe.

“Maybe,” Susan said, “it’s the book.” She was sitting on the couch with the dog, having a cup of tea. I limped into the living room looking like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, when his hump switches sides. I groaned, and tried to straighten up. 

“It’s not the f**king book,” I told her. “I’ve been feeling like dreck for months and months.”

“—since you started writing the book,” she answered in her usual Zen manner. “Do you want a drink?”

“I shouldn’t,” I said, virtuously. I assumed she meant something alcoholic, even though we’d long decided to have no wine during the week; this, I reasoned, meant that a small glass of bourbon, or Scotch, or a tiny gin and tonic weren’t entirely off limits. But I didn’t need the sugar, did I. Especially not now, with all the inflammation.

 “Just some seltzer,” I told her. “With a little spritz of organic ginger juice, to strengthen my immune system.”

“What constitutes a spritz?”

She said spritz like someone from northern Connecticut wearing a Fair Isle sweater and carrying a Bermuda bag. S-p-r-i-t-z. Like S-p-r-i-t-e. I said it the right way: SHPRITZ. Like SCHMEAR. When we first met, she said SMEAR but I explained the medical connotations, which made her wince.

This is what things have been like around here for the last few months, while I’ve been writing my next book, Treyf. I appear to have become a neurotic mess. Yiddishisms have oozed out of the depths of my subconscious, like jelly from a donut. My long-deceased Queens vernacular creeps into my sentences. I stand up from my desk and moan like I’m suffering, God forbid, from a herniation. I wake up grinding my teeth, and with a massive headache; every part of my body hurts, from my shoulders to my toes. I’ve stocked up on jars of Tiger Balm and boxes of Turmeric Tea, although my mother suggested maybe I try Ben-Gay.

“It’s a very good product,” she whispered cautiously, like she does when she calls to say that someone she knows has c-a-n-c-e-r.

Yoga

I’ve taken up a fairly hysterical yoga practice, and discovered that I sleep in advanced tree pose; I always have. Vrikasana, my yoga teacher calls it. But now, while I write this book, I wake up stiff and straight, my hands at my sides, in corpse pose; Shivasana, my yoga teacher calls it. I call it Rigor Mortis.

Last week, while sleeping in corpse pose, I had a vivid dream about the lobby in my grandmother’s apartment building on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. I could see the tiny brown and gold octagonal floor tiles leading up to the ancient Staley elevator. Because I breathe so deeply in shivasana — let’s face it; who doesn’t? —  I could actually smell the place, its rippling, faux stucco walls damp with a thousand Friday nights of schmaltz. Flat on my back, dead to the world, I dreamt of a Sunday afternoon lunchtime argument between my father and my Orthodox cantor grandfather, half in English, half in Yiddish, back and forth, over and over, across German porcelain bowls of what appeared to be blood surrounding a large stone, but what was actually cold borscht and a boiled potato. It was a fight dripping with rage and a love so furious and thick that I could actually feel it in my sleep, like humidity

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I’ve dreamt about my father feeding me Spam and eggs for breakfast while my mother smoked the day’s first cigarettes and drank the day’s first Sanka out of a brown melamine mug, stubbing out her Virginia Slims to reach up and kiss our ornate silver Mezzuzah on her way to work. I’ve dreamt of eating shrimp and lobster sauce at our local Chinese restaurant after my best friend’s Bat Mitzvah. Of my frum friend, Shaina, getting me toasted out of my twelve year old skull on a cocktail of Manischewitz and Coke while her parents were in shul for the Havdalah service. Of the stinking, sweet smell of sun-baked garbage and honeysuckle that wafted up and onto our terrace from the yellowing patches of grass on Austin Street, mingling with my Gaga’s Shabbos roast chicken. Of hiking into the tenebrous bowels of Kissena Park with my father’s best friend who carried sticky bags of GORP and a stained copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus in the back pocket of his Sansabelt jeans; alone and silent, we gingerly stepped over used syringes and old condoms and dead tree limbs, and I believed I was really in the woods. Which I was.

Rigor mortis sets in every night after a day of writing, when I dream of treyf, and what it means, and the wide frame it’s created around my life. The forbidden, the taboo, the illicit — plaited together in a messy, unkempt braid — form the lens, as writer and teacher Dani Shapiro describes the memoir process, through which I see the world, and always have. Treyf is the story of all of that forbidden-ness and the quiet shame that travels alongside it in a sidecar of memory; it’s about what it means to search for a clearing in the muck and the mess, and to find safety and peace and the spiritual ground beneath my feet in the act of feeding people.

Good or bad, hard or easy, I wake up the way I did while I was writing Poor Man’s Feast: pummeled, achy, as though I’ve been excavated like a rotting tooth. Every morning during the writing of Treyf, I feel Rolfed even before my eyes are open, like my fascia has been separated from my muscles and reorganized during the night.

It’s not Rheumatoid Arthritis or Hashimotos, Lyme Disease, Celiac, or Ebola. It’s not a brain tumor or rigor mortis. It’s just neurotic old me, suffering from an affliction I call Write Back, which I first experienced when I was working on Poor Man’s Feast. I’d forgotten all about it the way my friends tell me they forget all about the pain of childbirth once they feel soft baby breath on their neck.

“Can I get you anything,” Susan repeats, as I sink into the down couch cushions.

“Maybe,” I say, deciding against bourbon, my deadening agent of choice, “I’ll take some of that seltzer. With a spritz.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

{ 19 comments }

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