Fat Like Your Mama
Mama loved to cook almost as much as she loved to eat. Her chicken-fried steak with gravy, smothered potatoes fried with onions, chicken and dumplings, Mississippi Mud Cake, Banana Pudding and every calorie-laden, heart-attack inducing dish you can imagine were the staples of my childhood. I always woke to the smell of breakfast cooking, even on those early pre-dawn mornings before school. She managed to make homemade biscuits and gravy for us on most mornings, her apron tied around her round midsection, before leaving for work as a cook in either a nursing home or school cafeteria. For Mama, feeding us was her way of showing her love for us.
Mama’s battle with losing weight was never-ending and involved the entire family. My father made his feelings about her obesity known frequently and he was not kind, in fact he was often cruel.
Our dinner conversation included remarks like: “Did you eat the whole chicken this time? (sighs dramatically). You are getting as big as the side of this house.” Sometimes Mama laughed it off, but other times she cried or got upset. My father would draw on his cigarette, lean back in his chair and fold his long, thin legs. He would shake his head, laugh and say, “What, you can’t take a joke? I was just kidding.” If Mama became upset, she would storm out of the room or throw things against the wall, her small round frame a blur of activity.
We kids were not excluded from my father’s dietary observations. I can remember when my father jabbed his long, thin finger into my pre-pubescent belly and said, “Look at you, getting fat like your Mama.” My lack of appetite at the next meal would then lead to him insisting that I eat, after all, he was “just kidding”. If I refused, he would not allow me to leave the table until I cleaned my plate. It was a vicious and, at times, confusing cycle.
Mama’s attempts to lose weight were numerous and short-lived. She desperately wanted to please my father, whom she suspected was not faithful to her. One dieting “incident” stands out in my memory more than others. Mama had enlisted the help of my sister Norma, then in her early teens, to be her accountability partner. My father must have been out of town that week.
“Help me not to eat too much,” she instructed. “I have to lose this weight. I want to eat half of what I usually eat.” My sister reluctantly agreed. Everything went smoothly for the first day or two, until Mama began feeling really deprived and hungry. We were having chili dogs, and it was buffet style. We all lined up with our plates in the kitchen of the small mobile home, with Mama in the lead. She began to fill her Butterfly Gold Corelle plate with three hot dogs and chili. She added Fritos (her favorite) and was pouring on the onions, cheese and chili when my sister cleared her throat.
“Mama, you are not supposed to be eating three hotdogs, remember? You can’t eat all that.” Suddenly, it became apparent that the pressures of dieting had gotten to Mama.
Without warning, Mama started screaming at my sister. “I’m hungry! I haven’t had anything to eat all day!” She screamed some obscenities in her high-pitched hysterical voice and suddenly the plate of hot dogs was airborne.
In shock, I felt the warm splatters of Wolf-Brand Chili and Fritos as they slid off of my face and watched as they peppered the cabinets beside me. My siblings and I were silently frozen, while Mama ranted. It was over as quickly as it began, and Mama fell silent. An Oscar-Meyer wiener slid down my brother’s face and fell to the floor with a plop in the silence. My sister wiped chili from her eyes. “Mama, you said for me to help you. I was just trying to help,” my sister said gently. Mama began to wipe down the cabinet.
“Well I’m hungry. Now help me clean this mess and let’s eat.” We all worked together to clean the mess, and the incident was over as quickly as it began. Mama ate her hotdogs and we didn’t say a word about it. This round with dieting was now over.
Mama never gave up trying to lose weight, I wish I could say it ended well. One thing that Mama failed to see during all of the fad diets she experimented with was why she over ate. Her emotional eating began in her teen years and grew into this huge monster out of her control because of the emotional roller coaster in which she lived. She could not see the beauty her children saw in her.
Mama’s obesity eventually led to her death at the age of 62. Her battle with high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease ended in a hospital bed in Nebraska, with only a nurse by her side and my sister’s voice on the phone. But, that is a story for later.
I wonder what my father would say if he could see me now? I want to be “fat like (my) mama”—fat with love, forgiveness, loyalty and determination. I choose to live a healthy life, and silence the voice of my father for good. I try to love myself enough to not settle for anything less. That’s what Mama was really hungry for–love.