Lane Bryant And a White Nightgown: My High School Graduation.

 

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I was a chubby child from the time I was seven years old, always hovering at about twenty-thirty pounds overweight. It was in high school that my weight started to increase exponentially rather than arithmetically; when I received my driver’s license at the age of sixteen, I was able to get to grocery stores and bakeries that were once too far away to walk or bike to. I had a greater variety of “goodies,” and with a car, I had to exercise a great deal less in order to obtain them. When I started high school, I weighed 133 pounds (I was 5’7”) but by my senior year, I weighed about 190 lbs.

Food was my steadiest, most loyal friend, but it was a friend who called far too many of the shots in our relationship. I didn’t want to binge, but I did. I didn’t want to hate how I looked, but I did. I didn’t want my thighs to chafe whenever I wore shorts, but they did. I was consistently miserable in my own flesh.

At Divine Savior-Holy Angels High School, we wore uniforms; for freshmen and sophomores, it was a green plaid skirt with an ugly long green vest and for juniors and seniors, a blue plaid skirt with a more palatable navy sweater. My first uniform was no problem, because I was a size 10 when high school began. When the time came to change uniforms for junior year, however, I was rigid with dread. Size 18 was now a tight squeeze, and I was positive that there would be no uniform skirts that fit me. Of course, I should have known that was a ridiculous fear, since there were plenty of DSHA upperclassmen fatter than I, and none of them came to class naked. Nonetheless, I fretted, and I was hugely relieved when I discovered that the uniform store did indeed stock skirts in my size.

By the time I reached the end of my senior year, even my plus sized uniform skirt no longer fit, and I had to resort to closing it up with a chain of safety pins. Luckily, my blue sweater covered my waistline, so no one was the wiser. I knew it, though, and I hated it. I had to pull my sweater down many times a day in order to cover the open zipper, and I lived in fear that my secret would be exposed. For some reason, closing my skirt with safety pins resulted in one side being shorter than the other, so I was also constantly yanking at the one side to keep it from hiking up any further.

Having a uniform at all was a blessing, because I didn’t have many other clothing options once school ended for the day.  In the 1970’s, regular department stores did not carry any clothes larger than size 18, and I had no idea that there were stores with nice clothes for fat people. This degree of ignorance seems impossible today, or at the very least monumentally stupid, but there was no social media in 1976, and no Google Shopping. We shopped at Marshall Field’s and occasionally at Gimbels, and I had no idea what would happen if I should gain even more weight and no longer fit into size 18. I shuddered at the thought and hoped I would never had to find out.

DSHA was an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and the tradition there was for graduates to wear long white dresses and carry long stemmed red roses. A lovely ritual, but for me just another cause of Great Fat Dread. By the spring of my senior year, I weighed 184 pounds. Other than my safety-pinned uniform and a blue sweater from the Men’s Department at Marshall Field’s, my entire wardrobe consisted of the few size 18 outfits I was able to find.  My shopping trips were never about what I liked or what might look good on me; the only criterion I really had was: did it fit? If yes, I bought it.

Starting in March that year, I started casing the stores in search of a long white dress that would fit me. There were none. I never told anyone that I was going on these reconnaissance trips; I was humiliated enough. As far as I could see, no one made long white dresses in anything approaching my size. What was I going to do? I had no idea. Apparently, I was too fat to graduate from high school, and as May loomed ever closer, I resigned myself to the brutal reality that I was not going to lose enough weight to solve my problem.

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These were going to fool no one.

Finally one day, I hit upon my only solution: I would have to find a white nightgown and pass it off somehow as a dress. This would not be an easy task; I didn’t have to look around Lingerie Departments for long in order to realize that they had no size 18 white nightgowns that even remotely resemble dresses. I was terrified that I would have to choose one of these nightgowns to graduate in, and the other girls would howl with laughter when they saw me. Seeing no other alternative, I pressed on, visiting mall after mall in search of a “graduation dress.”

 

About three weeks before the big day, my mother announced that we were going to Lane Bryant to find a graduation dress and then out to lunch at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I had heard of Lane Bryant, and seen their ads in the Milwaukee Journal, but I was pretty sure they would have nothing suitable for me. Their newspaper ads convinced me that Lane Bryant was a store for grotesquely lb-uglyobese old women who had a fondness for rayon, polyester and lots of wild prints. (It is much easier now to find cute clothes in plus sizes; in those days, I think the mindset in the fashion world was that fat women either didn’t care how they looked—I mean, there they were, fat—or that fat women did care how they looked but needed to be punished for being fat in the first place.) My nightgown strategy was not working out, so I agreed that yes, lunch and a trip to Lane Bryant was in order.

On the appointed day, my mother and I drove downtown, parked the car and walked over to Lane Bryant. I was rigid with shame as we walked into the store. It was awful enough that I had to walk through those doors; much worse was knowing that my chic and stylish mother had to cross that threshold because of me. As we entered the store, a sales clerk said something to my mother and her whole face lit up. She turned to me and said, “Did you hear that? She just asked if I was looking for the Tall Section! She thinks we are here because of me, not you!” My mother was so happy that she was the assumed shopper, that the clerks didn’t find me fat enough to warrant being in the store for fat people. I loved my mother in that moment with a purity I can still feel. As much as she hated the idea of being fat, of being around fat, of having a fat daughter, she was happy to be mistaken for a Lane Bryant Shopper if it meant I would not be marked as one.

The sales clerk directed us up to the Junior Department on the second floor. As we exited the escalator, I was stunned at what I saw. There were racks and racks of clothes, some of them very cute, all of them in sizes I knew would fit me. I had had no idea. They had an entire rack of white dresses, including several that I had seen in Seventeen Magazine, my book of dreams—just in larger sizes. I was actually in the smallest sizes in this store, and what a feeling that was! I tried on several dresses, and bought one of the dresses I had seen in Seventeen—a long white eyelet dress with a simple bodice and a ruffle at the hem.

I was happier that day than I had been in a very long time. I felt beautiful, and—even more wonderful—I felt normal. My mother was happy, too, and she triumphantly handed her credit card to the sales clerk, who put my new dress in a shopping bag and handed it to me.  We sailed out of Lane Bryant, and I felt positively buoyant, a rare sensation for someone who weighed 184 pounds. The Milwaukee Athletic Club was just a few blocks away, so we walked over there to have lunch together and celebrate.

We took the elevator to the dining room and I sighed happily as I placed my shopping bag on one chair and sat down in another. My mother ordered a martini and I ordered a TAB, and we talked about the upcoming graduation party and who would come. The waiter came over to take our order and I eagerly ordered my favorite thing on the MAC menu: a cheeseburger and french fries.

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Truly wonderful cheeseburger and fries.

Without realizing it, I had broken the spell of our happy day. My mother’s forehead furrowed, and she sighed, “I don’t understand why you would eat that after what we’ve just been through.” I was hungry, and now I felt defensive; for a moment, I considered changing my order to the MAC salad, but I wanted that cheeseburger. I wanted those fries. When our food came, I ate every bite, but the buoyant feeling was gone for both of us.

Even though the mood of the day had changed, I was grateful to have my beautiful white dress and relieved that I could stop shopping for nightgowns. My mother had really come through for me by taking me to Lane Bryant. Thinking about that amazing Junior Department, I asked her why she had never told me they had cute things at Lane Bryant. My mom thought for a moment and said, “I was afraid if you knew that, you would be less likely to lose the weight.” Ah.

I felt beautiful on the night I graduated. I kept my dress for years; I even had it remade to be a smaller size when I lost a lot of weight later on. After taking in the dress, the seamstress gave us the yards of extra fabric she had removed, and my mother used it to have Christmas ornaments made for her grandchildren—little babies with white eyelet Christening gowns.

I no longer have even one picture of myself from my graduation night, although I know that there were a few taken. Years later, when I had lost the weight, my siblings and I were looking through some family pictures. We came across one of our family’s infamous “couch pictures”—we all jam ourselves onto the living room couch for a family portrait—and there was a picture of me in my graduation dress, surrounded by my brothers and sisters.  “Oh God,” my brother Jamie laughed, “Who is that in the big white dress?” We all laughed, but I couldn’t help but sneak a look at that girl in the big white dress and amgelremember how very pretty she felt that night. I don’t know what became of the picture, but after that night I never saw it again. To this day, the only place I can find a memento of my high school graduation is on my family’s Christmas trees, in the form of tiny eyelet-clad baby ornaments.

 

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A Frozen Playboy, A Bowl of Ice Cream, and the Wages of Sin

I am not a bit proud to say that I was a snoop as a child, always interested in whatever was going on behind the scenes in other peoples’ lives. I regularly used to read both of my sisters’ diaries. I went through drawers, I felt around on closet shelves. I was ever-intrigued to find out what I wasn’t being told, the story-behind-the-story. My unhealthy curiosity is how I found out a lot of information about my family. It is also how I came to view my first Playboy magazine.

I was snooping around in my brother Johnnie’s closet. He was a college man, and I thought he was the height of adult sophistication. Johnnie had a beer glass with a bottom that lit up when it was empty, a board game called “Pass Out” involving people drinking on passoutcommand until someone—you guessed it—passed out, and even a black market telephone. When I was young, it was against the law to own one’s own telephone, and woe betide to anyone who dared.  The Telephone Company owned all the phones, and that was that. If you wanted a phone or if you moved to a new place, you petitioned the Phone Czar to grace you with one of her telephones, and if fortune smiled upon you, she would let you rent one.

phoneEvery month, you paid rent on every phone in your house and when you moved, you left the phones. They were never yours. Outlaws like Jesse James or Richard Nixon might steal phones, but no upstanding citizen would dare. The Phone Company was the only game in town, and you risked fines, prison, and—scariest of all—loss of phone privileges if you messed with Ma Bell. I used to feel an actual shiver of fear every time I looked at Johnnie’s contraband phone. It was an old fashioned black model and he had boldly plugged it right into the Telephone Company’s jack in his bedroom. It worked fine, but I felt butterflies every time I used it, imagining G-men bursting through the front door and cuffing me for breaking the United States Telephone Act.

The illegal phone was a symbol of everything that was fascinating about Johnnie’s room. I almost always found something of interest in my treasure hunts. One day in particular, I was nosing around in his closet. Johnnie’s bedroom had, for a time, been our family room, and the shelf of his spacious closet was still used for storage of odd things. There was, for instance, a very large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which I remember vividly because it terrified me.

After the sinMary had a very calm expression on her face, and her arms were sort of reaching out toward me, but she was barefoot and standing on a very large and ugly snake. When I first encountered Mary of the Closet, I was fairly young and hadn’t yet digested the whole “serpent in the garden” story, so I had no idea why God’s mother was serenely squishing an angry snake to death with her bare feet. I was used to hearing Mary referred to in our family prayers as “full of grace,” as a “lovely lady dressed in blue,” as a sweet and pure maiden. I didn’t know how to reconcile those descriptions with this snake-killer who was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and who seemed to look at me with an expression that said, “Don’t even think about crossing me. Ask the snake how that turned for him.”

book-of-knowledgeNext to Scary Mary rested our family’s one and only set of encyclopedias, a set of volumes called The Book of Knowledge. I am not sure when the Book of Knowledge was published, but I do recall that when I tried to use it to write an essay on the Unification of Italy, which happened in the late nineteenth century, the Book of Knowledge did not have the updated information; inside its pages, Italy was still a collection of territories grouped around the Papal States.

Before the Internet, our only way to do research for school papers—or even to learn something out of natural curiosity–was to look it up in an encyclopedia. Libraries were good sources for encyclopedias, but some lucky and/or fortunate families owned a whole set of their own. I envied those families, because they never had to trudge out into the cold and slush of a February night to get to the library to look up information for their homework. We never owned our own set of encyclopedias, but we did have The Book of Knowledge, with its cracked brown bindings and pages musty with mottled green spots of mildew.

My mother’s attitude for years was that knowledge was knowledge; the truth doesn’t change, and The Book of Knowledge was a fine resource. She finally changed her mind in the early 1970’s, when her oldest grandchild had to write an essay for school about Abraham Lincoln. My sister Marbeth, John’s mother, did not own a set of encyclopedias, so she sent him over to our house to consult The Book of Knowledge. This essay was a major part of John’s grade in fourth grade History. As my sister looked over his paper, she told John that she was disappointed in him for making things up instead of doing his research, making vague statements such as “Lincoln’s mother died of ‘a strange sickness.’” Clearly stung, John objected that he did do his research, so Marbeth challenged him to show her this “research.” There it was, in black and white in The Book of Knowledge: “Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of a strange sickness.” The Book of Knowledge was retired as a research tool at that point, but it remained on Johnnie’s closet shelf, because my mother loved books too much to ever throw one out, and no one wanted the Book of Knowledge.

On this particular day of snooping through Johnnie’s closet, my hands brushed against something unfamiliar behind The Book of Knowledge. Intrigued, I dragged a chair over to the closet to get more height and increase my reach, and my hand closed around a thick magazine. I pulled it out and down and there it was: A Playboy Magazine! This was seriously degenerate stuff in our Irish Catholic Household, and of course I was mesmerized.

No one was home that night except my grandmother, and she was sound asleep, so I took the magazine into my room to look it over. I slowly paged through it, fascinated but not sure what to make of what I saw. In those days of Playboy Magazine, there were no naked men, and the women were only naked from the waist up. What confused me was the pictures. There were a lot of women in this magazine, and they were all doing normal things like brushing horses, arranging books, or walking through gardens–but without all of their clothes on. To my preteen self, they just looked silly, and I couldn’t imagine why they would be fun to look at. In addition to the pictures, there was a joke page and some articles about politics. Even in my befuddlement, I could tell that this was all somehow titillating; clearly it was coming from a place of adult sophistication that deeply intrigued me.

Since no one was home except my grandmother, and she was snoring contentedly, I went downstairs and fixed myself a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s Syrup and brought it upstairs to eat while I studied this magazine. About halfway through my ice cream and a third of the way through the Playboy, I heard noises downstairs. Egads! People were home, much sooner than I had expected. There was no way I could be caught with either the ice cream or the magazine. Thinking fast, I grabbed both and stepped out onto the tiny balcony off the bedroom I shared with my sister Susan. If I stood on the balcony, I could just reach the gutter of the roof of the house, so I rolled up the magazine and shoved it into the gutter, along with the ice cream, still in its bowl.

ice-creamNow of course, I had every intention of retrieving both ice cream and Playboy at the earliest possible date, but as soon as I had secreted the evidence of my crime, I felt weighed down with shame and guilt. I hated thinking about what a terrible person I was: sneaking food I wasn’t supposed to be eating, getting even fatter than I already was, sneaking around in my brother’s room and going through his things, looking at a smutty magazine, which was so awful a deed I couldn’t even imagine confessing it at my next confession (which, I knew, I was now going to have to do) and then hiding the magazine in the gutter.

My guilt was so great, in fact, that I pushed the thoughts of what I had done out of my mind every time they came up. Rather than get the contraband out of the gutter and back to each thing’s rightful place, I procrastinated, not wanting to deal with the visual evidence of what was surely a Big Mortal Sin. This denial went on for weeks. Of course I worried that Johnnie might have at some point gone looking for his magazine, and I worried about how much he would worry if he found it missing. I understood that there was no way Johnnie could casually ask, “Hey, family! Has anyone seen my HUGE MORTAL SIN MAGAZINE?” I really felt for him. Still, I made no moves toward the balcony. I was the perfect example of “Out of sight/Out of mind.” Sadly, the saying isn’t “Out of sight/Out of mind/Gone from Reality.” I understood that fact viscerally one morning at the beginning of the spring thaw in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On the morning in question, we were eating breakfast in our breakfast nook under the upstairs balcony. My father suddenly looked up from his Chicago Tribune and scowled. Following his eyes, I saw water. A lot of water, and it was sluicing down our kitchen wall. Uttering a few choice words, my father stood up and walked over to the wall to examine the situation. As he poked and prodded, his language got louder and more colorful. There was water all along the wall, behind the paint and up in the ceiling.

Cursing the weather, the walls, and whatever else was ruining his Saturday morning, my father summoned my brothers and donned his old navigator’s jacket to go up on the roof and find out what the problem was. This was the moment when my entire insides turned to liquid. Just as I heard my father swearing and calling for my brothers, I realized exactly what had happened. Spring had started the process of melting the snow on our roof and the water was going into the gutter and down the downspouts….except where there was a frozen Playboy magazine and half eaten bowl of ice cream stuck in its way.

I died a thousand deaths that morning as I watched my father and brothers trudge up the stairs, carrying a bucket and a shovel, then heard them hacking away at something, all of them muttering things like “What the hell?” It was not a surprise to me when my father called down to my mother that some &^&* object was encased in ice and blocking the gutter, causing the water to stream down into the kitchen. At that point, I remembered an urgent errand I had to run right at that moment, and I left the house, trembling with anxiety, guilt, shame and horror.

I do not know which of them first realized that the gutter outside our bedroom was stuffed with a Playboy Magazine and a three month old bowl of ice cream. I can only imagine the scene on that balcony when my father dug the whole sorry mess out of the gutter while both of my brothers watched, one in confusion and the other in consternation. Knowing my family as I do, my best bet is that not one of the three of them said a word; I am betting that they silently cleaned out the gutter, discarded the magazine, and brought the ice cream bowl down to the kitchen.

A few days later, my father called a handyman and he came in to repair the kitchen wall. For weeks after The Incident, I waited in agony for my day of reckoning; the ice cream bowl could only have been my calling card. I don’t know if my father talked to Johnnie, or for that matter if my brother Jamie talked to either of them. Even though my Irish Catholic family’s penchant for Not Talking About Stuff Like This saved me from that conversation, I knew what I had to do; some weeks later I finally summoned what courage I had and slinked off to confession. When I blurted the story out to Fr. Heaney, he paused for a moment and then asked me if I understood about hormones. Unprepared for this question, I replied that I did not. Father then explained hormones to me in a monologue that was kind, patient and excruciatingly awkward. I don’t remember what my penance was, but I remember how awful I felt kneeling in the confessional while Father talked about puberty.

playboy-philosophyFrom that day forward, I was a better, more moral person. I would like to say it was because I saw the light and chose virtue, but the truth is that, after the exquisitely awful experience of discussing hormones with Fr. Heaney, I was a new girl. Whenever I was tempted to do something that I knew was wrong, I thought about how very much I did not want to have to confess it. In the end, then, the one thing I learned from reading Playboy magazine was that sins are really never as exciting in reality as they sound in theory, and they are definitely not worth their cost. Not exactly the “Playboy philosophy,” which in the end is fine with me.

 

“Who Ate All The…?”

vintage-mom-shoppingFor most of my childhood, my mother went to the grocery store once a week, on Friday. My father was the breadwinner, and each week he gave my mother an “allowance” for all household expenses. On Friday morning, my father would tuck a check into the corner of the mirror that rested on top of her dresser and on Friday afternoon, my mother would go grocery shopping. Whatever my mother bought on Friday was our food for the week.

Typically, we ate the same things for dinner from week to week, a steady routine of spaghetti, meat loaf, pot roast, baked chicken, minute steak, porcupines (ground beef rolled in minute rice and cooked in tomato soup), English Muffin pizzas, roast beef or roast pork on Sundays, ham, and hamburger patties with a strip of bacon wrapped around them. Our milk came every day from the milkman (we consumed vast quantities of milk) and my mother bought bread every other day from the bakery across the street (we also ate a great deal of bread.)  When my mother went to Kohl’s Food Store on Fridays, she bought the ingredients for the week’s meals and a few treats for the family: some cookies, a box of Kohl’s Brand potato chips and six cans of pop. That’s six cans of pop for five children—for a week.

My dad had discovered a Great Deal on pop, at a bottling plant called American Beverage amer-sodaCompany; there, he could buy pop by the case—glass bottles of pop in wooden crates that he could then return for the deposit. My father loved nothing better than a bargain. He was known to drive from Wisconsin to Indiana to get a good deal on cigarettes, and until the 1980’s he drove to Chicago to buy alcohol at a place called Twins Liquors; bourbon was the family Drink of Choice and Twins had a house brand that was not as expensive as the pricier brand name bourbons. He also knew of a shoe store in Chicago that had nice shoes for cheap and he went there for years, bringing both of my amer2brothers. He was thrilled by the low price of American Soda; he didn’t drink pop himself, which explains a great deal. Strange as American Soda often tasted, though, it was plentiful and cheap, and much, much better than tap water.

The generic pop supply was steady but the name brand pop disappeared quickly. My eldest sister Marbeth loved Real Coke so much that she started to buy and keep her own supply in her bedroom closet. Woe to anyone who dipped into that private cache of Coke. Marbeth also bought her own lemon drops and artfully displayed them  in a glass jar on her desk; when my sister Susan and I were feeling particularly bold, we would dash into Marbeth’s room (as the eldest, she alone had her own room), snatch two lemon drops from her jar, and run for our lives.

Shortly after we moved from Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I had my new friend Ellen over to play. Ellen came from a calm family, the sort of family who never fought—or even disagreed, as far as I could tell. Her house always felt like a museum; her mother had an extensive doll collection housed in glass cases, and every room was perfectly organized and arranged, like a slightly dusty model home.

football-3On the first day Ellen came over to my house to play—a Sunday—the Chicago Bears were playing the Green Bay Packers on television. We were all pretty new to Wisconsin and so were collectively experiencing some significant homesickness. (The first time my mother saw downtown Milwaukee, she turned to my father, said “This is IT?” and burst into tears.) My father and brothers still identified with the Bears, of course, and despised Bart Starr, the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. No doubt feeling festive about the football game, and not all that interested in having an American Soda Company version of “Coke,” my brother Johnnie had “borrowed” one of Marbeth’s Cokes from her closet.

Ellen and I had been playing—calmly–for about fifteen minutes when either the Chicago Bears did something regrettable or Bart Starr did something good. Whatever it was, my father and brothers started screaming wildly at the television set and pounding their fists on the living room floor. I was unfazed, as this was just another Sunday afternoon for me, but Ellen was instantly terrified and wanted to go home. My sister Susan and I managed to calm her down; after some minutes had passed, she was even smiling (albeit a bit tremulously). That was when my sister Marbeth ran past us, a screaming blur of rage wielding a baseball bat; she was hunting down my brother Johnnie and the Purloined Coke. That did it. Ellen was out the door and back at her house well before Marbeth caught up with Johnnie. From that day forward, Ellen always offered her house as our playdate destination, which was fine with me, since her mother was generous with offers of Name Brand Cookies and Choo Choo Cherry drinks.

Food, then, was a bit of an “issue” in our household of seven, and no food item was more controversial than cookies. Every Friday, my mother bought two packages of cookies for the week. Inevitably, one of the two packages would be a complete waste of sugar and salerno-butter-cookiesshelf space. I never understood the reason why Salerno Butter Cookies even existed, much less why they absorbed any part of my mother’s meager Cookie Budget. The butter industry should have sued Salerno for using the name “butter”; at the very least, they should have called them Salerno “Butter” Cookies–And By “Butter” We Mean “The Paper That Butter Comes Wrapped In.”

Another anti-cookie pretending to be an actual cookie was the Nabisco Sugar Wafer These were thin strips of what tasted like very thin balsa wood held together by sawdust and microscopic bits of icing. Just looking at Sugar Wafers was enough to fill my mouth with dust. Then there were the truly execrable Coconut Bars, which could only have been produced and sold by someone who hated cookies, children and the entire Baked Goods Industry. I was a child who would eat just about anything if there was sugar in it, but even I was known to turn my nose up at Coconut Bars, which tasted like someone had collected the hair out of all the combs in the house, mixed it with flour, toasted and baked it. coconut-barsFinally, there were Pecan Sandies, a favorite summer time cookie for my mother. She bought Pecan Sandies so that when we went to the beach we could eat something whose taste wouldn’t be altered by being covered in sand. I am not making this up.

In addition to the Essentially Tasteless Cookies, though, there would always be a package of something wonderful, usually Oreos or Pinwheels. Pinwheels were the Platonic pinwheel-packageForm of cookie; for one thing, they were huge. They were the only cookie I could eat just two of and feel satisfied. Plus, Pinwheels had three delicious elements: a graham cracker base, a good deal of marshmallow, and a covering of chocolate. When they were fresh, I could bite into a Pinwheel and the chocolate would resist for just a moment before collapsing into a pillow pinwheelof fresh marshmallow and graham cracker. Heaven. The only down side of Pinwheels was the fact that they only came twelve to a package. At least Oreos had three rows of multiple cookies, making it harder to keep count of how many were gone.

My family lived under a Cookie Honor System. No one was supposed to eat more than her/his share of the cookies, and it was expected that cookies would be available through Thursday night’s dinner for anyone who fancied one or two. The Oreos and Pinwheels rarely made it to midweek. Even the Tasteless Blond Cookies were always gone by Friday and often before.

I snuck cookies at every opportunity, knowing full well that there would be a Day of Cookie Reckoning in my near future. When no one was around and I was hungry for sweets, I displayed an astonishing lack of ability to weigh short term pleasures against long term consequences, and I would eat a good bit more than my share of the weekly cookie supply.

untitledThe dread would start in my gut right around Wednesday night after dinner, when my brother Jamie would go over to the cabinet where the cookies were kept. I swear that he never wanted a cookie at all until he was sure they were gone. He seemed to enjoy more than any cookie the drama of opening the cabinet and yelling out, “Who ate all the…..?” I would cringe, because it was almost always me and I was almost always in trouble for it, especially when I was on a diet. My mother was never happy to discover that she had been baking halibut for me while I was scarfing down Oreos on the sly.

It was my sister Susan (she sometimes got into trouble over Cookie Consumption, but not nearly as often as I did) who came up with a solution to our problem. One Wednesday night after the weekly Cookie Inquisition—and this time, Susan was the main culprit–she stomped away from the kitchen, taking me with her.  “I have some of my own money,” she whispered to me. “Let’s go to Kohl’s and buy ourselves our own package of Oreos and our own bottle of milk!” Brilliant. My sister is a genius, I thought to myself. The best kind of genius—one with her own money.

Thus began a tradition of buying food in secret and consuming it in secret—unlike a candy bar here or there, we were talking entire packages of cookies, bags of chips, the large size candy bars. We did have the problem of spiriting these contraband goods past the eyes of my mother, but Susan and I solved that problem by inventing a pulley system whereby we snuck out the back door, down our side yard, across the Steins’ front yard and to either Kohl’s, Fessenbecker’s Bakery or Hayward’s Drugstore, depending on how hungry we were and/or how much money we had. Once we had the goods, we placed our contraband goodies in an old bicycle basket and pulled them up onto our little balcony with a jump rope.

For some reason, Susan moved on from this behavior after a few weeks. Perhaps she was weary of funding my prodigious appetite for sweets, or perhaps she was turning into a Normal Person; in any event, my silent partner in crime was pulling out. Not me. I developed a firm and pernicious habit of buying junk food and consuming it alone. Once in a while, Susan would still join me in the Search for the Sugar High; when there were no goodies in the house—or the goodies that did exist were a worrisome “Jamie will get us for this” trap–Susan perfected a recipe for our own “frosting.” She mixed butter with cocoa and powdered sugar and we would eat it straight from the bowl. It was actually pretty good, and just as importantly, we could make it quietly and fast.

When even the ingredients for Fast and Sneaky Frosting weren’t available or I had no money of my own, I was not averse to consuming Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup straight from the can, or—if we had them–poured over graham crackers. One night I was craving the Chex Mix I had tasted at a friend’s house, and I attempted to recreate it by guessing the recipe, limited of course to whatever ingredients were on hand in my mother’s kitchen. I poured Cheerios on a cookie sheet, doused them with soy sauce, and baked them for about thirty minutes. They were not tasty.

m-and-mWhen my brother Johnnie got married in 1971, I was eager to hear from him what marriage was like. My sister Marbeth had married in 1966, but she lived far away, first in North Carolina and then in Texas, so I couldn’t ask her. About a week after coming back from his honeymoon, I asked Johnnie, “What’s the best thing about being married?” Without hesitating, Johnnie said, “I go to Kohl’s and buy the pounder bag of M&M’s. I bring them home, and put them in the cabinet. And then I eat as many as I want.” Made perfect sense to me. I couldn’t wait to get married.

The Day a Banana Cake Nearly Killed Me

ovary-food-pieceRight from the beginning, I was a girl in love with food. My first memory ever is of standing in my crib howling for a bottle; I could not have been any older than two at that time. Throughout my entire life, food has calmed me, comforted me, and sometimes shielded me from the world. Like all love affairs, my love affair with food came with consequences. One day just before I turned seven years old, another mom on our block informed my mother that I was “getting a stomach.” When my mother repeated this news to me, she was clearly distressed.  I was merely puzzled. I knew I had a stomach; didn’t everyone have a stomach? Was a stomach an optional organ? Are we born without stomachs but somehow develop one, like breasts? It was confusing. What I did know for sure was that my mother did not think she was giving me good news. It felt more like an Action Alert.

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At the Beginning of my Love Affair with Food

 

As luck would have it, something else started to happen just as my mother and I were hearing pronouncements about my stomach. I started having intermittent sharp, twisting pains on my right side. These pains came and went, but when they hit, they were impressive. My mother, worrying about appendicitis, took me to the doctor, but Dr. Wegmann reassured her that my appendix was just fine. Still, the pain would come back and my mother could see that for once I wasn’t trying to get away with a day off from school; I was really hurting. Despite Dr. Wegmann’s confident diagnosis, my worried mother took me to a new doctor who took one look at me and said, “You’re in pain because

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Me, My Mother, and My (Supposedly) Spastic Colon

you eat too much. You have a spastic colon; I can give you some pills for the pain but I suggest you stop overeating.”

My mother did her best; two doctors for one ailment was unheard of in our doctor-shy family. Nonetheless, a diagnosis is a diagnosis, and I had mine. I squirmed and suffered with that diagnosis for six years. The doctors’ grim pronouncement was buttressed by the fact that the pain did seem to start anytime I ate a lot more than I should have. I would eat a large meal, and sure enough, within an hour I would be in agony. The pain didn’t happen every time I ate, but eating did seem to be connected to my distress.

For some reason, I never thought to ask why other people overate now and then without experiencing pain that felt like routine disembowelment. My father, my siblings, and my friends would eat too many cookies or a big bowl of ice cream now and then, rub their stomachs or burp, and move on with their lives. Not me. If I ate too many cookies, within hours I would be doubled over with pain so sharp and insistent it was hard to breathe. I just assumed that overeating was a sin, and the price of sin was suffering.

After six years in this rather harsh universe of moral food clarity, the situation came to a head. It was summertime, and I had a babysitting job at my sister Marbeth’s house. For breakfast that morning, I had my usual Veri-Thin Bread with diet jelly, supplemented by three pieces of leftover Sara Lee Banana Cake. (My mother was not home that day and so I was enjoying an Unsupervised Breakfast.) Enroute to Marbeth’s house, the pain started

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and got very bad very quickly. One block short of my destination, I threw up from the pain, staggered the rest of the way, and finally arrived, only to faint on Marbeth’s double bed. Sensing that she would perhaps not be going out that day after all, Marbeth tried to find my mother. When she couldn’t reach her, she took me to Dr. Thomas, her own children’s seventy five year old pediatrician. Dr. Thomas may have been seventy five years old, but she was sharp enough to know that vomiting and passing out from overwhelming pain was not a sign of too much banana cake. She gave me my first internal exam—on an examining table built for toddlers—and immediately said that I needed to be in the hospital.

nurseBy 5:00 that same day, I was officially a patient at Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee. I was thirteen, but my admitting doctor was a pediatrician, and Children’s Hospital was where she had privileges. After spending a very long night in a five-foot bed (I was 5’6”), I was subjected to many tests and procedures. The pain would come and go, but when it came it was spectacular. I couldn’t take anything, even an aspirin, because my pain was helping the doctors to figure out what was wrong with me. Since a seventy-five year old pediatrician had given me one internal exam and immediately discovered a mass the size of a large grapefruit, I was puzzled as to why my symptoms were still being examined and discussed. Looking back, I realize that Children’s Hospital was a teaching hospital—that is why I had three different doctors, and also why I received an entire morning of tests and eleven internal exams in one day. It certainly didn’t help that I entered Children’s Hospital on July 30, and my doctors were two interns and a resident, all of whom had begun their rotations on July 1.

Eventually, my doctors finished their testing and announced to my parents what Dr. Thomas had told us ten minutes after meeting me: I had a very large cyst on one of my angry-ovaryovaries; the pain was the result of torsion, a fancy word meaning that the cyst was twisting on its stem. Such twisting could happen more readily after I had eaten. Those doctors who blamed my pain on eating weren’t entirely wrong after all. The following day, I had surgery and one of the interns removed a truly impressive dermoid cyst (it was stuffed with teeth, skin and hair, a fact I try never to think about) from my right ovary. When I heard about this giant (and very disgusting) cyst through the fog of pain and stupor in the recovery room, my first thought was “Oh wow; I just lost some serious cyst-weight doing absolutely nothing! Lucky me!” Little did I know that I would be losing plenty more before I walked out the door of Children’s Hospital; I had had major abdominal surgery: the cyst was so large and had been twisting for so long that they also had to remove my right ovary and fallopian tube.  I had to be fed by tubes and I was forbidden to eat anything by mouth for a week. By the time I got home, I was fourteen pounds thinner. Thrilled as I was with my now-baggy pants, I have since discovered that there are much, much easier ways to lose weight. And to this day, when I am out with friends and we enjoy a big meal, when one of them says, “Oh my God, I ate so much I am going to explode!” I want to shake my head and say, “Oh, honey. You have no idea.”