We sat at the kitchen table picking green beans out of that metal colander. We snapped off the ends and then snapped them in half and put them in to a white, plastic bowl. While we snapped my mother told me about the wild parties her parents had when she was a teenager in the 1950’s. Somebody would play a piano and they would clear a dance floor in the living room and the next morning my mother was told to clean up the mess that was left behind. As I was so enraptured by my mother’s storytelling, I’m sure my small hands (I imagine being about seven at this time) managed to complete about one bean every five minutes or so but my mother’s hands were a blur. Her hands handled the beans without any thought at all.
It was as if her mind was free to go wherever it wanted while her hands were so frantically busy performing a task she knew so absolutely by heart. I distinctly remember thinking that when I got older, that is what my hands would look like. And, so, they do.
My hands are my mother’s hands. We always knew this. Laying in her bed together at night, we would sometimes put our hands next to one another or press our palms together and compare. Both were slender with delicate long-ish fingers. She told me that her hands were her mother’s hands so my hands are matrilineal. It is, indeed, my hands that I blame for my imposed domesticity. My mind and the rest of my body has always wanted to be a gypsy, to roam free, to leave the responsibility of cleaning and cooking and child-rearing to other, more domesticated women. I have always wanted to be wild. My hands, however, come from a long line of taking care of others. It is my hands that make me the domesticated mess I’ve turned into.
Of course, every generation, if they are lucky, improves upon the situation of the last and my mother, I think I can safely say, was a much bigger domesticated mess than I was. My mother did everything in her power to leave her wild mind and wild body in the dust and let her hands control her life. But it was in her stories and the movement her body made through a kitchen that her wildness betrayed her and it was this wildness that I craved and needed to be close to.
My mother’s hatred of velux blankets was comical. As an older woman, she openly proclaimed this hatred to me dozens of times. My father loved velux blankets. As far back as I can remember, he has always owned one, has always had one on his bed. Their relationship, to put it mildly, was not the best. But my mother could not openly hate my father – indeed, her journals reveal that she couldn’t even hate him privately – but nobody begrudged her for hating velux blankets. Regardless, it is absolutely a light blue velux blanket that I can feel under my fingers as I remember my mother telling me about the car trip she took back to Mexico with her grandparents in the mid 1940’s when she was no more than seven or eight years old. I can also see the antique oak wardrobe that my father refinished for her and the peeling cracked ceiling over my head and her beautiful dark face. It must have been summer. Her skin turned toffee in the summer and her smile came back.
It is her face, her smile, her skin that I miss most of all.
In an attempt to escape the domesticity that I seemed betrothed to, I became a writer. My mother had a love-hate attitude toward my writing. She was clearly so proud of it and this pride was absolutely a motivating factor in my dedication to writing. Yet, at the same time, she acted as if I was betraying the life she wanted me to live by pursuing my writing seriously. I know now that it was the wildness that scared her. The wildness she felt in her own body, her own heart coursed through me. She wanted me to go, be free, let the wildness consume me but she was terrified of what that unknown consumption by wildness would mean. Part of me, I think, began writing only in an attempt to put her stories in to words. The first poem I ever published was a story she told me about her grandfather one night in bed. But, my mother also wanted to write her own stories. The older she got, the more she seemed to want this. When she talked about it, at times, it looked as though a team of wild horses was dancing just behind her eyes, just dying to burst through. I gave her journals, books, pens, advice. I wanted to read the life story my mother would write for herself so badly. Indeed, to this day, I can’t think of any book I’d like to read more.
So when my mother died, I was desperate to find any written words she left behind. Anything. Because my sister was going to get to her house first, I asked her if she would save me any journals or letters or anything with my mother’s writing on it or in it. She did. A scant few pages left behind in several different journals, a letter tucked in to a book, recipes scrawled in my mother’s beautiful looping cursive – the kind perfected in the American classrooms of the 1940s and 1950s by the kind of girl that wanted to do her best and please everyone. For me, as maybe it would be for many writers, my mother’s handwriting is imbued with her soul. When I see it, I can’t help but reach out and touch it, trace the elegant writing with my fingers, close my eyes and long for her actual embrace.
At the same time, I felt an extreme disappointment when I began reading through these few pages leftover in her journals. Mostly, she did not write her life story. Mostly, in the form of lists of what she ate on any particular day, she chronicled her long, exhausting struggle with food and her body.
For the last forty years of her life, my mother was clinically overweight or obese. She vacillated between the two. She could diet herself down to overweight but then the obesity would always come back. This up-and-down relationship with her body and food was complicated hugely by her basic need to cook for and feed people as well as the habit of emotional eating that she developed to cope with her difficult life. This frightening habit of emotional eating was just one of the lasting gifts she passed down to me during my childhood.
In her own childhood, my mother was quite slender. When she was very young, she said, her parents were frequently asked if she was ill because she was so thin. Her high school graduation photograph shows a young woman comparable in beauty and stature to a young Audrey Hepburn. My father loved that photo. Her wedding pictures are the same. She was the precise size most modern-day American women long to be, which is to say: Skinny.
Then, she had five children in five years. And, as any mother can imagine, all hell broke loose, in her body, as well as her mind.
It is my theory that my mother sunk into a long spiral of emotional eating and neglect of her own body at this time. This theory has been pieced together through family stories, photographs, my own observations of my mother’s behavior and my own experiences of emotional eating and mothering. I was born eight years after that fifth child in five years, making me number 6. I’m not sure what state my mother’s body was in just before she had me but after she had me, there was little chance of her ever recovering or developing a healthy relationship with food or her body again. This was not simply because of the fact of having so many children so quickly. No. In fact I've met two different women in the past few years who have 10 and 11 children (yes, all their own) who have very healthy relationships with food and their bodies and who are quite fit. There were other emotional, psychological issues at work in my family and on my mother, in addition to the strain of pregnancies and child-rearing, that made these healthy relationships impossible for her.
By the time I was in elementary school and my sister was working at haagen daas, I remember my mother calling her to bring home chocolate ice cream for a late night snack. I remember binges on chocolate/peanut butter no-bake cookies. I remember potato chips and French-onion dip being a staple food in our home. I remember the most enormous metal mixing bowl filled with popcorn dripping with butter and grainy with salt. I remember that eating was what my family did. Cooking and eating is what my mother did. Occasionally, we varied the routine of food with films. When the VCR was invented and my family finally bought our own, movies and food were our only real family activities. It wasn’t a bad life. It was fun and certainly pleasurable. But, as it turns, out, not altogether healthy for anyone.
Both my mother and my father died of heart attacks. Ironically, yet not at all surprisingly, she died while she was cooking and he died while he was eating.
What was most awful, for me, about reading my mother’s lists of her daily intake of food in the writing she left behind was seeing myself in them. I have made many similar lists – sometimes for sixth months at a time. Almost any American woman who has ever wanted to lose weight (which is almost every American woman) knows that one of the best ways to do so is to keep track of what you are eating because it helps you restrict calorie intake and make sure you’re still eating healthy. So, it is my belief and my fear that if we were to collect all of the vast stacks of food intake diaries throughout our country, we could probably build a tower that would stretch all the way to the moon. One of the lines in one of my mother’s journals reads, “I am so tired of being so unhappy with my body.” Amen, Mother! Aren’t we all. And, of course, the solution is to change our bodies, to restrict our bodies, to make lists of everything we put in to our mouths, to obsess about calories and fat and carbs and measurements and“zones.” Of course! And to what end? So that you continue to hate your body until the day you die of a heart attack in your own kitchen while the butter burns away in the cast iron pan and your husband’s eggs develop a hard and sticky yellow skin in the bowl on the counter?
What is equally awful, for me, about reading my mother’s lists of her daily intake of food in the writing she left behind is that I do not know what I need to learn from them. Do I stop making the lists? Do I stop obsessing about food and my body? Or do I take the lists even more seriously? Do I embrace the obsessing and become an absolute fanatic so that I can force myself to lose weight and hopefully, maybe, one day, be happy with my body? Either way, I’m going to die, eventually. Is it better to live hating my body and restricting calories and making obsessive lists of things I’ve eaten in the name of keeping the 10 pounds off that I seem to lose and gain and lose and gain and lose and gain over and over? Or is it better to live with that 10 (and those other 20 that make me overweight) extra pounds and just love my body and love the food that I eat? And is it even possible to love my body the way that it is in the world we live in, obsessed as it is with thinness? And how do I honor and use all of the wonderful things my mother taught me about cooking and food and still eat healthy and less and not emotionally? And what does this have to do with wildness vs. domesticity?
Phew! That’s a lot of questions.
But here’s the answer: Love. Love is wildness because wildness is freedom, freedom to do what you need to do, be who you need to be, become who you need to become. Domesticity is the taming of love, the harnessing of love into a particular method of love. I love my family when I feed them healthfully. I love my family when I clean our home. I love my children when I think of the proper way to teach them not to wake up at 5am and steal candy from the very top cupboard in the pantry because it’s dangerous to stand tippy-toe on that rickety old chair and your teeth are going to rot out of your head…
Where was I? Oh yes, love.
What my mother never seemed to know was how much she was loved. She was filled with love for others but she could never love herself. Because she never loved herself, she never believed she was nearly as loved as she truly was. This inability to love herself kept her stuck in a cycle of emotional eating and bad eating habits that she couldn’t break.
The words my mother left behind in her stories, her journals, the notebooks full of recipe clippings and the cookbooks full of notes – these are all gifts. Instead of wanting something different or worrying about how they are not enough, I need to embrace the gifts my mother left me – a great capacity for love and an ability to cook and take care of my family – and a boatload of recipes and menus. In all of this my mother has given me and guided me to the tools and talents I need to begin answering all of my questions. She left me with love. She left me with a wild heart and lean, domesticated hands that know how to handle real food. Though she never fully learned to use her cooking, her domesticity or her wildness to heal herself, she is still healing me by having instilled all of these in me when I was still too young to even have questions. Cook real food. Snap fresh green beans. Dance in the kitchen. Feed your family with love. Healing and happiness will follow.
In the meantime, Vaya Con Dios!