“I’m sorry I made you bipolar.”
Wait, what? My mother stood in the kitchen stoically wiping a dish that was already dry.
I was stunned, and at quite a loss for words. I was already uncomfortable in this scene even without the abrupt confession.
My mother’s house was so her: beautiful and unwelcoming. She had always lived in that damned yellow kitchen. Lemon and white striped wallpaper, stiff and perfect, topped with an elaborate wrap-around border painted with fruits and vegetables. I remember when she picked out the wallpaper. She loved that border so much but it was about two inches too wide to fit over the top of the doorways in the room. Instead of picking a slimmer one, she made the interior designer hand-trim the extra two inches of white padding off of the bottom. The designer cut around each leaf and stem of that intricate pattern until it blended with seeming effortlessness into the stripes below, just passing above the impeding doorways. That was my mother.
I was wedged awkwardly into one of her prickly wicker side chairs that were originally meant for actual children, not 45 year-old children. I was staring blankly at the back of her head as Fox News was droning on in the background.
“I don’t think that’s the way it works, Mom.”
I didn’t want to let her off the hook. There were so many other things she needed to apologize for. This just wasn’t one of them.
I had always had all the wrong kinds of attention from her. The entirety of her focus on me was centered around food and my appearance. Her eating disorder was my burden. In the past few years, in many ways I’ve made peace with her. Maybe I’ve just become skilled at compartmentalizing. There’s the adult version of me who sees a tiny, increasingly frail woman inching slowly and tragically toward dementia. It’s difficult to harbor rage for such a helpless creature. But child me? Child me is pissed.
I remember sitting in my second grade classroom in a small private school in eastern North Carolina. It was 11:30 in the morning and I was crippled with hunger. I was never fed breakfast in those days. I burst into tears suddenly, interrupting and startling my classmates. I was so starved that I couldn’t think anymore and I just gave into the helplessness of it all. I didn’t understand why I was always being punished with hunger. I was a slightly pudgy child and that’s not something that sat well with my mother. Appearances were all that mattered and mine was an embarrassment to her.
Once my teacher, a portly woman in her own right, realized the situation she immediately granted me leave to go get the little plastic container of dry tuna I had been bequeathed upon departure to school. She then scuttled off to make a very angry phone call to my mother. The other children, while a bit bewildered by the situation, began laughing, as children tend to do. As I struggled through downing that shredded cardboard excuse for a meal, I didn’t care who made fun of me. The pain in my stomach abated for the moment and I was happy.
Food. It would always be the moderately overweight elephant in the room. That battle dated all the way back to the womb. My mother used to scoff at me by saying that the only time she ever tipped the scale at over 100 pounds was when she was pregnant with me. I must have been a greedy little fetus.
For years I watched her eat the same thing nearly every night; a slimly portioned chicken breast cooked in the skillet with Pam and a dry garden salad. My sister, brother, father, and I got largely the same. Sometimes they’d get a little extra something on the side like some buttered bread or maybe potatoes. But god forbid there were ever a cake or pie in the house. My mother would sneak down in the middle of the night, binge on half of it, then throw the other half down the kitchen disposal. That disposal was way better fed than I was. I can only imagine the shame she must have felt losing control like that. And that’s what I would some-day learn. It wasn’t about the food; it was about control.
Of course as a child I had not yet obtained such insight so food for me was a big “Fuck you” to her. I took what I could get wherever I could get it. It was my rebellion. It was my obsession. It was my salvation. When I was a child I would marvel at the treats I would find at my friends’ houses. My friend Tracey’s mother used to make the icing for her special caramel cake by boiling a sealed can of condensed milk for three hours. Once it was out and sufficiently cooled, she would take her hand-crank can opener and unveil the most glorious golden brown gooey substance you’ve ever seen. It was so sweet it made my teeth hurt.
My other friend, Marilyn, used to have her mother make us Spam sandwiches. I would watch those slabs of meat product pop and crackle in their own juices as they browned up just slightly in the skillet, salty and full of grease which was sopped up by soft pillows of Wonder Bread. It was magical.
So in that moment back in the yellow kitchen, It was things like that I wish she would apologize for. When I was a teenager she would say things like: “You should be embarrassed to go out in public.” Or “You’ll never find a decent man or a decent job.”
Well, I never did find a decent man. She reveled in reminding me of that. But the job thing happened at least. It was a funny thing being raised an upper middle class female in the south. Your sole purpose on this earth was to go to college in order to find a man, get married, have 2.5 children and work part time in a gift shop if you were especially ambitious. I failed on all counts. However, my emotionally deprived childhood had an unintended side effect; I became uncharacteristically independent. I got the hell out of there as soon as I could. At 16 I left home for a boarding school in Raleigh and at 29 I left North Carolina for my first foray into the big city. New York was my ticket to freedom. The day I left my mother broke out into hives.