My mom grew up eating lard sandwiches. No meat or cheese. Just lard on bread.
As a teenager, I didn’t understand why. We always had food. There were just some interesting combinations set before us like rabbit with mashed potatoes—and we didn’t know it was rabbit—or spaghetti with meat that didn’t taste like hamburger. But we never went without.
In the kitchen one day, I pressed my mom about these mysterious lard sandwiches. I wanted to know why someone would eat that. My mom looked away and said, “Sometimes, there was no food… Daddy drank it away.”
Learning this about my grandfather made me furious. But I didn’t know the extent of their poverty until a few years ago when I was talking to my uncle’s ex-wife. She told me a few of the things my grandma did to get money for a simple loaf of bread. Like how she would venture over to a neighbor’s house and spend time behind the lilac bushes with the man of the house. And how she stole my uncle’s government paychecks, courtesy of his time in Vietnam. He arrived home penniless.
My mother, who lived through this dysfunction, inherited my grandmother’s strained relationship with food, and she passed it on to me.
There were times when Mom would tell us not to eat so much sugar, and then she’d bring home boxes of free, scrap cookies from her job at Interbake Foods.
And like I said, dinners… were interesting. Pork cutlets; canned ham; spam stir-fry, which a specialty; and lots of dried mashed potatoes. Dad hunted and brought home rabbit, pheasant and venison. Mom made Bisquick into bread and canned salmon was her attempt at being fancy. And there was always Ovaltine at the table. I thought it was a treat. In reality, it masked the taste of powdered milk for Dad.
To my mom’s credit, she often served these meals with sliced apples and oranges, coupled with bowls of celery sticks, carrots and radishes. The only time we ever had soda pop was on Christmas Eve. She tried hard to ensure her three children were somewhat healthy and well fed.
Yet, I found myself increasingly confused about food.
As I got older, I began noticing more of my mom’s odd behaviors with food like hiding special cookies, peanut brittle, mixed nuts and chocolates so she didn’t have to share. I watched her eat lots of sweets and hate herself for it later. Above all, we weren’t supposed to talk to anyone about what was going on in our house related to food. Or anything else for that matter.
One big thing that didn’t get talked about was my mom’s stomach stapling surgery. I remember visiting her in the hospital but not really knowing why she was there. It was the early ‘80s, and this procedure was the hot, new fight against fat.
After she returned home, it seemed like months went by before the surgery took effect. She wasn’t instantly thin. In fact, it hurt her more than it helped. I was the one who clean the crusted blood off the large black staples spanning the length of her stomach. I was 10 years old.
Later, Mom would tell me that she had the surgery for herself, but it was hard to ignore the fact that Dad used to tell her, “You’re fat.”
My unhealthy eating habits showed up around the ninth grade. I developed a different kind of food insecurity—one in which I constantly worried about what was okay to eat versus what would make me fat. In high school, I almost fainted in the office of the Driver’s Ed teacher because of an overload of diet pills and extremely low weight—110 pounds on my 5-foot-7-inch frame. I was not attractive. I was sickly. And my relationship with food only got worse.
When I was 20, my dad reinforced my insecurities by telling me, “No man will want you if you’re fat.” I took this information and used it to my advantage. Because I had a problem. No matter how much I despised some of the guys I dated, I couldn’t bring myself to end it—probably because I was so afraid of being alone. So, I’d gain 20 pounds or more and hope my bad boyfriends would break up with me.
Then, there were other times when I desperately wanted to look attractive. Like when I spotted a man I admired sitting at the bar of a restaurant, having lunch. I froze. I couldn’t take another bite of my chicken and broccoli alfredo pasta because I didn’t want this man to see me eating such a fattening meal.
Over the years, I have worked to repair my relationship with eating.
But for me, it’s a vicious cycle of months of continuous self-care—exercising and eating well—followed by periods of self-loathing and self-sabotage because that’s a comfortable place to be. I am fully aware that food is fuel for our body and brain, but I still crave sugar.
My current pattern is high waves of healthy eating among low tides of crappy food. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my behavior; other times, I think, Who cares? I’ve survived two experiences with breast and bone cancer, I’ll eat what I want.
Today, I can only say that I do my best to eat mindfully, nourish my body and mind with healthy, supportive foods and maintain a low romance with sugar. I hope my mom is proud of me, watching over me, steering me into health. God knows I’m praying for release.
Ode is a storytelling series where community members tell true stories on stage to promote positive impact through empathy. It’s produced by Siouxland Public Media.
We’re hosting Ode’s 2nd Anniversary Show on Friday, February 2 at ISU Design West in downtown Sioux City. We’ll have live music by Shawn Blomberg, starting at 7 p.m., followed by stories about “Risk.”
Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 day of show.