At the age of 16, my mother spent hours waiting in bread lines in communist Poland, biting at her nails. The year was 1972. The line was mostly women. Their bellies rattled with hunger, anticipation of food burning in their throats.
My mother has said that waiting in a bread line was not much different from a time later in her life when she had moved to America and stood in line for hours for an Eric Clapton concert.
“It’s all about wanting something. You want something, you wait for it,” she recited with a tone so deadpan that it reminded me that my mom was once a teenage girl.
My experience of teenage girlhood was vastly different, growing up in Sonoma, Calif. I was many things; hungry was not one of them. I picked mushrooms out of tacos with reckless abandon. I would surrender pieces of toast under the breakfast table to my dachshund.
But in 1972, food rationing in Poland had become widespread. My mother would wake up at the crack of dawn with ambitions of bringing back flour to her family. She would clench and study her bread coupon, only to look up and see an outbound train full of canned goods and hams hurtling toward Russia. Even then she knew: food was for other people. People who were better, more deserving; worth nourishing.
When I was young, I ate to overcompensate for her hunger.
Costco became the patron saint of my mother’s immigrant anxieties and bulk was her prayer. She bought American dream-size buckets full of almonds. She bought offensive amounts of pastas. She bought enough snacks to feed a bus full of kids on a travel soccer team. Shopping with my mother became an arms race. Shuffling through aisles along with other newly American mothers, my mom lived to give me a different life than the one she experienced.
But if being American has taught me anything, it’s that there comes a danger with having too much. During the summers, my grandmother would make dozens of plain cookies with my sister and me as her captive helpers. The cookies were floury and chalky and crumbled in our mouths. Most of the time, my sister and I would rather read Harry Potter in the garden than take part in her Bolshevik baking assembly line. Their fate was to be displayed, untouched in our kitchen for days; the spoils of a quotidian life.
The women in my family became obsessed with intake. My grandmother would push whole pizzas on my sister and me with a militant fury. Refusal was not an option. Some nights, I would end up heaving over a toilet when my mother insisted that I drink five cups of milk before bed. “It’s from cows,” she would remind me.
For years, we would eat past being full. We built appetites out of her trauma.
While we were athletic, our small bodies began to sustain extra weight. We made up for the years our matriarchs were hungry, wringing their hands for the next time they would be rationed a pound of flour.
At the age of 6, I developed a food phobia. My second-grade teacher offering me a banana at snack time could make me weep. I would make a plea to not eat butternut squash soup with the fervor of a Shakespearean monologue. Suddenly, the ideas of eating certain foods sent me into a blind panic. Doctors were confounded, especially when my mom would wax on about how I had had a healthy appetite for years.
“She would eat absolutely anything; she would eat shrimp as a toddler,” my mom recalled nostalgically to pediatricians. The hunger-shaped hole in my family’s history had rotted into a full-blown eating disorder. It was especially confounding to my family because, while it disrupted our lives, it was largely invisible to outsiders, or even to doctors: My weight remained in the normal range.
In fifth grade, I called my mother to ask to be picked up from a sleepover because they were serving lasagna, which made me anxious. My food phobias put stress on my parents. I would hold family dinners hostage by having deep negotiations with the waiter about what I could eat and could not eat. Thanksgivings were a dietary deadlock. When staying at relative’s homes, my mother would send along a detailed plan for what to do when “her eating got bad.”
The louder my mother’s pleas got to eat and assimilate, the deeper my neuroses ran. By high school, I had become a master safeguarder of my eating disorder, refusing food with the stoicism of a Sofia Coppola protagonist.
A few days after passing my driving test, I was thrust into counseling for an eating disorder. I sat cross-legged on the floor of a therapist’s office and wrote lists of foods I thought were innately obscene. I dictated the deep mythologies I had about eating, praised foods I considered to be “safe.”
My therapist bartered with me, asking me to add one new food to the list each week. Some afternoons I would leave her office so shattered that I would bawl in my Mini Cooper and listen to Joni Mitchell on my way home. By a sheer force of will, one day I left and tried an artichoke. The morning of my senior prom, I sampled Greek yogurt. I sighed with relief. In that moment, wearing blue eye shadow, I felt that I achieved an assemblance of normalcy.
As a college student, I continued seeking out intensive therapy and worked to unfetter myself from my eating rituals. As I began to better understand my mother and develop my own identity apart from her, my proclivities and rituals surrounding food melted around me.
I now look forward to sharing meals with my mother.
Over dinner recently, she reminded me of the first time I visited Poland as a child. I went weeks skipping meals, more interested in chasing wild rabbits into dimly lit barns than sharing pierogies. On some days, I consumed only fresh milk. Women in the village came to meet me, fascinated.
“This is my daughter,” my mother would say. “Hunger escapes her.”
Madeleine Connors is a writer and stand-up comedian living in Los Angeles.
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