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The Sabbath Meal
I Am Learning
The Ice Cream Cone
The Girdle, a Womanís Best Friend
My Own True Voice
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I Am Learning

I am 5 or 6 at the dinner table in the kitchen of our duplex in Newport, Kentucky. Out the window, beyond the railroad tracks, the sun, setting behind York Street School where my father attended before me, makes the building look aflame. My mother has served peas, a vegetable I do not like, so I refuse to eat them. My father and my older sister have finished and left the table. My mother admonishes before she retreats to the living room, "Stay there until you eat those peas." When she climbs the stairs, I stick my tongue out as far as I can and cross my eyes, then slump back in my chair with my arms folded across my chest.

Though I am fearful of my motherís anger, I am also a strong willed child. I do not like peas, especially not these stone-cold, gray-green paste wads that I push around my plate for more than an hour until I fall asleep on my folded arms at the table. "Judi!" my mother screams as she descends the stairs, "Eat those peas or get a spanking! Itís nearly bedtime." The sky is dark with scattered stars that resemble spilled glitter. I have been there almost three hours.

"Iíll take the spanking," I say. In a fury my mother tromps back up the stairs, and soon my father comes down with a Hi-Lo paddle, the kind that comes with a rubber ball attached to a string in its middle, a childís toy that in our house was a tool of punishment. My father doesnít want to spank me, he says, but I think he is afraid of my mother. He tries to talk me into eating the peas, tries cajoling, tries reasoning, but I refuse. Finally he does my motherís bidding and lays me over his knees and spanks me. I donít cry. I am learning to do battle over food.

ē

Late summer smellsóof roses too-heavy on their stems, and watermelon and thunderstorms and earth plowed under and mothballs. My sister, my mother, and I spend a morning in the attic going through boxes of winter clothes which had been packed the previous spring. Itís a little like a treasure hunt, pulling out a favorite skirt and finding it can be lengthened to fit. And disappointing too when that dress I never liked of my sisterís now fits me. It is the prelude to a shopping excursion where the vacancies in our closets will be filled with new colors and fabrics.

We are off to Swifton Shopping Center after sorting through the box of last yearís school clothes. My sister is in the front seat. The favored position in that old Ď51 Plymouth is given to her for this trip in spite of the fact that I "finny-ed" it first. My mother is mad. At me. Again. She is mad at me so often that trying to separate one reason from another is like trying to unknot the silver chain that has lain too long in my jewelry box.

The parking lot is crowded, and we circle a few rows, my motherís anger circling too, a buzzard looking for a meal. I sit in the corner of the back seat trying to be invisible in the hope sheíll lose her mad. Finally she gives up on finding a close spot and parks three quarters of the way down a row.

"Come on," she matter-of-facts to Barbara as I wait for my sister to get out so I can plop the seat forward and work my own way out to follow them. "Not you," my mother says, not looking at me. "I donít want to be seen with a fat girl. Stay here until we get back." And my mother slams her door and locks it, and the two of them leave.

In the melee of anger, forsakenness, insecurity, and disappointment, I tell myself over and over, Itís not you. Itís her. Sheís just mad again. Itís not you. You didnít do anything. Itís not you. Itís her. It becomes a chant until they return. My sisterís laughter stops as she approaches the car and waits for the door to be unlocked.

All the way home, my mother feigns conversation in Everythingís-all-right tones, in Didnít-we-have-fun tones, in Isnít-she-sorry-she-couldnít-go-with us tones. Barbara answers when spoken to directly but is self-conscious with my motherís singular attention now that she is in the close quarters of the car with me. I refuse to let either of them see me hurt, so I adopt indifference, scrutinizing everything out the window for the ride home which seems three times as long as the ride to the shopping center. I slide into the crevice between the seat and its back like a lost coin, a scrap of paper, a bit of lint, hoping they would sense a Judi-shaped hole in their happy world.

At home, as they open bags and flounce new skirts and blouses and ooh and aah, I go to the bedroom I share with my sister, where I pretend their chatter comes from the neighborís apartment. I donít cry, though my motherís disapproval is a bitter soup I try to stay afloat in. I am learning that others can be embarrassed by my body.

ē

By eighth grade, I have outgrown my mother, who is 4 feet 11 inches tall and wears a size 7 dress. My sister, always the scrawny one, still wears my motherís hand-me-downs, but I have grown taller and more bosomy though my first bra, a 34 B, is still a year coming. "You look pregnant," my mother says when she hands me my first rubber girdle. "Arenít you ashamed to look like that? Wear this!" And so I do, despite the embarrassing popping and snapping as I peel down the girdle at school in the girlsí restroom or in the gym locker room. I cough and sniff and clear my throat, flush the toilet repeatedly in the hope of concealing the sound. I am learning to be embarrassed of my body.

ē

One year ago, at the age of 51, I entered therapy with a woman who specializes in eating disorders because I am grossly obese and in danger of being at least crippled by the weight I carry. I am learning how deep the root system of my disorder is, and I am tracing its growth over the years. In so doing, I am also learning to take charge ofóand most importantly, to acceptómyself.

Most of my therapistís clients suffer from anorexia or bulimia, those devastating illnesses that are murdering our young women. Once as I was leaving the office, one of these young women, about 15, wearing black jeans and a black long-sleeved shirt, was sitting on the floor of the waiting room, leaning against the wall with her knees drawn up near her chest. She was so thin she looked like the capital letter N. As the therapist and I walked through the doorway, she glanced toward us, saw me, and lowered her head. She and I are like two penitents, the one entering the confessional who will not look directly at other and the one leaving who sees everyone with a clearer heart. I said hello to her, but she merely mumbled as she slid up the wail, passed by me and greeted the therapist directly.

I know I represent what she most fears about herself. I understand this, though itís a role Iím not happy to play. There was a profound sadness about our non-meeting, the two of us at opposite ends of the long knotted rope of eating disorders and having more in common, probably, than either of us might expect.

What I hope is that I live long enough for her to be able to look me in the eyes.

I hope she does.

ē Judi, 52 ē

 

 

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