While my husband and I are putting groceries away in the awkward pantry of our decaying New England farmhouse, I comment to him how strange it is to me that our 14-year-old son, who eats almost anything and usually a lot of it, will not eat cereal. By the time I was Conrad’s age, I had likely eaten in excess of 300 boxes of cereal, mostly Grape Nuts, Raisin Bran (Kellogg’s, not Post) and Corn Flakes. Chris looks skeptical; I guess he thinks that number sounds high. I remind him that growing up we did not eat dinner together or sometimes at all. But there was always cereal and milk in the house.
Suddenly it seems possible to me that Conrad’s aversion to cereal is, in fact, a subconscious protest to what he considers to be the depressing conditions of my childhood. He’s apparently too young to see why any of it might be funny, while I’m at the stage where I cannot bear the thought that it might not be. And although I don’t have very many memories from childhood, the stories I do recall—often with photographic accuracy—Conrad usually finds unsettling. My teenage daughter, instead, seems fixated on what I cannot remember. “How is it possible that you don’t know when you got your period? Isn’t that like a defining moment in your life?” I tell her that I believe I was either in middle school or high school, which seem like the most medically feasible options, and that I do remember emerging slowly from a public bathroom and looking through a giant plate glass window that had a view of a parking lot—although try as I might I cannot remember where the parking lot was, only that it was almost full, and that is was raining softly. In any case, I should probably also consider the possibility that Conrad just finds soggy food kind of gross.
It’s not exactly true that I cannot remember any family dinners, which is something I like to occasionally say for effect to make my husband feel guilt rather than gratitude about his near-perfect upbringing. There was one meal, some time during the fall of 7th grade, when the six of us–four sisters, two parents—sat around the oval Formica-topped table in our poorly lit kitchen and shared food. (We had a dining room but the table only had four chairs, and it had a white carpet that had been destroyed by, and always smelled of, dog urine.) My mom had made something called cube steak, mashed potatoes—which she had a special gift for— and green beans that were previously frozen but nonetheless delicious.
Things were going famously; we were talking, laughing even. We were also taking turns feeding Olga—our bear-like female Rottweiler who had already mothered numerous champions—scraps from the table, having forgiven her for biting my grandmother four years earlier. If at that moment someone had looked through the small kitchen window from the porch and seen us sitting there at that table, they might have thought we looked like a nice family.
Then Leslie asked my father to please pass the potatoes. He put his fork down and stared at her. “You are so goddamn fat, I don’t know how you can keep shoving food into your face.” Then he shook his head and sighed. “Why don’t you just go and kill yourself?”
This is precisely when the tape in my head stops playing. I don’t remember what happened next, if there was silence or hysteria or one following the other. And it really bothers me how so many of my memories are cut off like this, as if the brutality of the moment just sort of incinerates the rest of the story. So one day when we were driving together, I finally asked my sister if she remembered what she did after Dad called her fat and told her to kill herself. She was looking out through the windshield of her Mercedes SUV, and she squinted for a moment, possibly from the sun. Without taking her eyes off the road, she responded flatly, “Which time?”
My sisters and I have collectively wondered where my father’s obsession with thinness came from. And not just being thin; he hated any kind of female roundness. Breasts disgusted him. He would brag that my mother was just a “back with nipples.” All of the women he slept with before, during and after my mom also had masculine and muscular figures– tennis players and ballet dancers, occupations for which flat-chestedness is almost a requirement. My sisters and I have speculated that perhaps it stemmed from the fact that he was gay, that he if he couldn’t be with a man he wanted to be with a woman who felt like one. Or perhaps it was that he feared, despised and was ultimately abandoned by his abusive mother, who died of leukemia when he was a boy. I never thought to ask him if she had big breasts.
My mother used to say, with a mixture of resignation and sadness, “Leslie was always your father’s favorite, until she hit puberty. Then he wouldn’t even look at her.” This loss of my father’s affection unfortunately coincided with our move from Miami Beach to Central Florida—a more suitable home, my parents decided, for the eight Rottweilers that at the time were living in metal crates lined up in our Art Deco foyer on Flamingo Drive. But it was not for us. Leslie was torn away from our Yeshiva where she was adored by everybody and sent to a rough public school where she was largely ignored, except for the Jew-hating bullies on the bus who furiously poked at her head in search of horns. (I was deposited in a Lutheran elementary school, where my 4th grade teacher Mrs. Jordan would pin my shoulders against the brick wall outside of our classroom, bring her face so close to mine that I thought our noses might touch, and whisper, “Accept Jesus Christ as your savior right now or never see your parents again.”) It’s hard to say who drew the shorter straw.
During four years of high school Leslie would learn almost nothing, graduate Valedictorian and—much to my father’s horror—gain 30 pounds. She also found a single friend about whom my mother once said, “That girl is trouble. I can smell it a mile away.” This remark would lead us later to believe that my mother was either psychic or a phenomenal judge of character, as five years after high school that flat-chested, tomboy friend of my sister was sleeping with my father in my mother’s bed, leaving behind sex toys the likes of which I had never seen, and letting her naughty little dogs climb on the rarely used dining room table. The resulting deep scratches were never repaired.
In the face of his daughters becoming women with women’s bodies, my father went to extraordinary lengths to “help” us stay thin. While my delayed puberty exempted me from most of his bizarre and humiliating tactics, my sisters were subjected to verbal lashings and frequent blood tests to check their thyroid. (My father was a big fan of “testing.” Because my sister Sarah got the occasional B- on her report card, he had her tested repeatedly to confirm his suspicion that she was “retarded.” She was not.) But despite Leslie’s perfectly normal thyroid, my father successfully lobbied a doctor living in another state to prescribe her hormone therapy. Finally, when she was in her early 20s, she went for a routine check-up. The doctor gasped when he saw the obscene dose she had faithfully taken for more than ten years. “This,” he said while holding up the orange bottle between his thumb and forefinger and shaking it for emphasis “is double the dose I would prescribe for someone who has had their thyroid removed.” Once she stopped taking the drug her resting heart rate went from 90 to 55, which she described as a welcome change. However, that dose likely did some irreparable things to her heart and bone density, so years later she called my dad and asked him why he did it. “It could have killed me,” she told him.
“I was trying to make you thin,” he said without a note of regret. Leslie decided she had heard enough and was ready to hang up when he added, “I kind of figured that if you were fat, your life was already over.”
But my mother had always been slender and muscular. She was a dancer in high school, joined Ringling Brothers Circus when she was 18, and then spent the next six years riding elephants in pointe shoes and dangling by her ankles and wrists from the web in the center ring. Excess weight increases your chances of falling. And in those days before they used a net, of dying. Still, my father feared she would put on a few pounds after having kids, so he convinced her she was hypoglycemic and needed “medical attention.” In 1974, he sent her to a doctor in New York nobody had yet heard of named Dr. Atkins, who proceeded to put her on a low-carb diet that she followed religiously. For six years she ate protein and fat. Slabs of bacon and steak. TaB cola by the case, and cheesecake made with Sweet’n Low on special occasions. No bread, ever. Of course, this had the desired effect,especially if you ignore the fact that she died of a heart attack at 60. Looking back now though, it’s fairly evident that the Atkins Diet wasn’t even necessary. For all of my life, she weighed exactly 111 pounds.
My sister Sarah insists this fixation with thinness became a badge of my mother’s. I hate to think this is possible, but suspect that if it’s true, it’s only because she wanted my dad to love us, to come home eventually, and she believed we had to be thin in order for this to happen. One of Sarah’s more disconcerting memories is sitting down to dinner in Toronto, when my grandmother lived with us and my father lived someplace else, and finding her plate looking very different from the rest of ours. We were having “bunsteads” for dinner—a dreadful invention which amounted to hot dog buns loaded with tuna and mayonnaise and cheese heated in the oven (my mom would skip the bun, of course)– but Sarah was given lettuce, cucumber slices and a tomato wedge. I don’t remember her being fat, and the few pictures from our childhood that remain show a mostly unsmiling girl who was tall with broad shoulders and not overweight. But there is nothing like being put on a diet when you are seven to make you think you are for the rest of your life. Sarah recalled that after my mother left for the gym that night, my grandmother hugged her extra hard, offered to make her whatever she wanted for dinner, and then invited her to the basement to share her stash of Baby Ruth candy bars. Years later, when Sarah was not yet an adult, my father would buy her cigarettes because smoking makes you thin.
It also gives you lung cancer, which he would eventually find out. Eleven years ago my sister Rebekah (who recently confessed she is undergoing hypnosis to cure her of her body hatred) called to tell me that he was sick and was given two to four months to live. I had not seen or spoken to him in almost twelve years. But we flew to see him—Chris, the kids, and I. Conrad, who at the time was almost three and rarely made eye contact with anyone, hardly spoke, and had everyone (including his doctor) but me convinced he was on the spectrum, flew into my father’s arms as if he had been waiting for this moment his whole life. We were in the crowded Pike’s Place market and I still have no idea how he knew which person was my dad, but looking back he must have correctly surmised it was the person who started crying at the sight of him. My father seemed weak and, therefore, gentler, and he was finally as thin as he probably always wanted to be.
While Chris carted the kids around Seattle, I stayed with my father at the house he shared with his girlfriend, her seven Dobermans, and another man. (When she told her husband she was leaving him for my father, he said that was fine but he would be killing himself. So she stayed, and my father moved in. After he died, her husband quietly moved back into the master bedroom.) For most of the time I was with my father, I sat next to his bed where he laid and we earnestly debated whether nature or nurture was to blame for the person he was. He tried desperately to recall the story of his life and told me he believed it was God’s blessing that he could not remember many of the terrible things he had done.
We left after two days, and I said I would be back again. Exactly one month later, at 5AM I was en route to the airport to see him. The tiny public radio station that broadcasts to Livingston, Montana, was inexplicably playing a Hebrew ballad as the dawn clouds broke and revealed an ethereal yellow haze. So strange was the effect of these two things together that I recall thinking, “Could he be dying at this moment?” No one knows for certain what time he passed away, but turns out he did so quietly in his sleep at some point early that morning while Leslie’s friend from high school, the one who had driven the final wedge between my mother and him, slept in a chair by his bed. (To this day I have no idea why she was there, but she was gone by the time I got to the hospital, which was no doubt in her best interest.) The nurses knew I was coming so they left him in his room, head thrown back and mouth wide open, looking as tormented as I suspect he felt for most of his life.
After leaving I immediately called Leslie, who at that time in her life spent the majority of her waking hours working out obsessively, weighing her food, and progressively eliminating delicious things from her diet. I was searching for a specific source of my grief and was focusing on how I could not remember what his last words to me were. I thought I would see him before he died. Leslie, on the other hand, had been with him just the day before.
She drew in a little breath before she told me the story of her goodbye. After holding his hand for hours while he slipped in and out of consciousness, she said she had cried quietly, kissed his cheek, then whispered “I love you” and meant it. She had all but forgiven him for everything, the way I suppose only a child can. But as she stood up to leave he grabbed her wrist, eyes wide open to meet hers. And then, in what can best be described as a moment of astonishing lucidity, he spoke:
“Watch your weight.”