HOUSEKEEPING

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Having spent an inordinate amount of my life in connection with school — going to endless amounts of school myself, preparing children for school, teaching school — it’s hard for me not to think of September as the real beginning of the year. (That stuff on January 1 is calendar business; you enter a new grade/class/year in September.) I even live in a university town!

So now that it’s really and truly September — yes, I can feel it in the air, and all the undergraduates are back — I decided to tidy up the blog again, in preparation for whatever may be coming out of me in the months ahead.  Apart from the fifty “Writing Short” pieces I did this summer, there were two long pieces of memoir, each presented in parts, that were written in 2015 and are now rapidly receding into the WordPress archives.

I’ve therefore pulled them back up and made them into Pages, in the event you’d ever like to see either of them again all in one piece, as originally intended, or know someone who might be interested in reading memoir.  The earlier-written one, “The Practice Boyfriend,” which first appeared in February, is now a Page called “Perry: A Memoir.”  It runs nearly 12,000 words, so don’t tackle it unless you’re prepared for a (somewhat romantic) lengthy read.  The more recent, “Losing Fifteen Pounds,” is now a nearly 7,000-word Page called “Getting to 128: A Memoir.”  In case you’re wondering: I changed the titles so that WordPress doesn’t confuse posts with pages in doing its tabulations.

Now, what shall I do next?  Any suggestions?

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LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART FIVE

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[…continued from previous four posts.]

Three weeks before returning to college,  I had a long distance phone call from Maine. It was Emily, with whom I’d shared a dormitory bathroom the year before. My mother left the room ostentatiously, to show she wasn’t going to listen.

Emily — plump and until recently lovelorn like me — had probably become my closest girlfriend by the end of our sophomore year. We shared some difficult elective classes and the same sense of humor, enjoyed the same kind of movies, and on dateless weekend evenings indulged together in making up time-travel fantasies over half-pints of ice cream delivered from the town drugstore. As rising juniors, we’d even chosen adjoining dorm rooms (with that shared bathroom).

But in our third year, Emily began spending several evenings a week, as well as many weekends, with someone else:  an emaciated and chain-smoking special student who had neither waist, hips, stomach, breasts or, when she occasionally joined us in the dining hall, interest in food.  Kit’s very narrow jeans required a broad leather belt to keep them up. She wore her straight hair chopped short like a boy’s and (Emily reported) could really hold her liquor. Rumor had it she’d been on suspension during our first two years for having come onto another girl. The object of her desire had complained. Now, after mandatory therapy to address her conduct, Kit was being permitted to finish her degree, provided she lived off campus.

Emily and her new friend were always affable when I ran into them together, and occasionally even asked me along when they went somewhere. But I always sensed they were sharing something from which I was excluded and about which I tried not to speculate. Perhaps I’d been invited to serve as camouflage? They did speak mainly to each other on these occasions.

I had very much resented the entry of this hermaphroditic-looking person into Emily’s life, and still did. Emily had been my friend, always available to complain about our respective mothers, critically examine everyone we knew, faculty included, and discuss the difficulty of meeting a really nice boy. [She had also served as a kind of control on ice-cream eating in the evenings; when we ordered a delivery from town, she was inclined to ask for two half-pints, whereas I would have gone for a pint each.] My simmering hostility towards Kit achieved nothing. Emily’s father was in the foreign service and her parents were therefore always overseas; she went home with Kit for Christmas and Easter. Then she announced she’d be spending the summer with Kit too — at a country house in Ogunquit, Maine.

On the telephone, Emily now said she was sorry she hadn’t been in touch earlier in the summer but things had been a little crazy. (What did that mean?) Would I like to come up for the Labor Day weekend? I asked if that was all right with Kit. Well sure, she answered. And added she’d really like me to come. She’d mail travel instructions. And I should bring a sweater. It was already getting chilly in Maine, especially in the evenings.

“Your friend must be rich,” said my mother when informed about this sudden uptick in my social life. “They’ve got to have a big house up there, if there’s also a room for guests.” I explained the place in Maine was just a summer house, and anyway it belonged to the family of the friend of my friend.  “She’s not your friend, too?” asked my mother.

“Yes and no,” I said. “I’m not exactly wild about her.”

“Why are you going then?”

It was too hard to explain, so I changed the subject. “I just hope they have stuff up there I can eat.” Stupid of me to bring up food and dieting. She must have been waiting for weeks. Now she pounced. “What difference does it make what they have when you eat cookies?”

I tried to keep my eyes steady on hers. “I don’t know what you mean.” My face felt very hot.

“You know.”

She waited a few moments for me to say something more. What could I say? Then she walked away. I heard the vacuum start up in the living room. I hated her. Over and over I told myself how much I hated her. What did she know, anyway? Did she think I’d merely been nibbling away at her hidden treasure one or two fig sandwich cookies at a time — the way she would do it, if she’d been me? Except, of course, she wasn’t me. She had “will power.” How could she imagine, much less understand, that once I began there was no way I could keep myself from emptying an entire box — or even two, if there had been two — in the middle of the night?

[…to be concluded in next post.]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART THREE

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[…continued from previous two posts.]

Back in Kew Gardens again after the Atlantic City fiasco, I settled into a weight-losing routine.  First, a breakfast of an orange followed by a cup of coffee with skim milk and saccharine. Then walking for at least an hour every morning, often more, from our apartment house down to the corner and then along Queens Boulevard to the Forest Hills subway stop. This was not so tedious a route as it had been when I used to walk it before I’d gone to college. In the intervening three years, several new specialty stores had come into being between the A&P, the kosher butcher, the non-kosher butcher, the one remaining dairy, the dry cleaner, the hardware store, and the bakery that sold mostly rolls, challah and poppy-seed Danish.

Now there were two more bakeries, with large windows full of trays of delicately iced cookies and lavishly decorated birthday and wedding cakes. There were also a Barton’s and a Barricini’s — candy stores displaying in their windows open boxes of dipped chocolates and a few larger boxes of interesting-looking little fruit cakes in paper cups. And four blocks after the Barricini’s, there was a place called “Alice’s –Delicacies from Around the World.”

The windows here generally featured enticing square tins of Peak Frean cookies, bags of cheese straws (what could they be?) and something called “fruit tarts” (how English!), as well as large tablets of Lindt and Tobler chocolate (colorfully packaged in sophisticated paper wrappings) that came in European flavors I hadn’t known existed — not just milk or “bittersweet” but also mocha, hazelnut, and at least three other kinds whose names I couldn’t read from the sidewalk. I would allow myself a breather in front of these windows, especially when the displays changed, but always made myself turn away and walk on after a few minutes, perspiring in the summer morning sun.

I also tried to give equal time to the “ladies’ sportswear” in the windows of the two new clothing stores along the way. Nothing I ever saw there looked really fashionable, but for at least a couple of blocks I could divert myself from the hot boredom of the walk by imagining a future me sufficiently slender to enter either of those stores and try something on without shame. At Forest Hills Boulevard, I almost always circled back towards home on Austin Street, which ran parallel to Queens Boulevard, and to fill out the hour (or more), went up and down the side streets, an area known as Forest Hills Gardens, past stately homes set far back from pavements.

I never saw another person on these streets, and only rarely a car. Perhaps everyone was away for the summer. These were what I thought of as mansions, and I wondered what sort of people lived in them and what it might be like to live in one myself. I couldn’t imagine. All I knew was here was another desirable world probably closed to me, even if I was a Sarah Lawrence girl, unless I could alter my appearance sufficiently to invite entry into its exclusive precincts.

Finally home and showered, I would read until lunch, a carefully measured repast consisting of a half-cup of cottage cheese, two Ry-Krisps and an apple, or four apricots, or two very small peaches, or some other fruit listed in the diet books as a hundred calories. I didn’t eat bananas, because one banana, a hundred calories right there, always left me wanting another. And I wasn’t sure how to count grapes (five calories a grape?), so I avoided them.

Without further agenda to occupy my days, I began to accompany my mother when she went out in the afternoons, just for something to do besides read. This seemed to please her. Her routine was invariable: every morning, housecleaning (“because the windows are open and everything gets dirty even if I just cleaned yesterday”); every afternoon, shopping at the A&P for dinner, with a stop on the way home at the newsstand on the corner for the World-Telegram and maybe a magazine; and – because she now had me with her, whatever protection that might provide from the dangers lurking outside after dark — sometimes a movie in the early evening.

At the A&P, under my supervision, she ordered round steak with all the fat trimmed away and put through the grinder just for us. She bought frozen string beans, frozen asparagus, frozen chopped broccoli – frozen was a godsend, she proclaimed, no more cleaning and cooking vegetables! She sometimes also bought a box of Social Tea biscuits, because she “had to have something sweet with her coffee after dinner.” This didn’t bother me because I didn’t especially like Social Tea biscuits. But one afternoon she hid away under her other purchases in the shopping cart a box of those new European-style cookies you could now buy even at the A&P. It was an oblong package of round scalloped butter cookies dusted with powdered sugar, sandwiched around a fig filling visible through a circle cut from the cookie forming the top of the sandwich.

Did she think I wouldn’t notice when the cashier rang everything up at the checkout counter?   “Just to have in the house in case,” she explained. In case of what? Company? She never had company. But how could I reproach her? She wasn’t on a diet. Nor did it occur to me to consider it an act of sabotage. She was my mother. The oblong package disappeared as soon as we got home. I opened all the grocery cabinets in the kitchen while she was in the bathroom and couldn’t see it anywhere.

She did try to help me. (Would a saboteur do that?) Although she had several times declared with conviction the regular whole milk yogurt in the store wouldn’t “hurt” me, she showed me how to make yogurt on top of the stove the way she had learned in Russia, so I could try to make it with skim milk. It took several days, and then turned out watery and very sour. But I ate it anyway, in measured portions, since it was only ninety calories for an eight-ounce glassful.

The summer dragged. This was the domestic life I had scorned, the life I’d gone away to college to escape, and here I was living it. I thought about my college don, who had also been my Shakespeare professor this past year; he had written a really appreciative final report based on my long “All’s Well That Ends Well” paper, calling it graceful criticism and telling me to publish it! He must really like me. We had been don and donnee for three years already, and he hadn’t suggested a change might be a good idea, as some other dons had done with friends of mine.

He was going to be on sabbatical the first term of next year, but would be back for the second and third terms.   Maybe when I was thin, he would see me in a new light. Not just brilliant. Irresistible too. True, he was married, but that hadn’t been an impediment to Amy’s exciting romance. He was about the same age as her professor-lover, too. Forty or forty-one. Wasn’t that when a man was most susceptible? Especially to a lovely twenty-year-old?

And he was taller than I was, with broad shoulders. What might it feel like for such a knowing man, a grown-up man, to put his arms around me (when there was less of me) and kiss me? Would it be with tender yearning? Or savage hunger? I wrote a hesitant little note thanking him for the report and wishing him a good sabbatical, making sure to print my home address legibly on the envelope.

I even telephoned Amy, who seemed glad to hear from me. She was having a dreary summer, too. She hadn’t heard from Him. It was too late to apply to the graduate program at Juilliard. She wasn’t practicing. And her parents didn’t like her just sitting around the living-room sofa thinking about Him. They said if she wasn’t going to continue her musical studies, she should get a job. She wished she could die. Except she wasn’t brave enough to kill herself. Also, He still might call. I said I would come in to Manhattan if she wanted to go to a movie. She said I was welcome to come over for a visit, but she didn’t think she could enjoy a movie the way she still felt. I told her I had lost nearly six pounds since Atlantic City. “Oh,” she exclaimed. “Did you want to?”  I said I’d call her back about the visit.

My don wrote I shouldn’t thank him for the report because I’d earned it. He wished me a good summer. He also said he was looking forward to hearing about what I’d been doing when he saw me again after Christmas break. I couldn’t find anything in this disappointingly brief reply that implied suppressed desire. It was because of my weight, I knew. Wouldn’t he be surprised when he saw me again after I reached goal! I didn’t quantify this goal in pounds. I would know when I reached it.

[To be continued….]

LOSING FIFTEEN POUNDS: PART ONE

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As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a major part of my adult life losing fifteen pounds. It wasn’t always the same fifteen pounds. But I did it over and over again, until I probably had lost nearly a cumulative thousand of them. And then when I was already collecting Social Security, which was many decades after the first loss (and re-gain), it began to seem a foolish preoccupation. If every year there was less and less life left to live, why spend so much of it agonizing about how much of me there was or wasn’t, when I could spend more of it actually living?

That was when I invaded my savings to join a non-pretentious, non-judgmental low-profile gym that cost quite a bit of money, which made it clearly counterproductive to comfort myself with chocolate cake when things didn’t go my way. As they used to say in the old country, we grow old too soon, and smart too late.

It began long before, of course, with the well-known “freshman fifteen.” Except in my case, I arrived at college an unnatural fifteen pounds down from the comfortably rounded weight I carried through high school. Once I learned I had won a full scholarship to a prestigious girls’ college my parents could never have afforded on their own, I went into serious training to take complete social advantage of this opportunity, guided by visions of the slender and narrow-boned models who appeared every year in the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. I myself had peasant bones, but that didn’t keep me from limiting my daily nutritional intake to a spartan 750 calories divided between breakfast and dinner, with a vigorous hour’s walk during lunchtime to speed the fat-burning process.

I arrived on campus successful: I looked properly emaciated, with my hipbones jutting out in my narrow new college clothes. I was also starving, and soon began to eat back the lost pounds – aided by starchy college food, coke and candy machines in every dorm, and a disinclination to get drunk on disappointing dates, preferring food binges by myself in my room when life let me down. The first time the fifteen pounds came back, I panicked. What would my mother say when I got home? (It was she who had invested her household savings in my fashionable new college wardrobe, dreaming no doubt of potential wealthy son-in-laws.) In the three weeks before the end of the college year, I drank unsweetened tea, swallowed amphetamine-laced diet pills from the local drugstore, and savored only two thin slices of roast beef for dinner (250 calories?) until my new clothes fit again.

Coping mechanisms tend to be habit-forming. I also gained and lost a “sophomore fifteen” between September 1949 and June 1950 and gained them back during my junior year. That spring, alas, I had two major papers to write – one on “All’s Well That Ends Well” and the other on the minor novels of Dostoevsky; I needed nourishment right until the end. I came home in June 1951 without a summer job and with my skirt held together by safety pins.

My first college summer I had worked and had a serious boyfriend. The second summer I went to Europe on the money I’d saved to go to college and now didn’t need for that. But this third summer, the boyfriend was gone, my father was working in Texas, my mother was all alone in the apartment, it seemed too late to look for temporary work, and so I decided to make it my full-time job to get rid of those fifteen pounds for good.

It would be my last chance before I had to contend with “Real Life,” a last chance to have the glamorous college year I hadn’t had so far. I therefore embarked on training for this final year as seriously as I had trained for the first, except that then I hadn’t anticipated the possibility of eventual failure. Now, with several dietary defeats already under my belt (I speak metaphorically; the belt itself was in a drawer, pending a smaller waistline), I was not only determined but desperate. I had already learned my worst enemy was me.

[To be continued…..]

SELF IMAGE REVISITED

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Until about fifteen years ago, I had a core self-image at odds with contemporaneous photographs of me. It’s true I tried to be photographed only when I was looking as good as I thought I could look.  The better explanation, however, is that my sense of self really was out of whack with what other people saw — perhaps because it had developed so young that it shaped much of what I thought and did when I grew up, which in turn only reinforced that initial perception of my central identity.

I certainly remember clearly the day I became aware of how I looked. It’s among my first recollections — right after sitting comfortably on a big rock in the sun, helping my mother feed ducks on a pond, commanding a ball that had rolled across the room, “Ball, come here!” — an important lesson in discovering limits to my powers — and toiling slowly up a steep hill behind my nursery school teacher.  Unlike the ball that refused to be summoned, my memory of that day still comes to me whenever I call it up.

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I have just turned five.  My mother has bought me a red plaid skirt with pleats to wear for the first day of kindergarten.  A white cotton puffed-sleeve blouse goes with it, and a red wool cardigan sweater.  I have never had a three-piece outfit before.  She says I look very nice in it.

Dressed in my new blouse and skirt, I wait in her bedroom near the full-length mirror on her closet door while she gets her sewing box from another room. The puffed sleeves of the blouse, edged with piping, are too tight. She is going to let out and hem the seams underneath, so the piping shouldn’t dig into my arms.

To my surprise, I see another girl has entered my mother’s bedroom. She is wearing a red plaid pleated skirt like mine.  She has a round face and double chin, and a belly that sticks out so the pleats of her skirt don’t hang straight. Although the puffed sleeves of her blouse dig into her arms uncomfortably, the way mine do, she is beaming at me, as if she wants us to be friends. Who is she, anyway? What is she doing in my mother’s room? How can she look so happy when she’s such a fatty?  

Then I understand.  My sense of self starts here: with the recognition that the foolishly smiling little butterball in the mirror is me.

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 Awareness that I was what was then known as “chubby” didn’t bother me too much as a child.  Shopping for clothes could be an ordeal, as my mother stubbornly insisted on looking in the regular Girls’ Department even when the salesladies suggested that “Chubbette” sizes would be a better fit.  But that only happened once or twice a year. Also, I didn’t like the summer I spent at sleep-away camp, because I was always chosen last for team sports since I was not good at anything but swimming.  It was only the one summer, though; I refused to go back ever again.  And it did hurt when a snotty boy I barely knew asked in seventh grade assembly whether I would burst like a balloon if he stuck a pin in me.

But in high school, by which time it had become clear the pediatrician — my mother’s revered Dr. Elitzak — was wrong in saying it was baby fat and would go away all by itself, she began to help me (a charter member of the local Clean Plate Club) by curtailing some of what, obedient to his recommendations, she had been setting before me at meals.  No more quart of whole milk a day.  No more nutritious milk puddings for dessert.  No more two slices of bread in my lunch bag; instead of sandwiches and cookies, I carried strips of cold meat and raw veggies and fruit. A thin slice of cake only on Sundays. Slowly, I dropped from an embarrassing size 16, to a 14, to a 12.  Which was pretty good for someone who was by then 5’7″.

[Note to the young, or relatively young: Those were the days when “Miss” dress sizes ran from 12 to 20 or from 10 to 18.  No such thing as size 4 or 2 or 0 or 00!  It doesn’t mean the clothes were larger. Only that the numbers have shrunk, to make fashionistas feel thinner.]

Size 12 or no, I still thought of myself as a person who might at the moment look thin but really was fat, since her apparent thinness was not natural but entirely dependent on will power which might give way at any moment.  From the time I went to college a sylph, until my late sixties, when I was finally able to come to terms with how I really looked and pretty much stopped obsessing about it — I waged a fierce and unending battle with weight.  Most of that time, especially when younger, it was with the same ten or fifteen pounds, which I gained and lost over and over again. (Always with at least two sizes of clothing in my closet, for the next swing of the yo-yo.) I used sometimes to joke that I had lost thousands of pounds in my life. It wasn’t entirely a joke.  Only an exaggeration.

My ten or fifteen (or later twenty) pounds, when they were with me, never stopped some men from finding me attractive, or kept me from getting jobs, or interfered with my health. But I always wanted them not to be there. I was always happier when they were gone. I had a central belief that informed every part of me and distracted me from concentrating on other things:  Thin is good, not so thin is not good. 

This is no tale of anorexia.  Coupled with my overwhelming desire for slenderness has always been a great love of eating just about anything you can name, except okra, and a total inability to throw up at will.  [I know because I tried once or twice after I had read about it. No dice.]  But what a waste of energy and purpose!  I mean, it’s not as if I had unsuccessfully devoted my life to social change and the greater good, or science, or the arts, or even something as crass as making money!

There were also several extended occasions in my fifties and early sixties, as real life became extremely difficult, when the urge to eat — more or less kept down so long — rebelled.  It scored triumph after triumph, and I ballooned beyond “overweight.”  [If I showed you a picture, you wouldn’t believe it.]  But I never ever could persuade myself, defiantly, that Big Was Beautiful.  So each time, I managed — with great difficulty — to deflate.

There are many other undesirable results of a life driven by the scale and by thoughts of what may be eaten, what was eaten, how to atone for what was eaten, what-the-hell-stuff-yourself-with-as-many-calorically-bad-but delicious-things-as-you-can-because-today-is-shot-anyway-and-you’ll-begin-again-tomorrow.  But we all have our “what if”s.” Which we are entitled to keep to ourselves.

Although I do sometimes wonder whether the chubby little girl I was might have grown up to wage more meaningful battles if there hadn’t been a mirror on my mother’s closet door.