My mom took me to my first Weight Watchers meeting when I was four.
The next week, we went back to Weight Watchers. We stood in line to get weighed. I had lost six pounds in a week -- more than anyone else! -- and as a reward I got to carry around a basket at the end of the meeting to collect money from all the women in the room. I was very surprised and disappointed to find out that I didn't get to keep the money; apparently this was simply meeting dues. The next week, I also lost the most amount of weight, but I didn't get to carry around the basket. I don't remember if Mom took me to any more meetings after that.
I reread this and am so protective of my younger self, as if she is my own child. I feel so sad for her, you know? But -- and please be clear on this -- this is not a Mommy Dearest story. My mother loved me, and I love her. I have learned much from her. This is a story about how, even in the throes of that love, we can't control our pasts, and we can only imagine the future in their images. It's a story about inheritance, and food, and being a mother.
I found a picture once of my mother as a girl -- maybe thirteen or so. She's sitting on the piling of a dock near the ocean in her school uniform (skirt, shirt, pinafore), legs slightly apart in a tomboyish stance, mouth open mid-laugh. I love this photograph. My mom is beautiful in it, but more than that she is HEALTHY -- robust, full of life, strong. There is a boldness I see in her stance, a fearlessness, that I think I inherited. When we were growing up, it was the standard narrative in my family that I was just like my dad and my sister was just like my mom. It's true that I'm the spitting image of my father, but I think I have more of my mom in me, whether or not she'd like to admit it.
This is the thing: my mother, who was lovely and strong and athletic and smart, was called fat when she was growing up. And not in private or under peoples' breath, and not simply by cruel children on the playground, but publicly, by teachers and strangers and friends and loved ones, as if she had no right to feel bad about it. She was not unique in this -- Indian culture was and is terribly unforgiving when it comes to weight, and even the slightest deviation from the slender norm is seen not simply as unattractive but as morally suspect. The sign that a person is weak, lazy, undisciplined. For a girl, especially, that she wasn't sufficiently feminine. I was always amazed by this cultural phenomenon when I was a child on trips there to visit my family, the way people were willing to be so brazen! "You must like eating lots of eggs for breakfast," one young man in his late teens (a stranger to me, a friend of my cousin) said to me when I was eleven. I innocently replied that I didn't really like eggs, and the group of friends laughed. "Then how come you're so fat?" he guffawed. I remember my face hot with shame, and my cousin laughing at first because this was something you laughed at in India and then looking on awkwardly when she saw tears in my eyes. When I was working at my aunt and uncle's advertising agency agency after college, we had to write ad copy for a clothing store that was offering discounts based on your weight. My colleagues' ideas mostly ran along the lines of "Hey, fatso, finally your fat ass will pay off, if anything actually fits you!" I squeezed myself into the cubicle where such ideas were being batted around and offered them a line -- "Exchange your pounds for rupees!" -- as a less cruel alternative. They ran it, but I think everyone secretly regretted my ruining the fun.
I can't remember a moment in my consciousness when I didn't know the story of the time my mother finally decided to lose weight. She was in medical school and was tired of everyone calling her fat, so she went to see one of the doctors. He told her to keep a diary of whatever she ate for some time, and then the next week cut the amounts in half and only eat that. "In the first week, I lost three kilos because I was so ashamed of the doctor seeing what I wrote in the diary," she told me. "And the next week, instead of eating a full chapati, I only ate half. Instead of one spoon of dal, I'd only eat half a spoon of dal." My mom said it with pride at her self-control and discipline and with some hope that I, even as a child, would be inspired to change my ways. And I was proud of her -- she had taken control of her life, and become who she had wanted to be -- but I also remember feeling so sad at the idea of my beautiful mom making do on half a chapati; I wanted to hug her and tell her it was okay to eat. Anyway, she lost weight. She married my dad, she moved to Canada, she left all of that behind. Except not really. When I ran into a cousin of hers -- not a close one, someone she hadn't seen in almost fifty years -- at a family wedding a few months ago, I realized how long the memory of the chubby girl would follow her, over what distance. After the woman asked me how Mom was, if she was still in Canada, how my sister was, how my father was, how the grandchildren were, said cousin looked at me with a big smile and asked "So, is she still very fat?" as if it were the most ordinary inquiry to make. My mouth fell open and I, with my bitchiest look, informed her that my mom was lovely as always, thank you very much, and turned on my heel and walked away, feeling as if she had insulted my mom and me both.
She never escaped it, too, because she internalized all those kinds of judgements. She always ate with the air of a person who distrusted food, distrusted her own pleasure in food -- with an almost hostile skepticism, a sort of ascetic's resentment of the act of eating, and a disapproval of anyone who looked like they enjoyed it much. I know she felt this because I felt it for myself -- the embarrassment of wanting to eat, of being hungry. Of people seeing me enjoy the pleasures of the plate. My mom loves my cooking, but for years I would never let her see me cook, knowing that putting more than a teaspoon of oil in the pan would cause her to not just disapprove of the food but at some level disapprove of me. I reveled in those rare moments where my mother just enjoyed, unselfconsciously (which often involved rack of lamb, come to think of it), happy that she let herself experience them. With age, her vigilance has softened -- even as her determination to eat healthily has increased -- and I see her take more joy in food. I love cooking for her.
How could I not have been shaped by this? When I was a young child, too smart for my age and, then as now, with an almost feral intuition, I could feel the ambivalence with which my mom looked at me. The love mixed with an inadvertent recoil at my round belly, fat thighs, taut rolls of flesh, pudgy cheeks. I saw her begging my sister, thin and shy and always needing to be held when she was a small child, to eat, and loading the cupboards with all manner of treats in the hopes of getting some calories into her, and compare it to her attempts to get me to slim down which meant those treats were off-limits to me. With my childish sense of justice, I would react with a kind of violence to the inequity. At that age, we look to our parents for our most basic needs. I saw her feeding my sister and equated that with love; I saw her withholding food from me and equated that with not-love. I couldn't see it in the way she used to explain it when I was a bit older -- as concern for my health, as not wanting me to struggle with it when I was older, as not wanting me to go through what she had, etc. It was all that, in retrospect, but it was also something infinitely sadder: it was a mother unable to separate the way she was trained to hate her body from her feelings about the body of one of the people she loved most in the world, her child.
I obviously couldn't know this when I was little, let alone have any understanding of it, and so in the face of my confusion I armored myself with layer upon layer of flesh. Well, I exaggerate. My mother was looking through photo albums some time ago and looked up at me and said "I don't know why I was so worried about your weight when you were younger. You looked so nice." I wonder (I've never asked) if she's ever looked at pictures of herself and thought the same thing: "Why did they tease me so much? I looked nice." There was nothing wrong with either of us when we were young. Except that we believed too easily when we were told there was.
In entirely expected fashion -- I am a Taurus, full of stubborn purpose -- I resisted any attempt by my mother to get me to lose weight, only doing it when I was out of her sight. If she would compliment me on my slimming efforts, I would react with pleasure on occasion, but mostly with anger or irritation, as if her noticing was another instance of her calling me fat-in-retrospect. I resisted what I believed to be true -- that she loved me less when I weighed more and loved me more when I weighed less -- by rejecting her love when I thought it was was tied to my appearance, and sometimes even when it wasn't. I wouldn't believe that she could love me despite my weight, but that's more about my belief than her capacity to love. When I met my eventual husband, I subconsciously tested his feelings for me by gaining fifteen pounds within short order of our getting together, and gaining even more after that, as if daring him to leave me. He loved me no less for the weight. Even when he did eventually leave me, it was for someone as fat as me. There is a strange and twisted part of me that admires him for that.
It was only when I had my own daughter that I came to understand my mother. That I came to see my mother in myself. Even if I was willing to doubt my mother's love as I was growing up, I could now have no doubt of my own fierce and total love for my child. She is perfect. Period. Except even with that, even with the way I find her body, plump and round like mine was at that age, perfect in every way -- soft and smooth and poreless skin, soft down of hair on her legs, full-moon face, everything made to treasure and cuddle and hold -- there are moments when I catch my squeezes and caresses morphing from love to disapproval. She can feel the shift, and squirms under my hand, just like I remember squirming under my mother's. I stop myself, and hate myself for projecting my own anxieties onto her, but then try to remember that this is my inheritance, just as it was my mother's. At some point, the cycle has to be broken, and it can only be done with forgiveness -- of our mothers, of our daughters, of ourselves most of all.
Harira (Moroccan Ramadan Soup)
This soup is eaten in Morocco to end the daily fast during Ramadan. It is fragrant, hearty, and deeply satisfying, full of grassy herbs and lemon and warm, sweet spice. You can replace the lamb I've used here with chicken (boneless and skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces); use chicken broth instead of water in that case. Or you can go vegetarian: make the soup without the meat, using a good vegetable broth, and before serving stir in 4 beaten eggs creating egg threads in the broth. Either way: this soup tastes to me of new beginnings.
2. Add 1 medium onion, 2 celery stalks, and 1 large carrot, all chopped into 1/4" dice. When softened, add 1 bunch of cilantro and 1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves and soft stems chopped fine, along with 1 cinnamon stick, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1/2 tsp turmeric, and 2 tsp paprika (hot or sweet is your choice; don't use Spanish smoked). Add two big pinches of salt and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper. Sauté for a few seconds, then add 6 cups of water. (If you've used boneless lamb, you might want to use chicken broth instead of water, although this isn't necessary.) Cook at a lively simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes.
3. Add 1/2 c red lentils (masoor dal) to the soup, along with another good pinch of salt. Continue cooking for 30 minutes.
4. Add 2 large tomatoes or 2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped, to soup, along with another pinch of salt. Continue cooking for 30 minutes. If you'd like to serve the soup later or the next day, stop here. Finish the soup just before serving.
5. Finish the soup: add 1/2 c vermicelli (broken into 3 inch lengths) and 1.5 c cooked chickpeas to the soup; cook until noodles are tender. Add juice of 1/2 lemon. Taste for salt. Serve garnished with chopped cilantro and parsley, with lemon wedges on the side.