My family is from diets. The lips, the jaws, the tongue of diets. My entire childhood was passed through the stomach of listening to my family go from one diet to the next. It was searching for The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Holy Grail or Indiana Jones and the lost decoder of diets. The perfect diet that would melt away the gelatinous poundage that lay on their hips, backs, thighs, faces and tummies. The pancake ripples and folds, the chocolate lumps and bubbles. I have a picture of them on their honeymoon, 1936. My father, a bronze Rudolph Valentino, my mother a smoky Claudette Colbert. What happened to them?
By the time I was 7 or 8, my father, mother and brother were all puffed up and pushed out into the world like blow fish, swimming in their pond of matzoh ball soup. They stopped trying to talk to each other and only talked through food. I found them grotesque and could not look at them. I was ashamed of their size. I was tall and thin as a string of spaghetti with no appetite for sweet and sour meat balls, chicken fricassee , brisket, knishes, tongue on rye, meat loaf swimming in gravy, potato kugel, challah basted in butter, coffee all day long with warm apple strudel dunked into the cup and soaked through. Mouths were stuffing, devouring, slobbering down heart attack-on a-plate chopped liver, nonstop – and then going out at midnight on a sweltering summer night (no air conditioning) to Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island for a frank with mustard and sauerkraut or a shrimp roll with fries.
Sandwiched in the middle of all the eating, there were all the diets. The grapefruit diet, the lettuce diet, the juice diet, the Dr. Shadypants Dexatrim diet, the nurses of Coney Island Hospital diet, the Jello diet, the green diet, the cantaloupe diet, the lady in Apartment 3J’s diet – and nobody lost any weight.
All my stories of childhood are about food, eating it, withdrawing from it, throwing it out the window and running down the walls. My parents brought cheesecake to someone’s house and when the host didn’t serve our cake, my father went to the refrigerator and took the cake back home. One wintry evening we held a Cousin’s Club meeting at our apartment. About 30 crazy relatives arrived bearing boxes of cakes and pies. They knew my father’s favorite was strawberry shortcake with lots of whip cream and a cherry on top. The refrigerator couldn’t hold all the guests’ desserts, so my mother put the boxes out on the fire escape in the living room where the meeting was held. As the evening wore on, the cousins began to notice the dark evening windows were blanketed in white and they feared driving home in a terrible storm. When coffee and cake time arrived, my mother went to carry in the desserts from the outside ledge. All the boxes had blown open and all the icing was slathered across the glass windows. There was no snowstorm – just whip cream.
Like Jimmy Durante said –“Ha Cha Cha, I got a million of ’em.” Food stories, that is. Most of what happened at our house, pre-television, was in the kitchen or at the dinner table. This is where we ate and discussed our lives, told jokes or argued. One morning before going to work, my father decreed, “Ida,” that was my mother’s name, “I don’t want to see any more bread in this house.” When he came home for dinner that night, my mother had warm bagels on the table. My father snatched the bagels, threw them in a brown bag and tossed them out the fifth story window. When Dinny and George Eisenberg had wearily finished closing up their dress store on Pitkin Avenue and turned the corner onto Bristol, where they lived on our same floor, Dinny stopped in front of the crumpled bag and opened it up. “Oh,” she giggled. “Fresh, hot bagels. I’ll take them to Ida’s house and she’ll make coffee.” Our doorbell rang, and Dinny popped in. “Ida, you’ll never guess what I found on the street.” That was the end of the no bread diet.
Now, an alta kocker, I like to eat, as well. If food isn’t love, it savors ties to an earlier time when the house was full of drama and family. There’s the memory, the smell, the security of home. When did I start eating more for emotional comfort than for the bodily need? I think it was after I had my child and was stuck at home more. Me and the refrigerator and the microwave oven. How did the emotional factors eclipse what I physically needed to the point of being out of control and becoming one of those school of blow fish? I know I’m being harmful to myself, like my mom and dad were back in the day. Is this just a repetition compulsion to join with them, even if it’s unhealthy? Even if they’re dead, from overeating and smoking, still, I can’t stand to have anyone talk me into a diet. I’m a non-believer. I know there’s no secret diet. They all work if you just shut your mouth!
I have to feed on my own fat to slim down. The fat of loneliness, the fat of insecurity, the fat of hunger – for so many things that aren’t food. Eventually, I hope to work my way up the food chain, from the diet of no limits, to the diet of pause, to the diet of breath, to the diet of health, the diet of self-care, the diet of love.
Lee Schwartz is a New York and Berkshire based poet. Her latest work appears in TRANS BODIES, TRANS SELVES, 2014, Oxford Press. Also being released this year, Poetry Saved My Life by Trigger Point Press and On Fire, Bard College, where many of her poems appear. Lee has been a winner of the Paterson Literary Review Prize. She has served as an Artist in Residence at the 92nd St Y in New York City, as well as participating in the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.