At My Family’s Table

At My Family’s Table August 8, 2022


There’s a game I play sometimes, and the name of the game is “eating.”

If I go too long without eating I get sick, but lots of foods make me sick as well. I had an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity until I was about thirty; even then, I flunked the celiac’s test, but the GI said I should stay gluten free anyway because I had all the symptoms and severe IBS can be worsened by gluten. For awhile, on doctor’s orders, I had to eat no gluten, no alliums, no spicy food and no carbonation to heal the gastritis and the ulcer, but now it’s usually only the gluten that tears me up. Later, of course, a couple of months after my thirty-sixth birthday, I got diagnosed with poly-cystic ovary syndrome and found that carbohydrates in general are part of the problem. They were contributing to my chronic fatigue and the uncontrolled weight gain, because my body can’t handle sugar. If I stay in ketosis I have energy and the horrible swelling goes away. But it’s hard to stay in ketosis if you don’t want to eat.

I go through times where I eat only one meal a day, but it feels like three meals. Coffee with cream and collagen stirred in for breakfast, coffee with cream again at three o’clock for lunch, dinner with actual food when my stomach starts to hurt at seven. This isn’t healthy, so I’ve learned to remind myself to eat. Not in the morning when it’s nearly impossible, but in the afternoon. I have to be stern with myself. In my mind’s eye I scruff myself like a mother cat scruffing a kitten, and take myself to the kitchen. Mother Cat Mary opens the fridge and points out the different options to Kitten Mary. Vegetables. Cheese. Leftover hamburger. Protein bars with coconut oil and monkfruit. Child Mary gags at every one. Mother Mary puts me through the motions anyway, shoestringing fresh zucchini from the garden and adding herbs and cheese. Then I administer the food to myself like medication, pill after pill down the hatch until I’ve eaten several hundred calories. Chew, chew, swallow. Chew, chew, swallow. Do it again.

And then that phase is over for awhile, and I eat normally. I feel like it will never come back.

I don’t get thin, because I have poly-cystic ovary syndrome and I can’t get thin. So nobody knows I go through it. It’s just something that happens from time to time.

When we went to family reunions up in the mountains, there were huge meals every night. That’s the advantage to having seven children and each of those children having a big family: there are seven moms to cook, a different cook every night of the week, and they all know how to cook for a crowd. Monday night when we got there was my mother’s night, sub sandwiches of all kinds in a big smorgasbord assembly line. Another night was always Taco Night because my uncle married a Mexican-American woman who made really excellent Mexican food. One night it was giant salad tubs of spaghetti and logs of garlic bread. And each night there was dessert, a pan of sheet cake or brownies or crumble. Next to that were two or three large pitchers of Kool-aid or lemonade made with the nasty-tasting tap water the log cabins all had, the kind that looks rusty when it first comes out of the tap. There were also cases and cases of beer for the grown-ups. I was surprised, much later in my life, when I found out the state park didn’t allow alcoholic beverages in the cabins. It was such a fixture that I still associate beer with West Virginia and beautiful old log cabins.

I didn’t know anything about any of my sensitivities, so I would eat it all, except for the beer: big plates of normal food for normal people, two helpings of dessert. I didn’t understand that, as I got closer and closer to puberty and the poly-cystic ovary syndrome took hold, my body was desperately begging for carbohydrates and nothing seemed like enough. I would eat and eat and eat and still feel hungry.

I didn’t understand why I would get agonizing intestinal pain, pain that would leave me doubled over crying. Sometimes we would be in the van going from one of the vacation cabins to the pool or the river, and I would suddenly spasm. I’d start to cry and beg for a bathroom, and the driver would keep driving, promising we’d be there soon. And then the pain would leave as quickly as it came, and I’d be accused of exaggerating it for attention. Sometimes my mother would say it was because of all the rich food, and tell me to eat lightly. Small servings at a time. Gentle foods like bread and plain pasta. But it didn’t help.

And then puberty hit and I got fat, and it was open season. My bad cousins who had always been my friends turned on me, mocking relentlessly. My grandmother fretted. My mother tried to put on a pantomime to impress my grandmother, snatching the serving spoon from me to serve me tiny helpings. When dessert was offered, she would loudly say “Mary doesn’t want any” so she would look like a good mother. I’d approach the table and she would say “Mary! LIMITS!” and my cousins would snicker. She would make jokes about making my clothing out of bedsheets and having my jaws wired shut. I was so mortified I wanted to die. I rebelled against them by grabbing food and eating it with impunity, until the horrible cramping started.

After awhile, I just didn’t spend much time with the family. I’d find places to sit by myself or go hiking deep in the woods.

Meanwhile, my next younger brother was small for his age. He was skinny and short. My cousins liked to tease him as well, towering over him to show off their height. They would sit him down at the table and try to fatten him up. “For every bite I take,” my oldest cousin ordered, “You’re going to eat two bites. Keep going.”

When that brother approached puberty, his appetite began to pick up, and my mother said “Wouldn’t it be funny if M got fat for the first time?”

“Fat” was the worst thing a person could be, in our family. The mockery that fat people received was unbearable and everyone knew it. Shortly after that, my brother stopped eating. He wouldn’t eat meals and he wouldn’t eat snacks. He refused to go to family reunions; in fact, he barely left his room for awhile. I remember seeing him on the rare occasions he’d come out to talk to us– he would show me the hairs crisscrossing his arms, and I didn’t understand what I was looking at.

The very last family reunion I attended, I met one of my Bad Cousins back from his freshman year of college, having gained what looked like a hundred pounds. People were nice to him to his face and looked at him as if he were a monster as soon as he turned around.

“Must be on the meal plan,” joked my grandmother, but it wasn’t meals. I realized what it was as soon as my cousin started talking about Penny Pitcher Night at the local bar, where a frat boy over 21 would buy for the whole table and they would guzzle until they were sick.

After that I moved away to Steubenville, and didn’t attend reunions anymore.

I think of all of that when I can’t eat: the tables piled high with poison, though nobody knew it was poison to me. Coming back again and again and not feeling full. The pain. The mockery. My brother shrinking and my cousin swelling up. Excess everywhere and nobody satisfied.

I scruff myself and carry myself into the kitchen for my first meal of the day.

Chew, chew, swallow. Chew, chew, swallow. Do it again.



Image via pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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