My mother and I talk every day about the same thing. Diets. She calls me during a break from helping her patient to the bathroom and cooking meals. I picture her sitting in the corner of a brightly lit kitchen, cell phone pressed to her ear, nose stuck between the pages of a newly acquired diet bible.
“I ordered this one from PBS. This doctor is amazing! His weight loss plan is a sure thing.”
While she talks, I attempt to sound interested with occasional grunts and “uh huh” while I’m surfing the web. Sometimes I put her on speakerphone while I wash dishes or oil my hair.
“It comes on again tonight,” she says. “I’ll call you so you can watch it.”
She goes through a list of things I should know about weight gain, weight loss, exercising, gourmet dressings, the ugly truth about extra virgin olive oil. She talks about this latest doctor like he’s the Messiah, the one who is going to change her life and change the world, one digital scale at a time.
Later, she wants me to check the price of a VitaMix processor, and compare it to Montel Jordan’s Emulsifier and Wolfgang Puck’s Food Processor, and possibly Emeril Lagasse’s and the regular juicer from Jack Lalane. I sigh and agree, as always.
When my mother, Esther, was in her twenties, a nursing student in Rio de Janeiro, she was what the Brazilians called a “Morena,” a hot tanned brunette with thick thighs and wide, round, child-bearing hips. These days she shows me pictures of her lying on a beach in Rio with her roommate, Marlie, an overweight girl with a heart of gold and an out-of-control eating disorder.
“Marlie used to eat and cry and curse herself out while eating,” my mother says. “She used to say, ‘Stop it Marlie, you are so stupid! You are so fat and stupid,’ while eating an entire bowl of Fejoadas. No one could stop her.”
Mom could wear what Marlie couldn’t wear, and on that beach she was golden like an Inca princess, strolling down the shore in a cherry-red mono-kini. I am always struck by our resemblance. If I were in my twenties and sun-baked, that’s what I would look like. Mom was hot. She shows me pictures of her perched on cliffs and hills overlooking the beach of Rio, pictures of her on cruise ships crossing the Panama Canal, on campus with her friends, in her dorm with her fellow nursing classmates, drunk and pale from partying. Who was that woman? She was nothing like the woman I know now, who hides her bald spot with scarves, turbans and wigs out of shame, who wears Mom jeans and large shirts she hopes will swallow her gut.
My mother today watches the Home Shopping Network to order facial creams from the leading experts in dermatology, spends nearly hundreds for temporary fixes so she can look younger, ordering lengthening mascaras, root touch-up wands, jeans that will slim her down and make her “comfortable.”
“I’m thinking about ordering those pajama jeans,” she said once, her voice brimming with charisma. “They look so nice and slimming. What do you think?”
“Mom, no! Please, no pajama jeans. You’re one phone call always from ordering a Snuggie. Are you kidding me?”
She steps on the scale every morning, free-falls into a whirlpool of depression when she gains just one extra pound, and heals her wounded heart by eating an entire can of roasted almonds or walnuts and a king size bar of Hershey’s chocolate. She confesses to me what she has done only after she has eaten them, when she calls me at night exhausted from work, and knowing her, I don’t try hard to imagine what really happened. She’s eaten them in her car, right after exiting the supermarket, with her eyes closed with each bite, and on days when she’s really depressed, she probably rocked herself back and forth to comfort herself.
My memory of Mom is laced with images of her prancing through our kitchen in La Plaine, outside of Port-au-Prince in Haiti. It seems everything she did was tied to that space, in this house planted in the middle of nowhere, literally, smack in the midst of overgrown sugarcane and Neem trees. Removed from the city, she felt disconnected, further from her parents and her friends. I was only two years old, and fragile, susceptible to stomach cramps.
“Don’t let her drink any colas or carbonated drinks,” my pediatrician said.
Mom converted me to tisanes, boiling water infused with lettuce leaves, and she occupied her time gluing our family together with food. I can still see her in the kitchen, laying her ingredients out on the blue-tiled counter-top. On the wall, she kept track of time with a clock stuck to the center of a blue frying pan. I watched her strain and preserve her own yogurt in little measured plastic pots with the picture of a cow, and she made her own pikliz in a mason jar and locked away in the garde-manger. Her fingers, like winged birds, would flutter around an egg and delicately remove the top when making me oeuf a la coque for breakfast, and placed them in little silver egg cups with a long-stemmed spoon inside and a salt shaker next to it. On weekends, I propped myself up on the old red vinyl chairs and watched her roll out her pizza-dough before spreading ketchup and mustard on it, and topping it with cheese. If I got out of line, her favorite spanking weapon was a plastic egg spoon that lit my legs and bum on fire. She could cook and parent at the same time without leaving the kitchen.
My mother kept all her recipes in an old black notebook with yellow pages, something she’d acquired from old aunts in the family. As I grew, she let me take a peek and asked if I wanted to learn how to make things. I always said no. As much as I enjoyed watching her, cooking to me was a boring process. What I cared about was having the food on my plate. I didn’t want to sweat making it, and I didn’t want to burn my fingers trying to light the defunct gas stove in the kitchen. Everyone jumped back when the fire actually caught and the blue flames came on.
“You will have to learn some day,” she said.
Someday, I’d have to learn to make my own dressing with chopped shallots and vinegar, my own rice pudding, my own gratin dauphinois, and when I turned seven, she pulled the vinyl chair in front of the stove and waited for me to climb up and cook my first spaghetti dish.
Spaghetti Itala was a product of the Dominican Republic, and I had begged my mother to buy it. I had fallen in love with the commercial. What I loved was the noodles’ odd shape, how they coiled like small tumble-weed or clumps of hay.
“Please, please, can we get that? It must taste so good,” I told her.
I didn’t realize I had to actually cook it, and I cried a little when I approached the steaming pot. The water was boiling hot like magma in a live volcano.
“It’s too hot,” I told her.
“Drop it in there,” she ordered, her voice sharp as it always is when she grows impatient. “Stop whining.”
The vapor burned my little fingers, and for fear of scorching myself, I dropped the first coil into the water from a distance.
“Get closer,” she pressed. “Otherwise you’ll splash water everywhere.”
I decided I hated cooking, and when I was done, I got off the chair and ran. If that was cooking, I wanted nothing to do with it. Later, my father reprimanded her for stressing me out, and those were the days where I was thankful that he stood up for me, and that he told her what I couldn’t say myself.
“She’s just a girl, leave her alone.”
Those were the days when I begged him to get me a different Mommy, because this one was too mean, and my father always nodded yes, okay, we’d get another mother, and Mom would get up and walk away, locking herself in the guest room.
The rest of the time, when she wasn’t mean Mommy, she was a talented fairy, a magician pulling tricks out of an invisible top-hat, quickly turning up cheese platters and deviled eggs, whipping up soups for my father’s unannounced friends.
“You’re a woman, you figure out what to do!” my father would hiss under his breath, sneaking into the kitchen to fill the ice bucket.
“But we have nothing,” my mother would say. “You didn’t tell me you were bringing guests.”
She’d hear the laughter and exaggerated accents rolling off the tongues of strangers, and she’d manage to whip out a vegetable soup, slices of fried sweet plantain rolled into a coil around ground beef, sherberts and fruit salads for dessert. The guests would leave, thanking her for the wonderful dinner, and she would sit there, her chin cupped in her hand as they slammed their doors and drove away. My father would then walk into the bedroom quietly and stay in for the night, oblivious that she had just cooked the last of our food.
Now her life is reduced to shedding skins, dieting, to dreams of exercising in a gym, to longing for a personal trainer, and then more diets, cleanses, stretches, fasts. There’s been the Atkins Diet, the Master Cleanse, the Fiber 35 Diet, the Flat Belly diet, the plant-based diet, the Dean Ornish diet, the orange or grapefruit juice fast, the Dr. Fuhrman diet. She’s bought the Nutri-System meals in a BigLots freezer. She pushed herself to hire a personal trainer and lost twenty pounds, then gained it back. She tried working out with DVDs, with images from a book, with my aunt around her Miami Lakes Complex. Everything always fails after a while.
“When I win the Powerball,” she says, “I’ll be able to hire a plastic surgeon. I already bought my tickets for today.”
Her hope is that a surgeon can make her beautiful, that he can nip and force the eternal swelling of her belly down, erase away the surgery scars for her gall bladder removal, tuck in her double chin, reshape her arms weighed by the scarred lymph nodes during her mastectomy, and then laser away the unsightly facial hair she’s battled all her life, reconstruct the breast she once lost to a battle with cancer and replaced with a wobbly flesh-tone piece of silicone that she expertly wraps in old scarves to preserve the prosthetic, because prosthetics run for at least two hundred dollars, and two hundred dollars are hard to come by, when you work as an independent contractor, an at-home nurse for an agency that pimps you hard, seven-days a week for a check that only covers the bills and a twenty-dollar pedicure.
These are sacrifices my mother has made in the United States, kneeling on hard tiles to scrub, a single brush-in-hand, the entire flooring of a million-dollar mansion, iron a banker’s clothes, fix an alcoholic housewife’s dinner, fight off their mentally unstable son and his butcher knife attacks, work herself to the very bone for a measly check. She’s had to walk from one bus stop to the other, work two jobs, room in an efficiency at her relatives, stay up at night eating an entire container of Edy’s ice cream and a fried pork griyo plate from Chez Samson while recording movies and cartoons she thought my brother and I, still little back home in Haiti, would like to watch. I watched indeed, every day of the week of an entire summer before the next, and learned to say all the lines in all the scenes of The Adams Family or Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson, because I had them memorized. I could recite a movie standing up, sitting down, in my sleep, and that is the history of how I learned English. I learned the important stuff first. The movie lines.
One cancer battle and twenty five years of solitude later, she’s on the edge of a chair at a patient’s house, telling me all this, all her scars, all her wrinkles, confessing to me that she feels ugly inside and out. Under the belly, the chin, the arms, the fat rolls on her back, are the tears for a life she realized she’d never have, the weight of my father’s words or lack of words, his constant shots at her weight, his need to remind me, when I was just a girl, that “you’re going to be fat, just like your mother, just look at yourself,” his need to compare me to my skinny friends during gatherings and remind me how pudgy I was. My mother yearns to have said something the first time he told her, “I had wished when I married you that I could have molded you into something decent, into something I’d want,” to have perhaps slapped him, spat in his face when he said, “That’s why I got married, to have someone to take care of me because I had no family.” This weight she carries is really that of silence, of acceptance, of compliance. That’s why she, when looking in the mirror, will never be happy, will never see the beauty of her sacrifice. There will always be the reflection of a sad Esther staring back, an Esther that used to be free like she was in Brazil, when she danced the Samba and ate oranges and shared ice cream with the girls and boys of Rio de Janeiro.
Lately, I’ve been developing the signs of my mother’s hereditary obsession with beauty, of an inherited need to crawl out of this shell, shift out of my own shape. Lately, I’ve been stretching the skin of my forehead to erase the wrinkle left behind by worry, but it’s there, when I’m not looking or when I’m thinking too much. I feel its presence, these days, gleaming across my face like the dusty, sparkly trail of the Milky Way up in space. I’ve been talking to my mother about it, and she’s been recommending creams and tricks, but I know the truth is always there in the mirror. I’m getting heavy, I’m getting old, and the proof is in the third pair of jeans I’ve ripped in one year, in my bras that no longer fit and force me to “upgrade” my cup size.
When my mother sees me, she points it out, that I should be careful, that I should exercise more and not give up like she did.
“I just don’t want you to be like me,” she said. “The more you let yourself go, the harder it is to get back in the swing of exercise.”
I know she speaks out of concern, but I wonder, if as a daughter, as the recipient of all her stories and burden of her past, the weight of her self-consciousness and depression, I will not fall into the same trap. I’ve already inherited her insecurities.
So I double up on yoga classes, I try Pilates, I sign up for half marathons, just to force me into being athletic. But, in my mind, I think I do it for her just as much as I do it for myself. Because I too have a need to stroll down a beach with my children, maybe in a mono-kini, maybe in a one piece, but in this dream of mine, I hope I will feel free of self-awareness. I hope that I will always like what I see when glancing in the mirror. And so, I let her talk. I let her go on with her lectures on nutrition, on the shows she’s just watched, on the books she just read, and I won’t interrupt her, I won’t stop her, and because that’s how I tell her I love her. I let her talk.
- Fabienne Josaphat is a writer living in Miami. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University. Her previous publications include The Masters Review, The Caribbean Writer, Small Axe Literary Salon, and Mandala Literary Journal.