For as long as I can remember, my mother has been obsessed with diets. I can’t recall a time when she wasn’t watching her weight, wasn’t watching what she ate. To this day, my mother is always NOT eating something. There’s always been a food that’s banned and some special item only she could eat.
When I was little, I remember her eating foods for both breakfast and lunch that took on special significance since only she could have them, and I could only eat them if I, too, were dieting . So, in order to partake of these treats (as I perceived them to be) I watched my weight, as well. It seemed to be the thing to do, whether I needed to or not.
However, photographs of me taken during adolescence, demonstrate I didn’t need to diet. My weight was perfectly normal. I was far from fat.
For lunch each day my mother ate pita bread, spread with a thin layer of margarine and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. This she placed under the broiler and browned, until the cheese and butter bubbled and the bread became crisp as corn chips. With this my mother drank Tab, the original diet cola, which in the 1970s came in 16 ounce glass bottles and could be kept carbonated after opening by replacing the metal, pop-off top with a plastic one that featured a metal clamp that folded down around the neck of the bottle and held the lid in place.
For breakfast most mornings my mom ate cottage cheese toast, also, browned under the broiler. She took a pre-toasted piece of bread, covered it with cottage cheese, and sprinkled the top with Sweet ‘N Low and cinnamon. She then laid the cinnamon-ed assemblage on a steak-shaped tray and placed it under the broiler until the cottage cheese was warmed and browned. (Is it any wonder I grew up craving carbs?) The bread itself she consumed with a reverence she otherwise reserved only for religious matters, like praying neighbors would find Jesus Christ, be saved from their depravity and sin. As a non-catholic evangelical, she certainly didn’t believe in transubstantiation, but she did believe in this bread’s ability to transform her own body into one, if not God himself, at least Daddy would approve of. She, in fact, told me she didn’t diet for herself, but for my father’s benefit. Whether that meant conforming to mafia expectations regarding glamour, I don’t know.
(Ironically, this breakfast bread was browned on a tray Daddy used to burn his bets once the three-day sporting weekend was ended. When Monday Night Football had been played and the results were in, Daddy used the tray to incinerate the evidence of his bookie business—papers the FBI were after when they raided our house on a number of occasions and arrested Daddy, reading him his rights and citing the fact that he had been indicted by federal grand juries.)
However, my mother and I didn’t focus on issues such as this. We were more concerned with matters we ourselves were able to control—like what we did or didn’t eat. And although my mother consumed unusual foods for breakfast and lunch, she did cook normal dinners of pot roast or pasta every night, foods that she herself even ate. We gathered around the dining room table each evening, Daddy at the head, discussing who he needed in the game that night, our adding what we’d done at school, my worrying about my weight with every bite I ate.
In the diaries I kept during the 1970s, I recorded carefully what I weighed each day and often what I ate. On January 3, 1977, for example, I began a diet, noting my need to lose weight and recording the fact that I was 110 pounds. On January 8th I wrote, “Today I weighed 107 pounds. This morning I had a hard time resisting the breakfast rolls Susan made. I got mad because I couldn’t eat them.” On the 13th I indicated that I had reached my goal weight of 105 pounds but had decided to continue on my diet to see if I could lose more.
Because this kind of record-keeping went on and on for years, I’ll spare you the endless and boring details. But I learned in reviewing old journals that I ultimately wrote less about actual numbers and more about “feeling fat”—something more difficult to quantify. I know now that being fat and feeling fat are two separate things, but back then, I seemed not to appreciate that distinction.
Fortunately, I never developed a full-blown eating disorder. However, one of my sisters did. I don’t think I’ve ever blogged about this sister before, but she is three years younger than me and at 5 feet 8 inches tall weighed, at one point, as little as 75 pounds. An in-patient eating disorders facility in Arizona ultimately helped her gain weight, bringing her back from what seemed the brink of death. To this day, however, she is still staggeringly underweight. She still suffers from horribly disordered eating—though, perhaps, now not anorexia per se.
I don’t mean to suggest my mother’s diet obsession was in any direct way responsible for Susan’s sickness. I think the problem is much larger than that—more culturally ingrained in us as American women, conditioned by the fashion industry to think we need to be model-thin—that some Vogue-defined, ideal weight will make us happy—allow us to be loved.
I also don’t mean to imply that my father’s mafia affiliation caused us to crave control at any cost—forcing us to sacrifice our bodies on an altar built by mothers who were literally married to the mob. However, I DO remember clearly that during the 1970s, the then teenage daughter of the man who is now the underboss of the Pittsburgh crime family also nearly died of anorexia—whittled away her own weight while her father was in federal prison—serving his sentence in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where some Watergate offenders were incarcerated at the same time—a place my parents often visited.
Clearly, I’m not qualified to speak in any expert way about women and weight. I’m fairly confident, however, that my personal past, my mother’s obsession, and my father’s crime, impacted each of my sisters and me in ways we’ll never fully quantify or pin down in concrete terms.
Instead, I pray we’ll each remain relatively healthy now, despite the fact that our mother continues to wither away, more skeletal than ever at age 73, still married to the mob 30 years after Daddy’s death. Though we can’t control or rewrite the weighty history we share, my sisters and I can control to some degree what we’ll put in our mouths tomorrow morning, how much we exercise or over-exercise today.
As I prepare to turn 50, I’m unwilling to sacrifice my personal pound of flesh to either my mother or the mob. How’s that for heavy?
How do you manage your own weight-related woes?
Note: If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family. (This post is part of that series.) To read one of my mafia-related memoir posts,”Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here. If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.