When I was in high school in the early ’80s, my mother heard about how high cholesterol could kill you. Then she discovered that cholesterol was a big problem in her family history. Our lives changed after that.
Mom never did anything half-halfheartedly.
By that time, I was the only child living at home and so the only one who suffered from her new obsession. We had a lot of meals that included Tofu, for which I never acquired a taste. We ate more chicken– without the skin! We were forbidden red meat and desserts. I protested that I was only a teenager and shouldn’t have to suffer these restrictions, but she believed the earlier you start paying attention to cholesterol, the better.
Now of course I realize that yes, eating healthier is very important if you want to stay healthy. But Mom didn’t believe in EVER treating yourself to something fatty. And the way my mother was– being particularly good at guilt– it was difficult to eat in front of her. If I ate french fries at a restaurant, she watched me with judging eyes. I confess I never got over this. Even as a middle-aged adult, I couldn’t enjoy french fries or even a big meal of any kind in the presence of my mother.
But she was the hardest on my father when it came to food. My father loved food! The fattier the better! Perhaps this was the little rebellious boy in him, but he liked his desserts and would sometimes find a way to get them without her knowing. It was one of the funny little games in their relationship. Mom was scared of Dad being overweight; reflecting of course that that could lead to a heart attack or stroke, and therefore death. Mom just had a thing about fat. It got much worse when they retired and she had more time to worry about it.
My brothers used to joke about how they didn’t have anything natural in their house; all the food was made of chemicals, assembled to be non-fat and/or no-sugar. Again, I understand it’s important to eat healthy and keep one’s weight down to avoid health issues that might be avoidable, but Mom was extreme.
When I was ordained in Lincoln and they’d flown out for the event, we stayed at the Days Inn near the airport. Perkins was open 24 hours, and one morning, Dad confessed he sneaked out of their hotel room in the middle of the night and went to Perkins for a cheeseburger. Mom never knew. He was pretty pleased with himself. For him, so deprived, a cheeseburger was like manna from heaven.
Another time Dad and Mom were visiting us in Nebraska, we all walked over to Subway, just over the viaduct. The walk wasn’t even a mile distance. At Subway we ate lunch (the low-fat sandwiches of course) and got ready to leave for the walk back.
“Larry,” my Dad said, “My legs are feeling a bit sore. Would you mind walking back with the others and coming to get me in the car?” Mom scolded him a bit for being lazy, as she often did when he didn’t join her for exercise, but we left him sitting in Subway with his ever-present cup of tea.
When Larry arrived at Subway to pick up Dad, he said that Dad had just finished his second oatmeal raisin cookie. He’d tried to stuff the last bit in his mouth before Larry walked in, but the evidence was in the crumbs on the table.
“Don’t tell Margaret!” he said. Larry didn’t tell on him, except to me. I wasn’t going to tell.
Mom was always an excellent cook and baker, and she made a lot of delicious treats for other people to enjoy. She didn’t ever partake, nor did she allow Rollo to indulge. I still couldn’t eat dessert in front of my skinny little mother.
At the same time, my father “forbid” my mother to do things she really wanted to do, for fear she would die. She wanted to jump out of a plane– no way. Her best friend, Betty, indulged in parasailing in her later years, and my mother wanted so badly to join her. Nope. Mom couldn’t do anything that would make my father nervous or anxious for her safety. Their fears fed each others’, it seemed. What resulted however, was that neither of them took very many risks.
When I was living with them, Dad tried to restrict me in the same way, but I managed to mostly do what I wanted to do. However, I was very anxious most of the time, taking on his fears that I might die. He called me up at college and begged me to change my major so I wouldn’t have to go to the Philadelphia campus for one semester. He was acting very odd and wouldn’t tell me why this sudden interest in my not going to the city for a semester.
It turned out that a parishioner’s daughter was murdered that week at Drexel University. I was to spend a semester at Temple University. It didn’t matter that they were different schools in different parts of the city. For months he begged me to change majors. I refused. I went to Temple and lived to tell about it. But for years I had panic attacks and trouble with anxiety whenever I did take any risks.
Just a couple of years ago, my parents went to a new restaurant in Brookhaven, Mississippi that had a bakery full of delectable desserts. They had a nice lunch. As Dad got older and thought more about his mortality, he started telling stories of his mother. By that time, he’d told us that when he was leaving India for the United States, his mother gave him a box to take with him. Inside it was a chocolate cake.
“Ma made the best chocolate cake,” he said. “Moist, rich…delicious.”
That day at the new restaurant, Dad eyed a huge piece of chocolate cake. He wanted it! He told the waitress the story about his mother, and she said it was very moist and rich. Delicious. Dad ordered it. But Mom intervened and said in front of the waitress that he couldn’t have it. Apparently they argued, and Mom gave him quite the hard time about this cake.
The waitress felt so sorry for him that she put it in a take-home box and gave it to him, free of charge.
I never heard whether he ever got to eat it.
The sad side of these stories is that my parents had a difficult time with simply enjoying food. Or anything. Moments of goodness and joy were fleeting for them both, because they ended up finding something wrong with it, or thinking of what could go wrong. There were times that I did what I could to give them a good time, give them an event of absolute grace. Their 50th wedding anniversary party. A trip with us to the Black Hills in South Dakota. Others took them on trips or out to dinner. They traveled around the world. I think they enjoyed those trips, despite not eating any dessert. But many people tried to get Mom to just let Dad eat his cake. Or pie.
Sometimes he did, but by that time, he felt too guilty to enjoy it.
The crazy thing is, I know from hearing from people from their pasts, that they were able to give joy and create joy for others. They just had a hard time indulging in joy themselves. Or trusting it.
This past week Larry and I traveled to New Jersey for the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. We’d been invited to the memorial service there, held in Wildwood, NJ, for all clergy and clergy spouses that died this past year. It was a beautiful service honoring all those who have “crossed that final river.” It was touching and gracious to see each of my parents’ pictures up on the big screen. It was good for my soul.
After the service, there was a dinner for the family members in a separate room, with the Bishop present to greet us. We met a widow and her daughter and a District Superintendent, with whom we shared good conversation. We all shared stories of our loved ones as we ate a delicious meal. It was truly lovely.
After coffee was served, they came out and served dessert.
A huge slab of rich, creamy, moist chocolate cake.
I laughed out loud and…
I ate it. For Dad.
And hoped there are no diet restrictions at the heavenly banquet.