I needed to come up with a baby picture to be used as an ice-breaking group exercise at a sales conference I once attended when I was in my 20’s. The only one I had was a small 2 x 4 black and white, the one where I was wide as I was tall.
“Just look at me, I’m obese. This would be child abuse today. How could you let this happen?” I would ask Mom.
“Oh, look how happy you are there, a good fat baby. You just kept eating as long as Mrs. Butterwick fed you,” Mom said. “She helped me out so much while I still had my leg in a cast. She was always cooking and you were always eating. Oatmeal and soft-boiled eggs. I think that’s all you ever ate.”
“So it was my fault that I was fat?” I screamed.
I continue with this narrative and the origin of one of a few anxieties narrated from “Under the Birch Tree.”
Timmy and I never felt neglected when it came to the availability of food. Mom believed preparing three meals a day to be one of her many housewifely duties. Watching Julia Child on television was as regular a practice as going to Mass on Saturday nights in lieu of Sunday mornings. “This is not how it turned out for Julia,” she’d say standing over the stove.
Mom’s Good Housekeeping cookbook reflected its use with grease stains, stuck pages and torn binding as she frequented the recipes. Her menus tended to be redundant, though. For example, Mom usually served fish, peas and rice on Friday nights. That would be fillet of sole, tiny canned LeSur peas, and Uncle Bens white rice. The fillet sometimes tasted too fishy and a gag reflex ensued just like when a cardboard rectangle would be positioned urgently in my mouth for dental ex-rays. But I quickly learned that if you blobbed enough tartar sauce on the fish, and a pat of butter, it’d be fine. I did not wrestle with the canned army-green peas, however, as their mushiness slid down my gullet easily. And I can say that Mom’s white rice was never sticky but actually fluffed with a fork.
Mom did veer off the Good Housekeeping cookbook course. When Hamburger Helper was invented, she gave it an enthusiastic try as if she found a new recipe on a clean, unread page in the cookbook. She thought preparing a dinner in one skillet was clever; however upon first sight of the grey mound, she knew it wasn’t going to work. Back to the cookbook and making meals from scratch.
Portion control was never in control and neither were Tim and me. Veal Scaloppini for dinner or will it be chicken and mashed potatoes? Casserole? Lots of food, all the time; it was too much for little kids. During one yearly physical check-up when I was entering fifth grade Dr. Kaplan said, “Let’s talk about going on a diet.” He showed me an illustrated pyramid with food groupings and what to eat as you went up the pyramid. I didn’t get it. It was too complicated and I knew Mom wasn’t going to be bothered with it either. Besides, I didn’t think anything was wrong with me anyway. The chubby kids ate and as long as we continued to do so, Mom was going to dish it up.
Despair and anxiety came back to me when I looked at her smiling face filling out fat checks in my black and white baby photo. The chubbiness continued through grade school where at the start of each school year, argument and frustration would bloom just at the sight of a new Montgomery Wards catalog in the mail. “But why do I always have to get clothes from here?” I’d yell in desperation. “Because you don’t fit into anything anyplace else,” Mom yelled shaking her head. Hence, “Husky” clothes, available to those who required more of a generous fit. Blue jeans weren’t available in “Husky” which didn’t matter because I wasn’t allowed to wear jeans until high school anyway. Instead, a pair of pumpkin orange polyester slacks with elastic waist and a short-sleeved orange top with cream yoke and fake knobby gold buttons at my shoulders became my well-worn play outfit. When in doubt as to what to wear, I’d put on the “slack suit,” just like the pictures in the Wards’ photos.
I felt like I stood out from all the rest of the kids not necessarily because I was chubby but because I wore such different clothes. I believed I was just like everyone else but my clothes forced me to be not like them.