On Hunger, Loss, and the Void My Mother Left Behind
My mother abandoned me when I was six years old. Now, decades after a childhood of malnourishment, I still have trouble eating.
I sliced cookie dough into small chunks, placing two cuts on an aluminum pan to bake for 20 minutes. These were not for eating; they were mementos of my mother. She used to bake just two: One for me, one for you, she'd say, as if rationing out love.
My belly felt bloated with the memory, giving me a feeling of being both full and empty. I should have let these memories go by now. It's been more than 25 years since my mother abandoned me as a child, and the recollection still feels like a fresh wound.
When the cookies were done, I watched them cool on the counter. I didn't feel hungry, but I knew I should eat.
Malnutrition started early for me. With a distracted mother, I often went unfed. As a child, I hungered for things like Pizza Hut Supreme, which I saw on a TV commercial. The oily, crisp brown crust, thick cheese that hung like a garland from the smiling mouth to the greasy slice. Such an indulgence must surely be happiness. I wanted a taste. I closed in on the tube, pressed my palms against the screen. An electrostatic hiss ran down my arm. "Get your fingers off my set," my mother yelled from the kitchen.
The woman next door called me "sliver"—not because I was thin, although I was—but because she invited me over for a piece of pie once. The Dutch crumble topping made with brown sugar, molasses, and butter made my eyes water. "A small piece, please."
"If your mother's having trouble again, you can always come here." She looked as if she might lock the door and never let me leave, her own eyes so sad and hungry.
My stomach turned. I backed out of her kitchen and ran home. Only when I was safely seated next to my mother, asleep on the couch, did I realize I had taken the neighbor's fork.
I have a tendency to grip too tightly—forks, people, relationships. The night my boyfriend Jeff broke up with me, he blurted, "I'm not happy. I need you to move out. I'm not in love with you anymore."
The news was sudden. I felt unstable, as if the floor under me had turned liquid.
He sighed heavily. "I know this is hard. It's hard for me, too, but I've given it a lot of thought."
Jeff had always been selfish, but I did not know he could be cruel as well, maybe not intentionally, but unintentionally seemed even more difficult to bear.
"I don't want to rush you, but if you could be out by the end of the month, I'd appreciate it."
The end of the month was three weeks away.
"I'll help you pack and stuff. Financially, too, if you need it." Then he put his arm around my shoulder. Tears streamed down my face. I wanted to be the kind of woman who didn't cry. If I had seen it coming after three years together, maybe I could have hardened myself to this conclusion.
He stood up. "I'm going to pack some stuff."
He sprinted upstairs. I got my cell phone and looked for a friend I could call at midnight.
He came back down with a bag.
"Where're you going to stay?"
"I don't know, maybe the office."
He paused before exiting the back. "I left some money on the dresser to help with the move and a deposit."
The door swung closed and he was gone.
I found a place quickly. What choice did I have? Before I left, I hesitated, then came back in to take a single set of silverware—fork, butter knife, soupspoon—which I was sure Jeff wouldn't miss.
I had taken the utensils to eat with, but in my empty apartment, with only a few spoonfuls of instant oatmeal past my lips, I grew nauseous. I took the unused fork and placed it over my heart, as if it could be a talisman. There was no furniture in my dining room, so I lay on the cold Saltillo tile, and slid the fork until the cool metal rested against the skin of my belly.
I remembered times when eating came easy—meals with Jeff, when we were full of smiles. He was the one person with whom I wanted to share my heartbreak, and yet he was the cause and desiring nothing to do with me.
Missing him brought up the old feelings of missing my mother. She had left me in the middle of the night when I was six. I was alone in our house for a week, rummaging for food in cabinets, wondering if she'd come back or what would happen to me. It was my father who eventually came to get me. I went to live with him, and my mother mysteriously ended up in prison. Later, I found out she had been convicted of kidnapping and the attempted murder of an ex-lover.
My father sent me to visit her once, when I was seven. She would not look at me. She spoke to the air and pointed at her chest with such force I thought she might pierce her own heart. She said she was having a hard time on the inside. I feel the same way, too, sometimes.
Afterward, she told my father not to bring me back.
Lately, I've been reading what it means to forgive. One expert, from The Forgiveness Movement, said it's more than just letting go of a past transgression; it's realizing that what you think happened to you never really did.
I thought some boyfriends concluded that I was crazy, but in truth, I never gave them a chance to know me, never spoke about my mother. I thought Jeff threw me out like trash, but a year later, he called and said he regretted everything.
I thought my mother didn't want me, but when she tried to explain why she ended up in prison, she said: "I had to protect you." She told a story about the man she allegedly tried to kill, how he tried to hurt me. Of course, it wasn't true. But it gave me solace that maybe it was how she dealt with her past, her lies like my armory of stolen forks. It's a tale she's fabricated. Mine goes something like: It was my fault. I wasn't good enough for her, or perhaps any man, to stay. And I wonder with every romantic failure if I'm doomed to relive losing my mother again.
As an adult, I have not been able to sustain a relationship with my mother. She lost custody of her first daughter (my older half-sister), and left me in the middle of the night. She's been back in and out of prison. When she relinquished custody of her third daughter, whose biological father had died, it became too hard for me to continue a relationship with her.
So most of my memories of my mother are from when I was a little girl, and I hold on to them tightly. Like when I was five, my favorite food was Fruit Loops. Left alone at the kitchen table with the cereal box, Toucan Sam's beaky grin kept enticing me to refill my bowl. With each bite the roof of my mouth became tattered from the hard O's but there was a point when the cereal absorbed enough milk to go down easy.
Mother walked in after my third serving and scolded me for eating so much. I didn't understand; there was still cereal in there if she was hungry. She pointed to my bulging belly, looked with disapproval at how it came out from under my shirt. I tried to pull the cotton fabric over my tummy to hide. But she snatched the box away.
"You have to start eating," a friend told me after the breakup with Jeff, the signs of weight loss too noticeable to ignore. "Your body is breaking itself down."
The food in my refrigerator had gone rotten from not eating it; inside my kitchen trashcan, there were maggots squirming among the waste. Catabolysis is a biological process in which the body breaks down its own fat and muscle to survive. When a maggot is ready to pupate, its body breaks down its current state, enabling it to transform into a fly. Such a natural cycle: Self-feeding engenders damage, but also renewal.
My own transformation came one day, passing a bakery, when I smelled bread, fresh and warm out of the oven. I bought a sliced loaf with herb butter and, licking at the soft white skin, I felt a sweet release. I let go of my stories, or they let go of me. Even memories get hungry. And that's what hunger is for: indicating when we're finally ready for more, ready to move past old heartache and filled once again with love.
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