I grew up with a mother who spent hours learning Jazzercise routines and meticulously cooking "healthy" meals from her diet cookbook The Zone. The book was white with "Zone" in bold red letters, as if the words inside were intense and would push, could push you into your own zone, the zone of starvation in which the world becomes calm. I know about this zone because I am like my mother, as in I know what it is to restrict yourself into that dazed, food-deprived space. I knew my mother had an eating disorder because at dinner she would eat tiny bits of food that were barely big enough to prod with her dull metallic fork. She also taught Jazzercise classes four times a week, and spent over eight hours every day in her office practicing the routines, her body constantly in motion, constantly sweating. Her Jazzercise office was really the guest bedroom that contained a day bed and a dark wooden desk, but we never had guests because we lived in Texas and so instead were that part of the family that traveled out of state to visit the rest of our family, everyone else who lived in the beautiful mountains of Colorado. So the unused guest bedroom in our boring and ugly state of Texas became mother's Jazzercise office with two full-length mirrors hanging from the white walls.
I remember my mother staring at herself in those mirrors as I sat on the daybed, legs crossed on the mattress covered in a pale blue quilt, watching her practice the routines. It was summer and I was too young to drive, so I stayed inside, bored, and bugged my mother until it was time for her to whisk me off to basketball or softball practice. I would watch her watching herself, her tiny mother thighs that did not look how I thought mother thighs should look, as I knew they should be—like the large thunderous thighs of my teammates' Texan mothers. But we weren't native Texans. We arrived sunny and bright and with toned bodies from California. At least my mother's body was toned. I thought of her as strong. But she was just skinny, her little muscles poking out because there was no fat. I didn't realize this fact then, the fact that she was in reality scrawny, not muscular, though I find it significant now. She was not, is not a strong body, but strong-willed in her starvation, deprivation of herself.
Our pantry was oversized but full of little things. Granola bars, canned vegetables and beans, small pink packets of Equal and bags of nuts and dried fruit. Everything's bigger in Texas, but we never bought the family-sized boxes of cereal or crackers. We had the small regular ones, that ones that looked tiny and squat compared to the boxes that declared family at the grocery store. We just weren't that kind of family. We were a family under the watchful, persistent eye of my mother's eating disorder, the glare that instructed us to trim down.
Even more than that watchful eye, or perhaps because of it, we were a small family slimmed down by our lack of relating to one another, by our ability to hide ourselves away from each other's stare. Each of us, mother and dad and sister and I, kept to ourselves. What could have been a strong nuclear family was in actuality a structure of four separate bodies that refused to function cohesively. I wonder at how my mother's eating disorder played a part in this. Which is not to blame her, but to question how connected people can be when each person is hiding something, is withdrawn. My father was an alcoholic and binge eater, my sister was always escaping from the house to be with her friends, and I had my own obsession with running and playing sports. And then there was my mother's eating disorder. We were a family in parts, four people trying to avoid each other in order to not have to show who we really were.
While our kitchen was huge and consumed the core of our house, it was barely used. Rather than hosting the feet of a family cooking and congregating around the round wooden table, the white tile was frequented only as a passageway between the different rooms of the house. It was devoid of the meanings of a kitchen, becoming a space in which we simply traveled through yet never stayed. Instead of memories about fun family dinner time or cooking meals with mother, what I remember most about the kitchen was a large glass jar that sat expectantly on top of the gray marble counter top. It had a glass lid that pulled off with a sucking sound. There were two jars, actually. One was filled with pretzels, the other brimmed with the nuts and dried fruit, the back-ups kept in the pantry. My mother would buy almonds, cashews, and Brazilian nuts in bulk from Whole Foods. She also got papaya spears and cut them up into chunks to mix with the nuts. All of these elements would go in the large silver mixing bowl, and she would stir them with one of her tan wooden spoons until the nuts and papaya were perfectly mixed. Her scrawny toned arms flexed with each rotation of the spoon. Then she carefully poured the mixture into one of the large glass jars. "Keep healthy snacks like fruit and nuts on the counter instead of sweets." I'm sure she read this in The Zone, as I have read it numerous times in running and fitness magazines, always in the articles on how to lose weight.
One day after my mother put the nut mix in the glass jar I was feeling hungry and snacky. I took the jar to the den, and sat behind the computer screen at my dad's excessively large oak desk, the one we threw away after he died and mother moved to Colorado because we didn't want to see it anymore. We also didn't want to move it again as it weighed a ton and took up too much space, like him. I was doing something on the computer, though I don't remember what now. Probably looking at fan sites for The X-Files or scanning eBay for unnecessary things I would like to collect. The spinning wicker chair creaked under my weight as I zoned out and rocked back and forth in front of the computer, my hand went from jar to mouth to jar to mouth until the jar was half empty.
As the nuts and fruit disappeared, I heard my mother enter the kitchen, probably in search of an afternoon snack to stave off the constant hunger that continuously growled inside her. The late afternoon light that streamed in from the dining room windows across from the den motherentarily blinded me as I looked up to the sound of my mother's voice calling my name.
"Chelsey, where are my nuts?"
I had nothing to say, nor could I as a mouthful of them was lodged between my teeth. Somehow I knew I was in trouble, guilt instantly settling in on my barely teenaged skin. She walked towards the den, the red in her face rising a notch as she saw half of her nuts were gone, my hand hovering above the jar, my jaws still chomping, ferociously trying to chew and swallow the evidence.
"How could you eat all of that?" This question I will never forget. She was mad out of hunger, though I did not know that then. And it's still an assumption now, but one I think is probably right. What I knew then was that I had eaten something in excess, and the fact of this was bad, very bad.
Years later in my life I would eat in excess again. And again, it would be fruit and nuts I chomped on in front of a computer screen. I would eat bags and bags of cashews and papaya in front of the internet, checking email or messing around on Facebook. I would eat until I was dizzy, making myself zoned out from my stressful adult life I was trying to avoid, stuffed myself until I saw double and rushed to the bathroom to puke it all out. I puked out my guilt, my own eating disorder rising out of me.
I knew the word family never really applied to us because no one was ever around at the same time to make us feel like a unit. We were a family in parts, mother physically around but something about her was always gone. I couldn't name it then, but I see it now. There was a little dent in her energy, a gap of something that made it feel as if she was never fully there, like the rest of us, like how we all hid ourselves away. Even in her hiding, though, I always got a full look at my mother, saw tight skin stretched along her bones in her taut Jazzercise outfits. She changed her clothes in front of me without shame, perhaps because she was comfortable in the fact that I was larger than her, her naked body being able to feel free because it was the smallest one in the room. I know this because I would feel it years later when I starved myself to be the smallest roommate in my apartment and would walk around the hard wooden floors in my underwear, confident of the fact of my established smallness. But even with this full naked look of my mother, a part of her felt like it knew how to avoid my stare. She knew how to keep something hidden, and I sense now that what she stowed away inside of herself was a sense of longing, of wanting to have or to be something else. A different body, perhaps, a perfect body she would never be able to see herself as having, even when she did have it.
I sensed how she has always sought out this body, always created space in her life to work towards the body she wanted. We lived in many houses as I grew up, moving every three or four years following my dad's sales career until we finally settled down in Round Rock, TX where we got stuck because he was laid off and we didn't have any money to go elsewhere. In each state we lived—Wyoming, Colorado, California, and eventually Texas—my mother found her Jazzercise classes to go to, would soon became an instructor, and continued to learn and practice routines every day.
For birthdays and Christmases, everyone got her Jazzercise clothes. Leotards, brightly colored in greens and yellows. The straps always slipped onto her shoulders with a snap as she suctioned her body into the spandex outfits. There were tight cotton shorts to match, too. Greens, again, and sometimes blue. The outfits mostly hid the sweat, except for the small pool of wet showing that gathered at my mother's lower back. I find this ridiculous now—the purpose of Jazzercise being to sweat off layers of fat, but the clothes for the activity made to hide the fact of sweat. I think now of how mother's body, like the sweat from her exercise, always felt hidden, never fully there. Even in her flashy spandex that held on tight to her skin, something was still hiding.
My father, the binge eater, would hide what he ate. He would come home from work at some post-6pm hour and keep to his room while he ate dinner, or went into the garage to fetch donuts out of the brown paper bag he had kept hidden in his toolbox. I never noticed when, exactly, my father came home, because I never really cared. Because even when he was around he was never really there. He would get home from work and retreat into his room for the night to watch TV until he finally fell asleep. Later on he would get insomnia, so my mother started sleeping on the daybed in her Jazzercise office to escape the movements of his restless body. The night would go like this: dad returned home from work, went into his room at the far end of the house, his room that was the furthest away from mine, change into his XXL sized black sweatpants and a XXL sized CU Buffaloes t-shirt, come out into the kitchen and heat up a plate full of three-servings worth of whatever meal my mother cooked for him earlier in the day, usually spaghetti, and put the plate on a milky, marbley white plastic tray. We had Fiestawear dishes, bright plates, bowls, and soup mugs the colors of turquoise, peach, yellow and green. There were sets we acquired on our own, and a set that was a gift from someone else, perhaps my dad's mother. He filled these dishes with odious amounts of food, large servings that could feed a small family. As a side dish to his three-servings meal, my dad would often take one of the flatter, larger, round bowls and pile it up with instant mashed potatoes he made himself. A glass of milk or a can of Diet Sprite (the diet part being mother's idea) was also balanced on the milky, marbley white plastic tray, and then he would carry it back to the cavern of his room, close the door, and click on the TV. And the he would be gone, suctioned into his room for the night, perhaps hiding from his family.
While my mother might hide the fact of her body dis-ease, she doesn't hide the fact that she barely eats. She's a flighty little thing that pecks away at snacks throughout the day. She'll have a rice cake with tofu cream cheese spread on top of it for breakfast, a small side salad around noon, and some fruits and nuts for dinner or scattered throughout the day. Pretzels and homemade pesto—the basil fresh from her large plant outside—is a perfectly fine meal. In college, I would think a small package of baby carrots and a tub of hummus was an absolutely fine thing to eat as a meal throughout my day. My one meal, all I would eat, spread throughout the hours from nine until five. A full day's work at developing my eating disorder, like my mother, like her Jazzercise, like her job that was really more of an excuse to exercise, to stay skinny, to be tiny.
There are tiny bits about our random dinner times that stick out in my memory, that tell me something was a bit off about my family, about the way we ate. I remember the few times we ate as a family at the round table in our kitchen, and my mother would yell at dad for not wiping his mouth clean after every bite. I don't know if he was drunk during these meals, or if he was really just that closed off, because he never said anything more during dinner than, "Mindy, leave me alone." But sometimes it bugged her. The food showing on his mustache or the corners of his mouth. Food in an in-between stage. Not on a plate or in the stomach, but evidence of the process of eating spread across his face. She thought he should feel embarrassed. I felt embarrassed, awkward as I sat there wanting for the food to disappear from his face, wanting this random attempt to be a family that ate together to just go away.
Since the round wooden kitchen table was the one that my mother had in her family as she grew up, I wonder now about her own memories of her family around that table. A mother and father and two daughters. A family. Did her dad wipe his face clean? Did her mother try to keep the family in conversation? Was her sister there, like mine was, but not really present in her head, not really something that registered in her brain as a sister, a sibling, someone with whom to share the experience of eating a family meal?
My sister is somewhere in this story, but left out because I never felt her in the house, even when she was closed behind her bedroom door and loudly chattering away on the phone. Like the theme of my family, our bodies were present, but never really there. And if we were there, it was only to be able to try and disprove the fact that we were hiding some part of ourselves. Look, we're here, our bodies said. But something was missing, always gone.
And now, well, dad's dead, my sister lives in Houston, mother's in Colorado, and I'm in Minneapolis. The kitchen table went away, too, during my mother's final move out of Texas. Which is okay, since it was never rightfully put to use. Perhaps an actual family has it now. Perhaps they sit down and eat a meal together, the sisters giggling over the food that sticks to their father's face as their mother helps herself to another plateful of spaghetti.
Chelsey Clammer received her MA in Women's Studies from Loyola University Chicago. She has been published in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, The Coachella Review and Make/shift among many others. She received the Nonfiction Editor's Pick Award 2012 from both Revolution House and Cobalt, as well as Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Clammer is a weekly columnist for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as the Managing Editor, Nonfiction Editor and workshop instructor for the journal. She is also the Nonfiction Editor for The Dying Goose. You can read more of her writing at: www.chelseyclammer.com.