My son, Cowboy, has many dietary restrictions to keep him healthy and pain-free. Preparing meals can be a daunting task. Gluten-free, dairy-free, peanut-free, reflux-friendly, low-sugar, margarine-free, and so on. I've decided to write The Hyphen-Diet Cookbook. And to ensure Cowboy adheres to these restrictions, I’ve been the Food Police for the last 16 years.
At home, he constantly looks at me for the nod of food approval, a behavior that was further solidified during the days when he needed to lose weight. Back when I became a horrible mother who didn’t let him eat a bag of chips in one sitting.
"Yes, Cowboy, you can have some candy," Flash told him one day, recently. Our son looked at me with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, as if asking my permission.
"Cowboy, I said it's okay," Flash repeated.
Cowboy gazed into my eyes again. Somehow, I've become The Enforcer. The Dirty Harriet of the culinary world.
Flash suddenly felt like a mere sperm donor as he proclaimed, “Oh my gosh, Cowboy. I’m right here, I’m your dad, and I said you can have some candy.” I was waiting to hear, “I said eat that candy, now!”
The only response was silence as Cowboy honed in on me. I gave him the nod.
“Why am I even here?” Poor Flash sulked as he shuffled to his room. My discernment of all things edible has outranked his input. Maybe Cowboy has overheard our many "discussions” regarding his diet; he seems to know his dad is a pushover.
So, doing what every kid does, Cowboy sometimes asks Flash for something when I'm not around.
“Cowboy, you’ve had four cookies,” I told him a few days ago. “We need to back off the sugar for a little while. No more cookies, today. You can have something sweet in a couple of days,” I explained before I left for the store.
He nodded his head.
When I returned, I saw an empty cookie package in the trash.
“Oh my gosh, Flash. That bag was over half full. Are you binging?”
“No. Cowboy wanted some.”
“What? How many? I told him no more cookies. Didn’t you hear me?”
“No, you didn’t tell me. I had one; he had the rest, I guess.”
I did the math in my head. “Fourteen cookies? You gave him 14 cookies?”
“I didn’t give him anything. He went in there and ate them.”
When I glanced his direction, he was holding his hand up to the side of his face, blocking it from me.
“Cowboy, look at me.” He turned away, still displaying his own version of “talk to the hand.”
I rounded the hand and came face-to-face with the Cookie Monster incarnate.
“Did I tell you no more cookies?” He grinned and nodded. He hides his fear of me well.
“At least he told you the truth,” Flash contributed.
“Did you eat more cookies while I was gone?” I continued the interrogation. Cowboy shook his head no. So much for honesty.
“Really? You have crumbs on the corners of your mouth.”
At this point, Cowboy laughed. It’s hard to be stern face-to-face with that face. I walked away saying, “No sugar tomorrow.”
We’ll see about that, I heard him think. His charm has prolonged his life over worse offenses.
Every Thanksgiving at my Mom’s, Cowboy would eat more than he had the previous 11 months. And when we go out to eat, buffets are the most cost-effective way to dine. I tell him what the “safe” foods are at every restaurant, and he straps on a feedbag for the duration. His appetite, outside the confines of home, is only outranked by my guilt.
Oh my gosh, I'm a terrible mother, I often think. Is he relieved every time he's away from home, making up for lost calories? For nine months, he had it made – 24/7 womb service. Now, I’m starving him.
“Are we feeding him enough at home?” Flash asked during our dinner at Golden Corral, the day after the Great Cookie Fiasco.
As a mother, it’s one thing to have internal ponderings. But when your husband verbalizes the same thoughts, it gives wings and teeth to your ponderings – they become nightmarish creatures that keep you awake at night, with worse thoughts. What if my son has malnutrition? What if he’ll have some Freudian complex due to my regulating his portions of sugar and potato chips? Is he hiding last year’s leftover Easter candy between his mattresses? Will he soon be breaking and entering as a means to more ice cream?
As I glanced at the mountain of rice, bourbon chicken, and steak on Cowboy’s plate, I defended myself to Flash. “I ask him, every time he finishes his food, if he’s still hungry. Sometimes he says yes, sometimes no.”
“I do the same thing,” Flash responded.
Meanwhile, Cowboy finished his Meat Plate in record time.
“Are you still hungry? Do you want more?” Flash and I asked, in unison.
“Yes,” Cowboy answered, adding to our self-imposed label of “neglectful parents.”
“How about dessert?” We offered, as a salve for our sorry souls.
Cowboy promptly retrieved some jello with whipped cream on top, then gave me his is-this-really-okay-or-some-kind-of-trick look.
“Go ahead, make my day,” I said, trying to forget the cookies of the day before.
Once he was finished, we asked again, “Are you still hungry? Do you want more?”
“Yes,” he answered again. We were stunned, and wondered where our skinny boy would put more calories.
“But maybe this time, some vegetables?” I couldn’t help myself, but Cowboy was more than happy to oblige. He loves food in every group. His next plate was layered with six different veggies.
He kept eating and eating. And eating. It was like a camel with water – he was storing up at the food oasis for his desert-like life at home.
Special occasions at home are a welcome reprieve for Cowboy. With an Easter egg hunt on Good Friday, my birthday the day after, and a basket of goodies on Easter morning, it was a Sugar Armageddon waiting to happen.
I limited his sugar intake at the hunt, reminding him that we’d have birthday cake the next day. Due to my memory lapse, caused by all the candy I “tested out” as I filled those eggs on Friday night, I bought him an Icee on Saturday afternoon. Which meant the cake that Flash and Cowboy baked needed to wait until Sunday.
But what about Sunday morning? Cowboy has to have an Easter basket. He needs a chocolate bunny. And some Junior Mints. And bubble gum eggs. In twelve short years, he’ll be 30.
After he saw his Easter basket, I gave conditions. “Four Junior Mints, but hold the bunny. You can eat his ears or something on a different day.”
That afternoon, our friends Barney and Thelma Lou served strawberries and cream after lunch, and I had to substitute sugar-laden, dairy-free ice cream for Cowboy. By the time we got home Sunday night and quickly frosted the two-thirds of cake that was left from my further food testing, my birthday weekend was almost over. And birthday cake is to be eaten within 36 hours of the birthday. I couldn’t be rude.
“Okay, let’s have a little cake,” I announced.
I knew she couldn’t hold out, I heard Cowboy gloat to himself. She can’t resist her own birthday cake, complete with singing and making a wish. Such an attention hog.
We ate reasonable-sized pieces, and Cowboy buzzed down the hallway to get ready for bed. He’d enjoyed every moment on leave from my enforcement. He knows I won’t let that bunny go to waste, but he’s not asking for it. It will wait in the freezer, while I let Cowboy dry out from his three-day bender. And if he gets any ideas about sneaking a bite, my glare will say, You’ve got to ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, Cowboy? It’ll stop him in his tracks. Until the next time he and Flash are home without me. He’s counting the seconds until I leave.