Mom was a health nut before healthy was a craze. In the late 60s, I watched her exercise with Jack LaLanne, as he instructed her from the TV screen. During the 70s, I often found Tiger’s Milk and wheat germ in the refrigerator, and Adele Davis books in the den. Salt was replaced with kelp, and I thought I had the weirdest mom in the universe. We didn’t regularly eat desserts after meals or have sugar-laden snacks in the house. Sweets were a special treat, rather than a daily indulgence. If Mom occasionally baked cookies, she had to hide them from my brother, Doc, so she’d have some left over; I wasn’t interested in eating them. Even soft drinks were foreign to me until I discovered them at my friend Lylas’ house, when I was in upper elementary school.
Of course, all this healthy eating began after I was born. Before that, Mom was a virtual Sara Lee, making various kinds of pies, quite often. The family also went to Disneyland before I was born; they never returned to the happiest place on earth with me. Mom has tried to justify this inequality multiple times, explaining that she, Dad, and Doc were in California for Dad’s business trip, but all I heard was, “We did all the fun stuff, and life was a party, before you were born.” It’s tough being born second.
As I got older, sugar crept into the house more often. Once I started driving, there were two of us bringing ice cream, candy bars, and apple turnovers home. Doc had moved out, so we didn’t have to hide anything; our vices were out in the open. The moment desserts made it through the front door, that was our downfall. Often, after overindulging, Mom and I would decide to go on a diet to get back on track. Her, for health; me, so I could breathe while wearing my jeans. Unfortunately, we were rarely inspired at the same time.
“I need to eat better; I’ve been eating too many sweets,” Mom announced.
“Okay. Hey, do we still have that chocolate chip cookie dough in the freezer?”
“I think so.”
“I think I’ll make some cookies.”
I pulled out the roll of Nestle Toll House dough and sliced off the end. That was faster than taking the metal piece off the end. Since the end slice was never big enough to qualify as cookie-sheet worthy, I ate it, along with whatever was stuck between the crevices of the end piece of wrapper. I couldn’t waste a morsel. “Mmm. This is so good.”
After slicing equal portions of dough to put them on the cookie sheet, I decided to have a full-size frozen slice.
“You want one?” I asked Mom. Gluttony loves company.
“I shouldn’t,” she replied. Which, for Mom, always means “yes.”
We each had one slice. Then another. By the time we had a third, I was too tired for baking. Maybe tomorrow night, I thought.
Then next evening, I got out the dough again. There was no need to ask whether or not Mom wanted a slice; the Strong-Willed Woman joined me immediately. Within six minutes, we had finished the entire roll. Not a single cookie came to fruition. Nestle and I had taken Mom down without a fight.
But soon payback came – and it came in a half-gallon carton with a gold-rimmed lid.
Some friends and I were sitting in my living room one afternoon, during one of my sabbaticals from all things decadent. Our conversation stopped when we saw an appendage come around the corner from the kitchen. Nothing else. Only Mom’s arm, as she held Blue Bell Tin Roof ice cream in her tempter’s hand and moved it in a beckoning motion. It was proof to my friends that she was, indeed, an evil woman.
And of course, it worked; we all indulged.
When Mom began using a walker a few years ago, I helped her grocery shop when she needed more than just a few items. My act of daughterly kindness was a huge mistake for my weight loss.
“Mmm, that looks good,” she said as we passed the Marie Callender’s lemon meringue pie. I don’t know Marie personally, but I’m sure she’s a lovely woman who has perpetually baked pies for all of her offspring, not just the eldest. Mom grabbed the pie and threw it in our basket. “Mom, that has gluten in it; we’re gluten free.”
“I’ll eat the top part, and leave the crust.”
As we turned the corner, she exclaimed, “I haven’t tried that flavor before,” while pointing to snicker doodle ice cream. Two are not stronger than one, and our affinity for high-calorie food is stronger than the both of us. Two half-gallons later, one for each of us, we were nearly finished with our expedition for “a few necessities.”
Then I spied them. The best gluten-free vanilla-glazed donuts in the world. I grabbed a box and waved them in her face. “I’ve been looking for these for months; they’re hard to find. You should try them.”
She didn’t hesitate, adding the donuts to our pile of goodies and declaring, “You’re such a bad influence.”
Finally, it was time to check out.
“Maybe I should get a Payday candy bar, in case I need extra protein one day.” I remembered my words to our kids when they were growing up – If you don’t ask for candy at the check-out counter every trip, I’m more likely to buy you candy every once in a while. But this was my mother. She was a big girl, albeit an out-of-control girl. I couldn’t save her from herself, but I tried to save myself.
“Mom, stop. I need to lose eight pounds.”
“You don’t have to eat any of this. Nobody’s making you eat it.”
Oh, if only it were that easy. But this candy-coated apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; I follow her lead quite well.
Two short years earlier, she had lectured me, “I read an article saying that sugar makes us retain water, perhaps more than salt. So I need to cut way down on sugar. It would probably help you, too.” I had glanced at our respective ankles – they were gone. Our shoes were too tight, our pants were unbuttoned, and wearing a bra was torture. I was contemplating designing underwear with adjustable, Velcro waistbands. Yet, we continued to partake of the sweet things in life, occasionally.
Now, Mom partakes all the time; she has surpassed me in sugar intake for the first time in history.
“Want some Skittles?” I asked her, the last time she was at my house, while I raided Cowboy’s old Halloween candy.
She gave me her I’m-trying-to-say-no look. It’s a pitiful look.
“Just the orange ones,” I coaxed her, “Cowboy doesn’t eat the orange ones.”
She tried to stay strong, but I heard her resolve disintegrating.
“It would be a waste to throw them away,” I explained. Of course, I rarely throw away candy. On a weak day, disposing of it means I’ll be rummaging through the garbage later, when nobody is looking. And even if someone did see, I wouldn’t care. So, I try to not make rash judgments involving sugar.
“Oh, I’m trying to watch my sugar,” she lied.
“Yeah, I need to do that, too,” I replied, as I put two orange Skittles into my mouth, chewing slowly and seductively.
“Well, maybe I’ll have a couple.”
We finished off the bag, all colors, without hesitation. As easy as taking candy from my baby.
“Oh, that was too sweet,” Mom whined. “I’ll be sorry later.” But neither of us is sorry yet.
During holiday dinners, we take the smaller-portion approach with desserts: Several tiny slices of pumpkin pie do not have as many calories as one large piece.
“I’ll just have a sliver.”
“Yeah, me too,” I add.
Forty-five minutes later, one of us will be back in the kitchen getting a second sliver. We take turns going back for more until we’ve consumed far more pie than the rest of the family, who eats normally. But it makes us feel better, like we have a weight-gain prevention trick that they know nothing about.
All the while, we declare, “This is my last piece” as we slice yet another one.
Since she moved to her assisted-living facility, she’s thrown in the towel on pretending to be self-controlled. Showing no resistance whatsoever, she’s come a long way since wheat germ.
Now, I’m trying to slow her down.
“Mom, that’s a lot of sugar,” I often say, concerned about her health.
“I know. I should stop.”
But she doesn’t.
After watching her finish off a normal-sized slice, not a sliver, of lemon ice box pie at dinner one night, we went back to her room to visit.
“I need something sweet to eat.”
“Mom, you just had pie.”
“I don’t mean at meals; I mean in my room.”
“Between meals? You have dessert every day at lunch and dinner. I’m surprised they don’t give you bonbons at breakfast.”
“Mmm. I’ll suggest that.”
“What’s happened to you?”
“I need sugar sometimes.”
“When your blood sugar gets low?”
“Yes, when I need it.”
“At the rate you’re going, your blood sugar won’t be low until you’re in the hereafter, waiting in line for a triple scoop of Baskin-Robbins butter pecan.”
“That sounds good. Can you bring me some of that next time you come over?”
When we took her out to a buffet after church three weeks ago, I asked her if she needed some dessert.
“What do they have?”
“Chocolate pudding, lemon pie, and ice cream.”
“Okay, what, Mom? Which one do you want?”
As she dived into her nirvana, she glanced at my plate. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Strawberry topping. It looked good.”
She continued to stare.
“Do you want a bite?”
“Sure,” she said.
Body snatchers have taken away the woman who raised me. Now, I’m trying to raise her, but she’s got her mind made up.
Last week, I made my final effort.
After eating some cookies I brought her in the late afternoon, we went to dinner. I figured she’d skip dessert, since she’d had a treat only ten minutes earlier. As she sunk her spoon into her chocolate pudding, I asked, “You’re going to have more dessert?”
“I’m 90. What difference does it make? I’m going to die anyway; I might as well enjoy this.”
There it was – the bottom line. I can’t argue with that. She’s taken better care of herself than most people I know, and still religiously takes nutritional supplements to improve her quality of life. What’s a few thousand milligrams of refined sugar per day? Perhaps that’s the key to enjoying her golden years.
Yesterday, she handed me an empty Rubbermaid container. “This is yours to take home,” she told me. I’d packed it with nine pieces of lemon-frosted cake on Mother’s Day, which she promptly began devouring after dinner that night.
“I thought you were going to bring me more cake.”
I was stunned. “I asked if you wanted more. Didn’t you tell me you shouldn’t have anymore?”
“Yes.” She smiled her impish grin.
Of course, she’d expected more cake. I’d forgotten that “I shouldn’t” always means “yes.” Shame on me, for my neglect. I’ll make it up to her soon. With cookies. Or pound cake. Or whatever sounds good on any given day.
Suddenly, I’m looking forward to growing older. She eats whatever she wants, as much as she wants, and weighs 95 pounds. It’s heaven on earth. I’m praying heredity is in my favor, and I’m making my grocery list now.