Eating Disorders Aren't Just for the Young: Anorexia Killed My Grandmother
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She grew up poor with a father who had affairs frequently and squandered what little money they earned on other women. Her mother was paranoid and severely depressed and tried to kill herself by walking in front of a bus. She succeeded finally by ingesting a bottle of heart medication later in her life. That was Pauline. But like Flossie, she wasn’t simply the sum total of her crippling disease. She divorced her husband at a time when doing so was more than frowned upon. She became a property owner and landlord, and supported her daughters by herself. They both went to college, too, although neither graduated. She was also appearance obsessed.
I very clearly recall standing next to Flossie in Woolworth’s where she was helping me pick out a dress-up lipstick and listening to a story about strangers mistaking them for sisters. I could tell even then that it mattered, and that Pauline did not correct anyone.
Flossie suffered for Pauline in other ways, too. She was married before Hesh, to a guy she’d fallen in love with during college. By the time they met, she’d taken diction lessons to lose her Philadelphia accent and learned to ride horseback. Their families met for the first time at the wedding, and shortly thereafter, his parents demanded he divorce her because her family was uncouth, white trash. Flossie paid the down payment on her first house with Hesh with the settlement from the divorce.
My mom, Ellie, remembers that at meal times in that duplex Flossie often “drowned” her food in water. Anything she thought she’d be tempted to eat was subject to drowning to render it un-delicious. It’s amazing to imagine that Flossie would have been tempted by any food as by the time I came into the picture, it all seemed to sicken her. But that, I supposed, was a result of serious training.
Ellie remembers Flossie peeling the tops off of sweet rolls at Stouffer’s—back when the company had a physical restaurant—only to drown the rest.
As a little girl Ellie let me eat whatever the hell I wanted, without imparting any kind of food guilt onto me. On the way to elementary school we stopped in a bakery no more than four blocks from school and in the space of those blocks I’d manage to gut an entire challah bread, ball up the dough, pinching and squishing, and eat it like an apple. I generally left the crust carcass in the backseat and ate it on the way home.
I remember once while on vacation with my parents that my dad suggested, innocently and accurately, that I might get sick if I was to finish the entire box of cookies I was already half way through. Ellie was displeased. I don’t think I got sick on that particular occasion, but do recall vomiting a number of times at a friend’s house after stuffing myself with enough birthday cake to kill a small horse. This wasn’t uncommon; my relationship to eating was a free-for-all. Despite her own memories of being banished from the kitchen, and watching her mother shove perfectly good food under running water, she protected me.
It’s impossible, though, to hide one’s self from one’s kids.
She has her own slew of food issues related not only to Flossie’s attitude about food, but also the various ways Flossie managed to pathologize Ellie’s appearance from a very young age. When she was 8, Flossie dragged her to the doctor to ascertain whether she was a little person, despite no doctor ever having mentioned such a possibility in the past. At around the same time she forced her to get some stray eyebrow hairs painfully removed by electrolysis.