There I sat on the lip of the tub, watching while she looked at herself. Her eyes flicked up and down, stopping at certain body parts that caught her eye. "You know," she said, without pulling her eyes from her reflection, "When I was younger, I made up a rule about my thighs: if they touched, I knew I had put on some weight. If they didn't, I was OK." I looked at her with adoration, thinking that if this perfect woman thought she was so flawed, I had no chance in the world.
My mother was the kind of woman who wouldn't enter the kitchen without her "face" on. Though a bit of a hippie earth mama (she did, after all, make all my baby food from scratch), she never quite got into the whole "natural" thing. "I just always liked to shower and smell good too much," she explained. In fact, she's still angry that my Dad didn't wash his hair the morning of their wedding. My mother actually smelled like a shower. A clean, moist shower with delicate floral notes. Every morning I found her in the kitchen wearing her decidedly short silky kimono robe while floating from one counter to the next making us breakfast and packing lunches. Though I never offered to help, I watched her intently. She toasted sourdough bread with butter or poured bowls of Kix cereal on most weekday mornings and whisked together cornmeal pancakes on the weekends. I mimicked her movements in my mind as she packed carrots into little baggies, cut PB&J sandwiches into adept triangles with the crust left ON, and wrote loving inscriptions on the crackled brown paper bags. "I love you :) Have a great day! Love, Mom".
She was born a mother. The type of girl who dreamed of being a mommy before knowing how one becomes a mommy. I, on the other hand, had no desire for motherhood and nearly broke my mother's heart the day I told her so. As a child, she played incessantly with dolls, brushing their hair and putting them to sleep. She even claimed her next door neighbor as "her baby", though Michelle was only 2 years younger (kids aren't really interested in the math). My mother waited very impatiently for me, 32 years to be exact, and never missed an opportunity to regale me (and anyone else who would listen) with the tale of how she discovered her pregnancy. She was sitting in a large rocking chair in the room she hoped would one day be a nursery. All of a sudden she felt a shock go through her body. It was as if someone had taken her by the shoulders and screamed, "You are pregnant...and it's a girl!!" Of course my parents had been trying for a baby (I always avoid imagining this part of the story), however she had yet to experience any signs of pregnancy. Just this weird premonition. Off she went to the doctor's office to find that yes, she was indeed pregnant, and yes it was a girl. "I always knew who you were," she'd glow.
This "knowing" kept me aggressively bonded to my mother. I always kept a close eye on her, attempting to emulate her delicate, womanly mannerisms, her deft mascara application while driving, or how she braided challah on Friday nights. So when she scrutinized herself in the mirror, weighed herself every morning, or worried about a few extra pounds, I did the same.
Amidst all of her food love (she was a big advocate of ooohing and aahing during meals), she struggled with her eating. Though no one ever knew my mother to be overweight (not even voluptuous, she was always slender and fit), her "chubby", acne prone pre-teen years had left a devastating gash in her self esteem. Her struggle was less about poundage, but rather the fear of poundage and the unending mental berating that saddled up next to her eating adoration. Diets came in spurts. There were the months of weighing food on a little scale she kept in the cupboard, then the fat-free fiasco when the house swarmed with various Entenmann's cakes and ice cream. "It's healthy," she promised. "See, all fat free!" What the hell did I care? All I knew was that it tasted good and had enough sugar to power a small car. Then came the year she really committed to "losing a few pounds". She decided on "The Cabbage Soup Diet", a recent craze suggested by a neighbor. For two weeks I came home to what smelled like an elderly Eastern European couple's home. The sulfurous cabbage smell permeated the entire house...even my pillowcase smelled like bubbie's sweater. Let's also get one thing straight: this was not a soup. This was cabbage and tomatoes boiled in water. No flavor, no fat, no fun. And that is exactly what my mother became. No fun!
This diet, like the many others, thankfully came and went. What ceased to disappear was my increasing anxiety over my mother's inability to be happy with her body and my own growing desire to be thin. To be the thin like my mother wanted to be, whatever that looked like. We were so much alike, my mother and I, that I often thought of us as the same person. I picked up her joys, her silliness, her coping mechanisms to different types of stress. When my mother openly worried about her figure, I took the cue and worried about mine. And yet, she too was influenced by her own mother's relationship with eating. My maternal grandmother loved crazy diets. Things like drinking water and vinegar while standing on your head. And the more gimmicky, the better! And knowing all this, it's no wonder my mother thought the cabbage soup diet was a good idea.
Children, especially girls, are like sponges soaking up each and every nuanced action or event in their surroundings. My mother's actions certainly influenced my perceptions of self in the world but she was not the only one. It takes a village to raise a child and mine was full of villagers with very odd food and body relationships.
My Mother's Challah
This is the bread my mother still makes almost every Friday night. It is moist, doughy, and has just a touch of sweetness. Pure heaven!
The recipe is adapted for use with a bread maker. If kneading the dough by hand, follow these instructions. Start with "Mixing the Yeast Slurry" and stop at "Shaping and Proofing the Dough".
1 packet or 1 tablespoon yeast
1/3 cup organic maple syrup (warmed)
2 cups plus 1 cup organic white flour
2 cups organic whole wheat flour
2 teaspoon Salt
2 eggs plus one egg
1/2 cup organic butter
1 cup warm water
sesame and poppy seeds
Set your bread-maker for manual mode:
Place the yeast and the warmed syrup in the bottom of the bread-maker loaf container. Add 2 cups of both the white and whole wheat flour, the salt, 2 eggs, butter and warm water. Start the bread machine. Slowly add the extra cup of flour to the mixture a little at a time, making sure that the dough doesn’t look too stiff. It should form into a ball that moves easily when being mixed. If the dough sticks to the side of the container, add a little more flour. If the dough forms a nice ball when being mixed before all the flour is added, don’t add the remaining flour.
With the machine on manual, let the dough mix and then rise. This should take approximately 2 hours. Once the dough has risen, remove the dough and place it on a lightly oiled surface. Cut the dough into half. Take the two halves and separate into 3 balls of dough each. Roll each ball into a long tube about 10 inches long. Take 3 pieces and braid, making two loaves. Place the 2 loaves on an oiled baking sheet and cover with a cloth.
Let the bread rise for another half hour then remove the cloth. Beat the remaining egg and brush it over the challahs. Sprinkle with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or a combination of the two.
Bake the loaves in a 325 degree oven for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Enjoy!