Each of my parents had a love affair with food. This contributed to the heart surgery and related stroke which took my father, and has caused the diabetes and related foot problems which now threaten my mother with total lack of mobility. For all of my childhood, “fat” was the defining word for my mother. For the few years we lived in South Carolina, people were more polite, referring to her as “stout.” But when we returned to New Jersey, it was back to “fat” again, and indeed, my mother grew stouter each year, drinking a lot of gin. There were less fat people in the 1970s, and they commented seeing my mother wrest her considerable bulk out of the car at the grocery store. I remember “how’s it going, slim,” and stares.
Fat was not fixable, because food had become a proxy, initially for my mom but eventually with dad also, for a normal relationship with their spouse. I think both people craved torrid abandon romance, straight from the movies of their childhood, but there was no opposite in their marriage who could reciprocate. My mother certainly was not attractive during the years which should have been closest for them, and even if my mother had looked better, my father didn’t form communicative relationships with people. He enjoyed flirting with waitresses and “joking” (from what we heard of his work, it sounded like “joking” and then “roaring” were primary), but I can’t remember my parents having a serious discussion about anything, without it ending quickly in an argument and tears.
But they could agree on the benefits of a basket of fried clams, so the missing, missed and anticipated other became food, preferably fried, creamy or cheesy, and most enjoyed outside the home. When they found a place with hot comfort food, they became regulars, going most weekends and paydays until the charm wore off. The vaguely indecent oohs, ahs and smacking noises when the shrimp, pizza, smothered baked potato, tacos or other luscious stuff came out were gradually displaced by complaints, that the food was not hot (hot was always a priority with them), that the french onion soup was not crusty enough, that the service was not sufficiently attentive or deferential. Eventually, my parents sought their satisfaction elsewhere.
I saw this sequence play out as a child at Cutters in Morristown, NJ, at a Mexican restaurant in Ponca City, OK where my father thought the owner’s wife enjoyed being called “my little enchi” (his take on enchilada) in front of her husband, and even in Norway, where they expected (but did not receive) the same deferential service as from enchi. I don’t remember seeing any fat people except my mother in Norway when I visited during vacations in the mid-1980s. If there were any commments, at least my parents could not understand them.
My mother had long been a diabetic by then, and my father received the same diagnosis as he ate, drank and gradually became as sedentary as my mother. I took the summer of 1987 off from the Aspen Music Festival, in hopes that regular walks on the beach at Sola would moderate my mother’s drinking, weight gain and depression. It worked while I was there, but stopped when I left. Food and drink resumed their reign, and my parents were fine with it. Given the choice between walks on the beach and dinner with drinks in town, there was never any question which choice would win.
Now, 25 years later, my father is dead and my mother may be facing the amputation of a foot which seems to have lost sensation and is becoming infected. During the five months we hosted my parents in Philadelphia, while my father was recovering from inadvisable kidney surgery which hastened his death, they formed a fast, intense relationship with a pizza place down the hill on Midvale. They ordered several times a week from Halloween through Christmas, raving about the authentic east coast pizza they could not have gotten in Florida, as the greasy pizza boxes collected in the garage. By winter, the charm began to wane. We heard about cold pizza, a surly deliveryman, and finally some topping which made them sick. With pizza as in marriage, they needed to find their delight elsewhere.