We never understood how my 5-foot tall mother blossomed from an hourglass hometown beauty queen of about 130 pounds into a 275-pound Yiddish meatball. She hardly ate. During dinner, while my sister, brother, father and myself gorged ourselves on kosher fried-chicken and egg noodles, Mom would content herself, nibbling at a slice of tomato.
I knew of toddlers who ate more then Mom.
When my dad would complain about her weight gain, she would respond, "I have a condition!" And who were we to argue? The woman hardly ate and gained more weight in the first 10 years of my life than I did.
We figured Mom must have had the thyroid from Mars.
One night when I was 11, I couldn't sleep. I crept down the stairs to the kitchen in search of a leftover drumstick.
I saw a ghostly figure hunched over the kitchen dinette table. I rubbed my eyes and focused. It was Mom. Backlit by the dim, flickering light over the stove, Mom seemed to glow.
On the table in front of her was a loaf of Wonder Bread and a tub of soft butter. Her eyes looked forward, unblinking and glazed, as she reached down, robotically, grabbed a slice of bread, slathered it with butter and folded it into her mouth, then reached for the next slice. The loaf was a third gone, and judging by her pace, I could only assume that she wasn't going to stop until it was all eaten.
"Mom?" I whispered.
She kept eating, slathering, eating. Her blank eyes did not look toward me.
I opened my mouth to speak again, but something made me stop. I slowly stepped backward into the living room and tiptoed up the stairs. For reasons I did not understand at the time, I told no one about what happened for two decades.
Years later, when I'd moved out on my own to New York City. I was walking through Union Square Park. Those were the days when Union Square might as well have been named Heroin Square. I saw a junkie sitting on a bench, his eyes glazed, his hands methodically scratching a sore on his arm, his gaze somewhere over the tops of the trees. I knew that look. It was the same look my mom had on what I'd come to call the "Night of the Living Wonder Bread."
In those days, I was too poor to buy vegetables, meat or fish. My meals were variations on bread and pasta. Mac and cheese from a mix; spaghetti and tomato sauce on sale four-for-a-dollar; pizza bagels from bagels, tomato paste and American cheese. When I had enough money to buy tuna, I'd make a tuna-and-noodle casserole.
After things got easier money wise, I never broke the habit. Diving through the entire breadbasket at a restaurant was the norm, sometimes asking for a second basket before the appetizers showed up.
I didn't drink to excess, avoided most drugs, quit smoking at 24, but bagels, pizza and pasta? Now that was my kinda addiction.
By the time I turned 30, I'd acquired a host of strange ailments: skin breakouts, rashes, respiratory problems.
"You're allergic to wheat," a naturopathic doctor told me as he peered at my skin.
"No more pizza?" I screeched and declared the doctor to be a quack, thus allowing me to ignore him for another decade.
By the time I turned 40, I couldn't ignore wheat anymore. I'd show up for work, eat a cookie and spend the next three hours coughing.
Quitting wheat was harder than I expected. Sure, there were obvious items to avoid: bread, pizza -- oh, in short, life -- but there were also the sneakier items.
Who knew soy sauce was not only wheat based but in just about everything?!
I can't even count how many times I found out the salad dressing I was enjoying was made with soy sauce. It wasn't just soy sauce. The gravy on my steak? Flour-based. The corn breakfast cereal? Mixed with wheat. Oh, and forget about dessert! With the exception of ice cream, I was screwed: cake, pie, strudel, cookies. Flour, flour, flour and flour.
It was enough to make a gal cry, and trust me, I did.
Thankfully, it did get easier. I found a wheat-free pizza joint in my hood. The local health-food store offered a freezer load of gluten-free breads. Corn, brown rice and quinoa pasta hit the shelves. I even found a tasty, wheat-free soy sauce. I happily gorged myself on all of these not-so-good, but not-so-bad, substitutes. I think of these products like methadone -- it gets you through, man.
I live my life hopeful that if I continue to be a good person, stay honest, loyal and honorable, that when I die, I will be sent to an all-you-can-eat Italian buffet, at which I may gorge myself for the rest of eternity on spaghetti and meatballs without gaining an ounce, coughing, bloating or breaking out.
Until then, I'm learning to feel grateful for the plate life fed me.
All the women in my mom's family died of obesity-related ailments. Maybe my wheat allergy is a blessing, after all.
I'm a 40-something gal, the same age Mom was when she gained 100 pounds. I've got a little extra meat, but it landed in the right places. I work out three times a week, have the energy to walk 60 blocks a day just for fun and can easily touch my toes, nose or most of my other body parts if I so choose.
Some folks say they don't believe in the devil, but I do. I just think he lives in bread. I mean, hello? Why else would it taste so good?
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