I’m Not Ready

I’m eating apple pie. It’s not a wise choice, but it is the choice I have made tonight.  My choice is completely unrelated to the numbers that flash at me when I step on the scale. If anything, for the first time in my life, I think I need to add a few pounds.  Excuse me while I take a bite of my pie.

No one will find out about my pie. I won’t tell anyone that I snacked on pie at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday.  It’s not a dirty little secret. It’s a life-threatening one. I’m eating apple pie on a Sunday evening despite the fact that my blood sugar levels have been fluctuating all day. Despite my dark intuition that my Type I diabetes is progressing.

My friends and family are concerned about me. Yet I’m still nibbling and picking away at this slice of pie on the dessert plate sitting next to me. So I feel like a hypocrite. I feel ashamed and angry because I’m lying to the people I love the most about my health and because I don’t want this fucking disease anymore. It’s not even fully here and I don’t want it.

Raise your hand if you thought, “well, clearly she’s eating the pie because she is angry and is having self-destructive tendencies.” Congratulations. You passed psychology 101. So did I. And that’s not why I’m eating pie.  I like apple pie. And I still can’t see the connection between a snack of pie and the effect it will have on my blood sugar.  I don’t want to see it. I don’t care that there is a connection because I hate this disease and I don’t want it. It sucks. And although I vacillate between accepting that it sucks and hating it because it sucks, I’m still going to eat some pie when I damn well feel like it.

Oh, but this isn’t new to me, these feelings. I’ve been addressing them in therapy for four years since my 2007 diagnosis. My kind and patient therapist listens to me rail and flail about how much I hate this disease and how angry I am at the bad luck that brought it to me and how I don’t want it (that last one delivered with a grouchy pout and hint of whine).

But it’s not going away. If anything, the time is approaching where it is getting bigger. It will start to loom large over all aspects of my life shortly.  So I eat pie. Which is dumb because I can’t do a damn thing to regulate my blood sugar now.  At the very least, once this disease breaks wide open I’ll have syringes full of insulin to bring things down when I snack on some pie. But for now, all I can do is watch the numbers rise and fall, fluctuate without explanation sometimes, and, at other times, be the clear result of the choices I make.

The pie has been eaten and I’ve finished a glass of milk. My stomach feels tight. There is a familiar pressure at the back of my throat. A headache is blooming, and I want to cry. I put my head down and run my hands over my head, I tangle my fingers in my hair. I feel the curve of my scalp, the silkiness of my hair, the familiar slip and tug of the waves that seem to linger in the layered, choppy ends of my simple bobbed cut. I can’t say I am disappointed in myself.  I’m not angry or ashamed. I’m tired. I’m sad. I’m not ready to be diabetic. But I am.

Marshmallows in Germany

My guess is that blogs everywhere are going to be exploding with vignettes about family, food, travel and homecomings this week. Thanksgiving week is magical – more so than Christmas or New Year’s week because so much happens this week – the child who went away to college comes home for the first time. The estranged family member accepts the invitation to dinner and is on his or her best behavior. Mothers-in-law compliment daughters-in-law, most likely for the first time. Football teams are triumphant, as are fledgling cooks who meticulously followed Martha Stewart’s dozens of suggestions for the perfect holiday meal.  Mothers are demanding and critical, relatives get drunk (and become estranged), the college kid’s friends stop by sporting funny haircuts and using strange words (Hey! Mrs. C.!  How’s it hanging?), and diabetics eat way too many carbohydrates and jack up their insulin doses.


Ah, yes, Thanksgiving week. I have a few fond memories and stories to share.  One year, during our annual pilgrimage to North Carolina to see my mom’s sister and family, the temperature was in the mid-seventies, so a bunch of us donned bathing suits and laid out on the deck roasting ourselves not unlike the turkey. This was a huge deal to me because this Jersey Girl was usually eating her turkey while bundled up in GoreTex, welcoming winter’s wrath at Thanksgiving.


I’m sure of a year or two…or six…the boyfriend du jour joined my family for the feast.  In fact, it was, again, in North Carolina that I recall a chair breaking under the weight of a not-fat-but-tall-and-solid boyfriend. I didn’t laugh because I identified with his horror. A room full of strangers and the ‘new guy’ gets the broken chair. Even now it’s still not funny to me. After the dessert plates were cleared, and the incident long forgotten, it was time to play Bonanza.


Bonanza is a card game played after dessert by everyone in the house – age didn’t matter, the more players, the better.  Two decks of cards are shuffled together. A coffee can of pennies lands on the table with a thump. And every one throws quarters, nickels and dimes at the guy with the can in exchange for the pennies required for play. The young children in my family learn how to gamble and hone their skills during the annual game of Bonanza. During play, cards are dealt, pennies are thrown into the pot, pennies are taken from the pot, more cards are dealt, there is a countdown, and, at the end of each round, someone wins the pot. It’s a marathon card game that would incite my family to yell at the cards and at each other, cheering and jeering the winners and losers. Games typically would end when players started falling asleep at the table.


My ex-mother-in-law almost caused an International incident one year. A Fulbright Fellow from Germany was visiting the college where I teach. Frauke and I had formed a nice friendship, so I invited her to join us for her first American Thanksgiving. No one is more American than my ex-mother-in-law. She bleeds apple pie and judgment.  It was a roll of the dice, and I’m not much of a gambler, but I hoped the spirit of the Holidays would shine on this small-minded Majesty and move her to keep her damn mouth shut.


She didn’t. She lost it over the marshmallows that topped the sweet potatoes.  Frauke never heard of such a travesty – how could someone ruin a perfectly good root vegetable with marshmallows? Okay, so that was my point of view, but still, Frauke was so amazed at the marshmallows, she took pictures to send to her friends in Germany because they would never believe this stupid American could ever do this to the humble sweet potato. Okay, so I was the one who thought it a stupid American thing, but still, Frauke was amazed; she took pictures (after asking very politely if she could) of the dish and of her holding the dish, and she even tried some of the bizarre combination at dinner (deftly, I must say, hiding her disgust for the overly sweet baked dish of Type II diabetes).


However, ex-mother-in-law was having none of it. She talked about the family tradition that is the marshmallows and the many American recipes that use marshmallow. Throughout dinner, she made marshmallow comments. She asked Frauke if she enjoyed the marshmallows…twice. She made it her job to point out which foods didn’t have marshmallow in them, such as, the turkey and the green beans.


I was thankful that Frauke spoke and understood little English. Most of ex-mother-in-law’s snide comments passed her by as she smiled back at the woman smiling at her, insulting her.


I was even more thankful that I brought my own wine, a punchy Cabernet Sauvignon that I knew my ex-in-law’s palates couldn’t tolerate. I drank the bottle, but my drunkenness wasn’t enough to get me estranged. I’d have to work harder for that.



It’s Food, Not Love

I fired my seamstress seven months ago. She closed her dry cleaning shop early, without warning, the day before New Year’s Eve, thus holding my fabulous NYE 2011 party dress captive. This sent me screeching to Nordstrom, shell-shocked kids in tow, to find a new dress for the party. It wasn’t just the one dress this one time; although she does beautiful tailoring at a reasonable price, she is terrible at meeting deadlines. Promised dates for pick up were often pushed back again and again. I was generously discounted for my patience. But my patience wore thin on December 30th. On January third, I turned in my last ticket, collected my tailoring and dry cleaning, and left her.

Her absence didn’t have much of an impact on me until now. As part of my back-to-school ritual, I try on my ‘grown-up’ clothes, after months of lounging in t-shirts, tank tops, bathing suits and tattered shorts, to get a feel for what needs to be replaced, altered, augmented, donated or dry cleaned. This year, I am feeling her absence as my son is feeling the absence of his newly lost tooth.  This year, all my pants are too tight. I need to have the trousers she so lovingly altered in, let out.

Last year was a wonderful year. After making many difficult and necessary changes within myself, I realized the woman I am outside a marriage – independent, resilient, confident. My children and I grew closer as a result of my spiritual connection to myself, and my acknowledgement of the need to nurture myself. I did yoga frequently. I meditated. I dated, had my heart broken, recovered and learned from rather than resented the breakage.

I was happy, and as a reflection, I lost weight…35 pounds. It slipped off my body as my unhappiness slipped away from memory. I brought armfuls of clothes to my seamstress, who exclaimed, “These clothes! They are too big! Why did you get them so big?” I laughed and explained that they used to fit me, snugly. I couldn’t stop grinning. I was now a slip of a woman at 125 pounds, size 4-6.

The weight loss also put me in the holy graces of my doctors. My blood sugar levels had dropped and stabilized, which meant I could stay off insulin and continue to treat my Type I Diabetes with medication.  Delicately, for several years, my endocrinologist had been mentioning that if I lost a few pounds, I’d see an improvement in my HgA1C’s. He knew I was exercising aggressively, and that I was frustrated. But he had to do his job. When he saw me, six months later and 35 pounds lighter, he was both pleased at my accomplishment and visibly relieved that the awkward ‘weight speech’ could be skipped.

Due to sudden, nearly unbearable stress, more weight fell off – fifteen pounds in two months’ time. I looked gaunt. It wasn’t a healthy loss.  Then I began to get sick – a three-week flu, followed immediately by a cold that lasted a month. Pneumonia. Bronchitis. A sinus infection. I spent about six months sick. My weight had bottomed out at 110 pounds; I was too thin. My internist determined that a healthy weight range for me is 120-125 and told me to get there as quickly and safely (read: no junk food) as possible. I followed doctor’s orders and gained weight. Ten pounds slathered on my ass and waist easily. Too easily. 5 more pounds followed. Then seven more. Now, I am fluctuating by 8-12 pounds over my ideal weight; This has smacked my emotions back to some dark days when my five-foot frame carried 160 pounds, and everything I owned fit my gelatinous body tightly.

Those 12 pounds got here through something more powerful than laziness or gluttony. They are here because of a need for comfort. I eat to comfort myself. Technically, it’s called emotional eating. I call it weakness. The frustration emotional eating causes pushes me into a depression. So I eat to combat the sadness. And I gain weight. And my blood sugar levels rise. So I get scared and even more depressed. So I eat more and move less because depression staples my thighs to the couch and tunes into “Toddlers and Tiaras” which renders me incapable of switching off the TV to do yoga or Pilates. It’s a painful, vicious cycle to be in and to watch. My friends and family are afraid to say anything when they see me reaching for a second or third helping at dinner. They know it will shame me if they comment, and I’ll eat more to comfort myself out of feeling shamed. Which will frustrate me. And around it goes.

This summer was unusual. It didn’t have the gentle ebb and flow my summers at the Jersey shore usually enjoy. My parents and I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. We chose words carefully or avoided them altogether lest the wrong word were to tap a hole in the flimsy walls keeping the sadness in.

My brother and his family moved across the country in July. We have never been this far apart. The life we had known has been cut short, altered. It’s different and sad. My dad has been in terrible pain from aggressive osteoarthritis in his ankle. He can’t walk very well. Mom has been keeping everyone calm and happy and organized. She has run herself ragged getting my brother and his family packed and moved while taking care of my father. This is her role in the family, but it’s taking its toll on her.  I had my own angst. The beginning of my MFA writer’s residency program was approaching frighteningly fast. I was battling my self-esteem demons, and losing.  There were other woes as well…financial, social, negotiations with the ex. These changes, emotions and insecurities rendered me sleepless and sent me to the refrigerator on late-night snacking binges, bringing me to my current quandary.

While I miss the smaller sizes and loose-fitting trousers, it’s the decline of my health that tortures me when I see the 130’s stare at me from the digital readout of my scale. I can’t feel the Diabetes killing me, but I know it is. And I know how I got here. When I’m away from the scale, my tight pants are an uncomfortable reminder that I failed myself. Again. I have learned to identify the difference between emotional hunger and stomach hunger. I have yet to learn how to deny my emotional hunger. Or how to satisfy that hunger – the yearning.  Each day I whisper to myself, “today you will stop yourself.” But, like the addict too soon out of a twelve-step program, I relapse.  And I start over.


I don’t remember the smells of my mother’s kitchen. When I put myself back to childhood, I smell my grandmother’s kitchen. Grandma and grandpa lived in a second-floor apartment in Clifton, NJ. I would sit in the back of the car – ever-changing makes and models – and tick off the familiar landmarks along the one-hour drive to their apartment. The Parkway bridges that gave us a peek at the drive-in movie screen, the Woodbridge sign by the exit that led to the mall, the sign for Rutgers, the factories, Newark airport, the abandoned brick building in Linden, the train station, the golf course, the sign for the Clifton exit, the Rowe Manse Emporium, the Allwood bakery,  then a left turn, a right turn, and finally, the small entrance to the blacktop parking lot on the right.

The apartments in the neighborhood were brick buildings meant to look like semi-detached homes. There were small, covered porches and two green doors per unit. Beside each door, the black buzzer buttons were stacked on top of each other and displayed the names of the occupants.  Venditti was the top one. The bottom buzzer never had a name although people lived there. My father would press the buzzer with his thumb, yell, “anybody home?” and in reply  my grandmother would shout, “Yeah? Come in!” My brother and I would push open the door and run up the narrow staircase, carpeted sickly grey-green, into their living room. As we ascended, the deep, rich scent of crushed tomatoes, garlic, and oregano would wrap around me.  My brother went straight for the spare bedroom where the toys were kept, seemingly unaffected by the Italian incense.

At the stove would be grandpa. He was the real chef in this operation. He stood, patiently, over the simmering sauces and stirred them with a wooden spoon. Always a wooden spoon. Grandma would be sitting at the white-topped formica table, prodding pizza dough into a square pan with her fingertips. Grandma’s pizzas were square, served when we arrived, and possessed a flavor and texture that has yet to be duplicated – chewy, crunchy, tangy, creamy. An impossible combination. The kitchen was small and hot. A metal fan would spin furiously in the kitchen window to no effect. Both my grandparents had kitchen towels draped over a shoulder – my mother would, decades later, recall the towels being called mappines. There were never less than three pots of varying sizes simmering on the burners – gas burners, the likes of which would fascinate me well into my twenties until I rented my first apartment that had gas burners. I was too short to see into the tall pots, so grandpa would lift me and let me lean my face into the steam and breathe deep my heritage.

Memories of my mother’s kitchen are different. There isn’t the rich texture of  hot, garlicky air. Instead, I recall, most vividly, my great aunts in my mother’s kitchen. Delia and Teresa, my grandfather’s sisters, fascinated me. They were quirky and eccentric. They cooked dandelions with garlic, bitter and delicious. Aunt Delia drank beer. Aunt Teresa wore amazing, large, sparkly rings. Her hair was shockingly white and curled up and around her head like soft cotton candy; Delia’s, cut into a simple pixie cut, was deep grey. They took lots of vitamins. They drove. All the way from New York. To suburban Sayreville, New Jersey almost weekly. I think they were the ones who gave me an apricot tree when I made my First Holy Communion. They smelled funny – later I’d learn that piquant scent is often found in small health food stores, herbaceous and pungent. And, best of all, they argued. They argued with each other and with my grandmother. Everyone else was wise to stay away from the fighting. They sat around the thick, round, butcher-block kitchen table and argued in the way the elderly often argue – over memories of events that didn’t quite happen or people who haven’t yet died.  Teresa’s voice was gravelly and strained at times, Delia’s voice was nasally. Grandma had a strong voice, heavy with New York and Italian inflections. She said, “huddy-call” when she couldn’t remember someone’s name.

I didn’t see Aunt Teresa when she died. Aunt Delia, on her death bed, cancer tumors having caused her head to become misshapen, said to me, “I wish you a happy life, Annmarie.”  The rooms of my home are decorated with Aunt Teresa’s charcoal drawings. She was a talented artist. When I pass through my dining room, I often run my fingers along the spines of the books I inherited from them – D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Rainbow, Les MiserablesThe Teachings of Confucius, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Thoreau’s Walden. They were ahead of their time – artists, flappers, visionaries.

My mother is a wonderful cook. I still request her hand-made manicotti for my birthday dinner every year. Mom swirls the delicate batter for the manicotti crepes in a small cast iron pan. When they have reached the ideal firmness, she lifts them out and places them on individual sheets of wax paper with the precision of a surgeon. Her sauce for the manicotti is as light as the crepes. A gentle dressing of simmered crushed tomato and fresh parsley. Mom’s trademark is her fresh parsley. But her food had a lot of competition back then. Grandma’s pizza and my Great Aunt’s dandelions stole the show. And mom was more fortunate than my grandparents – her kitchen was large. It didn’t trap scents or heat the way a small kitchen does. Yet, this past winter, I walked into my mom’s newest kitchen – not the one of my childhood, but the one of their retirement, and swirling around me in a loving embrace, was the italian incense of my grandmother’s kitchen.


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