For the wild range of emotions I felt towards my maternal grandmother (Jeanette) growing up, I never once doubted my love and affection for her. Sure, as a kid, she drove me nuts … and embarrassed me often (there was only one Jeanette and to know her was to love her – all of her! )but I never, ever questioned her love or devotion to her family.
It was particularly in the last few years of her life — my teenage years, when my Bubby and I traded hand-written letters and phone calls and I found the incredible packet of love letters that she and my grandfather had written to one another during WWII — where I came to see her as a woman and truly appreciated and understood her, for all her flaws and all her humanity.
In those last years, as colon cancer ravaged her body, I came to see her not just as my mom’s mom or my heavily-opinionated grandma … not just the Jewish snow-bird who lived in Boca Raton, Fla. who would smother you in her (ginormous) bosom the second she saw you or show your picture to anyone on an airplane within earshot and give you peanuts or plastic “Fly Delta” wings from the flight with the grandeur of giving you a Mercedes (as well as some other knick-knacks she picked up along the way) … but as a real woman, one I admired, respected and adored.
(“So you’re the Melissa that Jeanette here was telling me about,” we’d hear from fellow passengers at baggage claim at Newark airport).
My grandmother, raised in the Bronx by Russian and Polish immigrants who owned a candy store (hello, sweets are in my genes!), was the consummate 1950s housewife. She cooked, cleaned, cared for the family, kept a strictly kosher home. And she was beautiful.
When I look at pictures of her from before my grandfather died, it’s hard to see how she was the same woman. She was strong, graceful, glowing. No wonder my grandfather had fallen for her.
A freak heart attack took my grandfather Ben’s life when my mom was just nine years old.
His unexpected death left my grandmother widowed at 40, alone with three children: my uncle Jack, who was sixteen and went on to become a successful criminal defense attorney; my uncle Howie, who was thirteen and suffered from juvenile onset diabetes (he succumbed to it when his kidneys failed at 33 when I was about to turn three years old and a few days before I was to start nursery school) and my mom, who, at nine, was forced into adulthood way younger than any girl should have to when my grandma suddenly had to support the family.
As the years went on, it became too difficult to do it all. She stopped keeping a kosher home because it was just too much work, and though no one has come out and said it, I think (and can see from photos) that she turned to food for comfort.
That’s not to say that she didn’t always love to eat before my grandpa died; I’m sure she did. Our family’s favorite past-time for three or four generations is sitting around the table eating and gabbing.
But given her life’s train of events, it’s not surprising to me that food was her solace. (OK, along with her millions of friends, crossword puzzles, Tab soda, Yahtzee, Mah Jong, Pall Malls and Wheel of Fortune)
Grandma knew she was heavy, knew it was unhealthy. But though my mom assures me now that Grandma dieted when she was dating after my grandpa died, Grandma didn’t really fret about her weight. It was a different time.
A Depression baby who never knew if she’d have her next meal, she didn’t worry about how much she was eating but rather rejoiced in the fact that she was eating. And that stuck, no matter how plentiful the food on the table.
When I was in middle school she relocated to Florida, as all the Jersey grandparents do. She was happy in her retirement community in Boca (Century Village, in case you are familiar with it), and no one could ever really comment on her weight — even though she’d be the first to comment on someone else’s weight, to their face or otherwise.
(“Did you see how big so-and-so got?!” she’d whisper incredulously — and since Grandma didn’t whisper, she might as well have been hooked up to a megaphone… Grandma didn’t mince words; we called these things “Jeanettics” or “Jeanettisms”).
On visits home to N.J. to stay with my family, between mouthfuls of (heart disease be damned!) artery-clogging salami and lox and cream cheese-shmeared bagels, she’d tell you about her Weight Watchers meetings. But try as she did, she never really succeeded in her later years because the woman loved. to. eat.
I stand corrected. She lived to eat.
Literally nothing made her happier than being with her family, or friends, and a table (or buffet) full of deliciousness.
(I admit I used to be embarrassed to eat with Grandma. We have bajillions of funny “Grandma” stories as a family, and while we laugh about them now, as a child, I (like my cousins and siblings) was often horrified to dine out with her. To overcompensate for her boisterous appetite, I’d find myself eating daintily as I could. Actually, despite loving them, I still won’t eat ribs to this day because they bring back unpleasant memories of Grandma visiting us one summer in my teens when she answered our white phone with rib sauce all over her fingers and then hung up staring at all of us with her signature “WHAAAAAT?! and her signature “look”: innocence).
Though she had a ton of friends and dated, Grandma never remarried. I realize now that her love of food really was her way of coping with the various hurdles life threw at her.
Now that many years have passed (she died in 1999 when I was 19 and she was 79), and now that I’m nearing 30, I see some of my beloved grandmother’s insecurities and flaws in myself.
Grandma hoarded food (the Depression-era mentality makes sense for her; less so for me).
Grandma stood forever in front of the mirror preening (I do that, too — but whereas she craved attention, I get plenty of it, but I’m still self-conscious).
And Grandma was always thinking about her next meal and vocalizing it (I’ve learned to filter some of that chatter in my head).
But unlike my grandma, who I believe loved herself exactly how she was and didn’t really care if you thought she was fat and didn’t question her emotional attachment to/love of food, I struggle with my weight and body image issues.
Although in so many ways I am blessed to “have it all,” I still struggle in my head.
And I can only imagine what she’d be saying if she were here right now. I know she’d be proud of me for how far I’ve come in life, and would probably be begging for great-grandchildren (she had none). And I know that she’d love that I inherited her love of travel and food and Broadway shows.
But I imagine she’d be disappointed that I don’t see all the good in myself that she always saw (and would tell perfect strangers about).
I talked to my mom about this tonight, and we agreed we don’t think she’d have understood disordered eating at all. And I think she’d find it sad that I’m burdened by the realization that I’m one of those people who lives to eat, versus eating to live … especially since I have no real reason (like I believe she did) to be this dependent on food for comfort.
I had a happy, fulfilling childhood, have a wonderful family, a fabulous and supportive husband, amazing friends who have stood by me through thick and thin, an awesome career, two degrees, a roof over my head, a car to drive, food on the table, a successful blog … why does food plague me, even still? Will it always?
Maybe it’s because I didn’t have an “issue” or a “problem” that I somehow created this mess for myself — unintentionally, sure … but self-inflicted, no less. A way to be “not so perfect?” A dear friend of mine mentioned a long time ago that she thinks she and I have this in common, and though I didn’t really fully get it then, I think I do now. Food is my “problem” and my “comfort.” It doesn’t have to be, but it’s my achilles’ heel.
But you know what? If that is the biggest challenge I face right now — and it’s not even really a challenge — than I am blessed. Lucky. Fortunate. It’s nothing in the grand scheme of things.
When I think of what my grandma endured, like growing up first-generation American, burying her husband and son, various heart surgeries, cancer … I know I should thank my lucky stars that weight is my “thing”.
So if I follow in my family’s footsteps of living to eat versus society’s pressures to eat to live … is that such a bad thing, if it ties me to them, makes me whole?
As long as I can separate the emotional attachment to it and not obsess but rather learn from my grandma who savored food, relished every bite …. maybe it’s not really such a big deal after all to be a little more like my Bubby (ok, but without all the artery-clogging salami!), who enjoyed a good cheese blintz, truly beat to her own drum and didn’t let the little things –such as weight– get the best of her.
Because had she let it, she wouldn’t have been the strong-willed woman that she was.
I know she’d be thrilled to pieces to know we still talk about her all the time (She used to say, “You’ll talk about me when I’m gone!” and we’d tease, “Grandma, we talk about you now!”)
But almost even more than that, I think she’d love knowing a part of her is in our kitchen, every time we make her brisket, carrot cake or latkes. Food = love/tradition in our family, for better or for worse.
Yes, my grandma lived to eat …and lord knows she didn’t always eat the healthiest things. But for her, food was enjoyment, pure and simple. And she didn’t obsess about food or fear it in any way (except maybe an inherent, nagging fear of a lack of it, a direct result of her upbringing).
Ultimately, no one could deny that she led an incredibly rich and satisfying life, full of family, friends and, yes food. And I think I can learn a lot from her; maybe we all can.
So thank you, Grandma, for teaching me something I didn’t really understand until now: that maybe living to eat isn’t such a bad thing;embracing your attitude toward food just might even help me on this journey.
I love you always.
How about you? Which camp do you fall in? The live to eat, or eat to live camp? Did your upbringing or family background have anything to do with that camp?