Obese children make me sad. Make your kids eat real food. Make them go outside and play. Better yet, go outside and play with them. Teach them how to cook. Make it fun. I say this out of love and concern, and as a very opinionated woman who never had a watermelon-sized human push through her girl parts. So being child-free I am naturally full of opinions about children. And recently I read that today’s children are the first generation (of Americans) who will have a shorter lifespan than their parents. All because they are so overweight.
This ends up having to do with me of course. I was an overweight kid and whenever my Uncle Dee called me “Miss Fat”, my feelings got hurt. When I see fat kids, I wonder how they are holding up against all the teasing.
The last time that happened with Uncle Dee we were standing in the front yard at 205 Zuni Drive in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was 9 years old. Dee was visiting from Winslow where, to my mother’s disgust, he’d just married a 16-year old girl named Vickie. I think he was nearly 30 at the time. Mom correctly predicted they would divorce as soon as Vickie got a little older and “came into own personality.”
It was one of those windy, high desert days with a sun you expect to be searing but isn’t. Too high up and too cold. The constant whooshing of cars and semis going by on the highway a block or so away steadily eroded the windswept silence. I can still smell the ponderosa pine, juniper trees and playground cinders.
Earlier that spring, Mom pissed off the neighbors by plowing up much of the front lawn and planting corn and beans. The corn was now as tall as me and she sent me outside with a bowl to pick some ears for dinner. We were having beans, rice, corn, salad and quesadillas again.
Uncle Dee teased me like he always did, following me out the front door, relentlessly. I’d had enough of him. And my body didn’t seem fat to me. Yes, my clothes didn’t fit and my pants were always too short. I don’t remember having clothes that fit unless mom made them and even those I seemed to grow out of in a matter of months. I was just so tall, and getting taller all the time.
That day I wore a light blue jumper thing covered in white daisies that was too small, and some maryjane pumps for someone older than 9. My feet were already a size 9 womens. The shoes came from a second-hand store and I liked the way my feet looked in them.
Uncle Dee leaned against our the house and kept teasing me. I shucked the corn because I didn’t want to make a mess inside, all the while getting madder and madder. Finally I whirled around and said, “Well you’re tight Uncle Dee!”
Uncle Dee’s eyes grew big and he grabbed my arm, “Don’t ever say that, that’s a bad grown up word; do you even know what it means?” “It means you’re stingy!” I yelled as I twisted away from him, almost dropping the corn and running awkwardly into the house, the heels of my pumps sticking into what was left of the dry, dead lawn.
Mom laughed at how mad Dee was. She was beautiful back then. Dark, almost black hair, with her Mescalero Apache skin and her surprising green eyes. She was a slim 6 feet tall, and men always noticed her in her Levis, Frye boots and nearly see-through men’s undershirt tank tops. I wanted to be thin and look like her, and I wanted skin that tanned instead of burned and blistered in the Arizona sun. Mostly I wanted to be grown up already so I could help her, because she wasn’t very happy and I thought I could change that.
We kids played outside all the time. Mom threw out our television after one of her first acid trips. She didn’t want her kids turning into zombies in front of the boob tube. She said it wasn’t worth watching after Nixon had the Smothers Brothers and Rocky and Bullwinkle taken off the air. And she didn’t let us eat junk food, although we sometimes snuck away with her graduate school friend, Steve Lehman, who we called “Lemo”, to the Dairy Queen for dipped ice cream cones. I liked him because we were the same height and he was funny and talked to me like a normal person. He never called me Miss Fat either. Mom and Lemo were in Trig together at Northern Arizona University, the only students in their late 30s in the class. She was a foot taller than he but they became fast friends.
Mom was puzzled about my chubbiness. I knew it disappointed her. I slimmed down here and there, but the chubbiness always reappeared. Finally in my 20s I became thin for about 20 years and it was such a relief. It seems a little silly now, but I’m glad I was thin when she died, so the last time she saw me she wouldn’t be disappointed with the way I looked.
After she died in December 1987 I searched for months for her, irrationally certain, as I gazed in the faces of people in the subways and streets of Manhattan, she would appear to me. I just wanted to see her face one more time, to not forget what she looked like, in spite of photographs and recent memory. Mostly I didn’t want her to be dead, so irrevocably gone. But she was and I couldn’t find her in those faces.
So it is on cold spring days like today that I remember her putting us to work digging up that hard old dead sod, preparing the stubborn Arizona earth for the tiny corn and bean plants she was growing in egg cartons on the kitchen table, for the harvest ahead that eventually came.