"Eating My Heart Out: A Memoir in Progress" by Suzy Dalton Sonenberg--Part One

Herstory Writers Workshop author Suzy Dalton Sonenberg "Eating My Heart Out: A Memoir in Progress"  by Suzy Dalton Sonenberg

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The Lab

I was 12 when my mother took me to The Lab to find out what was wrong with me. That was a long time ago.  But one morning, over a breakfast of watery oatmeal into which I hopefully sprinkled a small portion of fat black raisins, my friend Jill said to me, "I've made up my mind that when I'm 80 I will eat anything and everything I want."  And then, like so many times before, I thought of The Lab.

 If The Lab had another more official name, I don't remember it. Perhaps I never knew it. I know that I was glad to be going there. I wanted to go. Like my mother, I hoped there was something medically wrong with me, something that could be fixed with a pill or an injection or even an operation -- an option that my mother had hesitantly suggested might be a possibility. Since bariatric surgery was not something any of us had heard of at that time, I can’t help but wonder what she could have been thinking.

I didn't like being a disappointment to my mother. That's not to say she didn't love me, her only child. I never doubted that she did. But my mother often said about herself, "I live through my eyes."  To the end of her 100 years of life, my mother was likely to say to me as we walked down the street or exited a museum or restaurant, "Did you notice the slim dark-haired woman in the Saks 5th Avenue rain suit?  She had the most beautiful ears."  Now I wouldn't know a Saks 5th Avenue rain suit if it was hanging in front of me on a rack at Saks 5th Avenue, much less notice a person's ears -- unless they were grotesquely deformed. But then, I don't live through my eyes. On the other hand, if that dark-haired woman had been eating something, I could almost certainly have described exactly how it looked, smelled, and probably tasted.

So when my mother suggested The Lab as a place that might uncover a solution to making me more pleasing to look at, and therefore less disappointing to her, I was eager to go. It's probably worth saying that I was, at the time, 5'4" tall, the maximum height I would ever attain. With a body already fully developed, my weight hovered in the 130-pound range. Since this was the mid-1950s when voluptuous women like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield were still considered sexy and beautiful, I'm not sure why my mother and I felt that mine was such a dreadful weight, but we did. Perhaps it was because my mother, 3 inches taller than I, weighed a never-fluctuating 127 pounds. But it's ironic that for all the years since that time, 130 has stayed in my thoughts, as a weight so ideal for me, as to be totally unattainable ever again.

On our first visit to The Lab, we met with a white man. Literally. White lab coat, white hair, white teeth, white skin, white frost surrounding him. Well, maybe not real frost. In my memory, his name is Dr. White. He, behind a formidable desk and backed by many framed certificates which may or may not have been degrees from educational institutions, and we, facing him in straight-backed leather chairs, discussed my problem. After reviewing a promisingly long list of potential diagnoses, he issued the following instructions:

1. Return to The Lab in 4 days, bringing along a 3-full-day collection of urine - every drop to be collected and carefully refrigerated until delivery.

2. Return to The Lab in 8 days for a complete physical examination.

3. For 24 hours prior to the physical, eat as much as possible of absolutely anything that I craved.

The profound rush of joy and anticipation that I felt at the issuing of the third instruction has rarely been duplicated in my life. Twelve years old, and I already understood that in relationship to food, restraint and deprivation would be lifelong requirements. My mother, who routinely hid from me any sweets that might tempt me to eat inappropriately, looked stricken. "Everything, Doctor?" she asked, eyebrows raised, pitch slightly too high.  "Absolutely everything that she wants to eat?"  "Yes," said Dr. White, the ravenous creature in my belly warming to him, "Absolutely everything. As much as she can possibly eat." 

Back in the car, heading out of Manhattan toward our home in Queens, I began making a mental list of what I would eat: cream-filled chocolates for sure. Veal parmigiana. Mashed potatoes with extra butter. Chocolate malteds. French fries. My mother was in a different place entirely. In German, her mother-tongue, she muttered to herself, shaking her head, making tsk tsk noises, questioning the doctor's credentials (Was ist das für ein Arzt?), his sanity (Er ist doch ganz verrückt), the wisdom of following his instructions (Wierklich eine blodekeit). But my mother ultimately believed in doctors, looked up to them, and she had pinned high hopes on this particular one. So, in the end, she relaxed, adopted an air of bemused tolerance, and allowed my food fantasies to flourish as I set about following the first part of Doctor White's instructions.

It's very hard to collect 3 days worth of urine, especially for a 12-year-old girl who considers urine to be only the second most disgusting thing produced by the human body. First, to collect urine, you have to be someplace with a bottle and a refrigerator every time you have to urinate. Second, it's difficult to know in advance how large a bottle you might eventually need. Third, no matter the size of the ultimate container, a smaller receptacle has to be used for the collection process and then emptied into the larger reservoir. Clearly one wouldn't want to make such transfers in a kitchen, which is where, in most households, the refrigerator is likely to be. So the collection process requires a great deal of planning and moving of containers from place to place. Add to that the layout of the house in which I grew up: kitchen downstairs, bathroom upstairs, and it's understandable that instruction number 1 was not easy to carry out.

For three days I painstakingly did what was required to collect my urine as instructed.  From my mother, who has always saved empty bottles, containers, and bags  (both plastic and paper) for reasons I have never fully understood, I got a Hellman's Mayonnaise jar that seemed appropriately sized. I remember it as one of those huge institutional-size jars commonly found today at Costco or BJ's or any other of those vast warehouses that sell things in tremendous quantity for supposedly bargain prices. Perhaps the jar was smaller than I remember, but what counts is that it did turn out to be just the right size for holding 3 days worth of urine. On the fourth day, having to my great relief completed all collections and transfers without mishap, I carefully placed the filled jar in a brown paper Gristede's bag, pulled together the top edges of the bag, folding them tightly down twice over, and headed for the subway.

I can't recall the circumstances under which I was charged with sole responsibility for delivering the jar to The Lab, but I assume that it was either a Saturday or some school holiday, and that my mother was unavailable to act as chauffeur. Already well accustomed to travelling by subway on my own, although never before with a large bottle of urine, I boarded the westbound F express train for the easy 25 minute ride to midtown. There were no empty seats on the train that morning, so I stood, awkwardly balancing myself and the bag, just inside the doors that wouldn't open again until the second stop ten minutes away. A couple of minutes out of the station, I began to suspect that the bag I was holding to my chest with both arms was flashing a large neon sign that said: URINE. Why else was everyone staring at the bag, seeming to know exactly what I was carrying?  As casually as I could, I gently lowered the bag to the floor and slid it to my left until it was secured between my leg and the side of the seat next to which I was standing. Relieved of my embarrassing burden, I did a quick check to make certain that stares were no longer directed at my midsection. They weren't. All eyes now appeared to be focused on my left foot. I looked down. My left foot was centered in a spreading puddle. And while I knew for absolutely certain that it couldn't possibly be my carefully collected and refrigerated urine there on the floor of that subway car, there was no doubt that the puddle was emanating from the bottom of the brown Gristede's bag tucked against my leg. The horror of the situation took some seconds to work its way through from my eyes to my brain. Just as my brain finally registered the fact that I was most certainly standing in a puddle of my own urine, and that the other passengers in the subway car were backing away from its expanding edges and looking accusingly in my direction, the train screeched to a stop and the doors opened behind me. My face burning, unable to comprehend how the bottle could have broken, unable to believe that it had, I did the only thing I could do. I turned, walked off the subway, crossed the platform and boarded the train that would take me home, leaving the bag behind to spread its incriminating contents without me there to either accept responsibility or to bear witness to all that wasted effort.

Whether or not that jar broke as a result of any action or carelessness on my part, I paid the price for the next three days as I repeated the arduous collection process. But when the new jar was at last filled, and safely delivered to The Lab by my mother, a reward was waiting for me:  the day that I had so eagerly anticipated was only hours away.


Despite all my fantasies in advance of Eating Day, I had no idea what my capacity for food actually was. I had never, in conscious memory, eaten as much as I wanted to eat. I knew from my mother's oft-repeated stories of how difficult a baby I had been, that for the first year of my life I held down nothing the first time that it was fed to me. What went down, quickly came up. So my mother learned to prepare a double portion of formula, and later of food, because it seemed that once my body had violently rejected whatever was offered, it didn't have the strength to reject it a second time.  I don't know whether my mother explored alternative solutions, or whether there even was any other course of action she could have taken to provide me with the nourishment I needed to survive and to grow. But surely the process of feeding me double the amount I should have been fed, cannot have left me unscarred. Twelve years into my life, I didn't know what it was like to feel full and incapable of eating more. I still don't know.

Late in the afternoon of the day before Eating Day, hours after the bottle of urine had reached its destination, my mother and I went to the supermarket to buy the ingredients I needed for breakfast. She was in an indulgent mood as we shopped, seemingly greatly amused by my exuberant anticipation of the day ahead, as well as by the shopping list I had prepared. In the week since our first visit to The Lab, my mother appeared to have come to terms with the idea that I would have this one day to eat as I pleased. We had even agreed that we would go out for lunch and dinner on that day. I had told her exactly where I wanted to have lunch, and had then happily agreed to her suggestion of an Italian restaurant in the city for dinner.

I could barely sleep that night in anticipation of the day ahead. I was out of bed before 7, wanting to make Eating Day last as long as possible. I brushed my teeth, combed my hair, put my robe over my pajamas and hurried downstairs to the kitchen. My mother was there, sipping coffee and reading the paper. Through the kitchen window, I could see that our car was in the driveway, not the garage, which meant that she had already driven my stepfather to the subway. We would pick him up at work that evening on our way into the city for dinner.

Cheerfully, my mother the good sport looked up and said, "So, I suppose we're making bacon and eggs for breakfast this morning?"  "Bacon, eggs, cheese and toast," I told her firmly. She raised her eyebrows. Untroubled, I eagerly began taking ingredients out of the refrigerator. My mother's mood, tone, looks and actions would not stop me from eating as I intended on this day.

At 12, I was not yet much of a cook, but I had acquired some basic skills simply by watching my mother prepare food. I was also taking a Home Ec class in junior high, required for girls since we were expected to eventually become good homemakers. As a result, I was not only capable of making popovers and pinwheel hors d'oeuvres (neither of which I intended to make that morning), I had also learned how to handle standard kitchen equipment. Add to that the weekly instruction my stepmother had given me in preparing my favorite breakfast, and I was ready to give it a shot.

Hauling the heavy black iron skillet from the pot drawer under the oven, I set it on top of the stove and began to line it with bacon. "Don't you want me to do that?" asked my mother, moving toward the stove. "No Mom," I said, "I can do this myself."  I could see that she was surprised, having never before seen me do anything more than heat leftovers or a can of soup. She sat down again, observing me with some skepticism.

I fried the bacon until it was crisp, and then scooped the dark strips out of the skillet and onto the paper towels I had prepared. I broke two eggs into the hot fat remaining in the pan, ignoring the grease that spattered all over the top surface of the stove. As soon as the eggs were opaque, I laid a slice of munster cheese over each and placed a cover on the pan for a minute to ensure a total meltdown. My mother continued to sit silently, watching as I then uncovered the pan and allowed the melted cheese to become brown and crisp around the edges of the eggs. Realizing that I had forgotten to make the toast on which I planned to deposit the eggs, I asked my mother if she could toast tw pieces of bread for me. "Two?" she asked, sending a message that one would be more than enough. "No," I said, "not two. Three."  I had forgotten about the piece I needed for mopping up whatever was left in the pan. "You're going to eat three pieces of toast with all of that?" she asked, incredulous. "Yes, Mom. Please. I need the toast quickly. And can you butter it for me too?"   I felt powerful. She didn't say another word as she laid the three pieces of bread out on the toaster oven rack. When she finally handed over the buttered toast, I put two pieces onto a plate, slid the eggs and cheese onto the toast, laid the bacon across the top, wiped out the pan with the third piece, put that on the plate as well, and proudly carried my creation to the table. "That's quite a breakfast," said my mother as I lifted the first fork-full.

Breakfast in my mother's house was normally a spartan affair: orange juice, coffee (which, because my father was in the coffee business, I began drinking as a small child), a slice of toast with a little butter and sometimes a teaspoonful of jam or, on weekends, a thin slice of boiled deli ham. The only item over which any fuss was made was the orange juice. Made from concentrate, there was nothing special about the juice itself. But each morning my mother would carefully measure out 3 small glasses of orange juice, pour them into the blender and whip them into a frothy substance with which she then refilled the 3 glasses. Because our blender was an Osterizer, my mother always referred to what she did as "osterizing" the juice. I have never particularly liked orange juice, unless freshly squeezed from sweet oranges, but osterized orange juice is, to my taste, about as bad as it gets. My mother, however, took such delight in her innovation that I didn't have the heart to tell her I didn't like it until well into my teens -- which was just as well, because by then she was convinced that I hated anything she had made simply because she had made it.

There were only two possible variations in our breakfast routine. The first happened when I was sick. Then, and only then, my mother would make a wonderful, warm, soothing concoction that she called grieskoch, something that her mother had made for her whenever, as a child, she wasn't feeling well. I loved grieskoch, and simply assumed that it was one of the few old family recipes that my mother had managed to take with her when she and my father fled Vienna in 1938. When I eventually discovered that grieskoch was nothing more than cream of wheat cooked with milk and a little sugar, something that even Americans knew about and could eat at any time, I was stunned and more than a little disappointed.

I made this discovery soon after my friend Carol moved into the house next door. Carol had been living in an apartment house across the park from us. Friends since our first day of junior high, we were the ones who came up with the idea that her family should buy the house next door as soon as our neighbors told us they would be moving. Incredibly, her parents loved and could afford the house, and the deal went through. Almost from the day that Carol and her family moved in, we began a morning routine that would last through high school graduation.   As soon as I was ready to leave for school, I would go out our back door, cross quickly and quietly behind the other half of our house, inhabited by Mr. Bonnick, an elderly man who made no secret of his dislike for children, cross the driveway separating our house from Carol's, and slip through her back door into a long narrow kitchen identical to ours. Always early, I would arrive just as Carol's mother was serving her breakfast.

It was on the first morning of this new routine that I recognized both the aroma and appearance of the steaming white cereal being set in front of my friend.  It was my special breakfast, and Carol wasn't even sick!  Not only wasn't she sick, but this bowl of grieskoch had been topped, by Carol's mother, with at least a dozen chocolate chips that were shiny and half-melted by the time the bowl arrived at the table. Every weekday morning after my meager breakfast, I would sit at that table smelling the mingled sweetness of chocolate and cream of wheat, hoping that Carol's mother would just once think to offer me my own bowl or, at least, that she would leave the kitchen long enough for me to help Carol finish hers. Because, of course, tall, skinny Carol would have much preferred to have my breakfast and to be spared the cereal that her anxious mother forced on her each morning.  But, without variation, I sat and watched her through the years, eating slowly and methodically around each of the carefully placed chocolate chips until we left that table and headed off to school, the longed-for chocolate buried daily in the uneaten remains of my friend's breakfast.

The next time I was sick and my mother made grieskoch for me, I did ask her if she could please put some chocolate chips on the top. Surprised, my mother asked where I had come up with such an idea.  I explained that Carol was served grieskoch with chocolate chips for breakfast every morning. "Carol!," exclaimed my mother. "Well, of course. Carol can afford to eat chocolate chips."   And that was the end of that.

The second variation on our daily breakfast theme was reserved for special occasions such as birthdays, school graduations and important holidays. On these occasions, my mother would replace the toast with a home-made Gugelhupf, a dense, yeasty bundt cake flavored with lemon rind and packed with raisins. I loved and still love Gugelhupf, but on Eating Day, the day before my return visit to The Lab, I had a very different kind of special breakfast in mind.

Once each week, either on Wednesday or Saturday night, I would sleep over at my father's house. Amicably divorced when I was ten, my parents were each immediately remarried - my mother to a longtime love from whom she had been separated by the war, and my father to the recent widow of an old friend.   My father's wife, my step-mother, was a talented cook and seemed to like nothing better than to make delicious meals for me and my father. Oddly enough, she never seemed to want her own two daughters to eat the fatty delights she prepared for us, nor, come to think of it, did she eat any of them herself. In later years, especially the years during which I struggled through one stringent diet after another, and watched my father, plagued by heart disease, get fatter and fatter, I was not as thrilled by the constant temptation his wife placed in front of us. But at age 12, Dita was my fairy godmother. Had I asked, she would surely have given me grieskoch coated with chocolate chips. I wouldn't have asked though, because I so looked forward to the breakfast she made for me each week. It was this breakfast, which she had taught me how to make, that I had in mind for Eating Day.

Normally too embarrassed to eat freely in front of my mother, ashamed of my seemingly bottomless appetite, dreading above all her words and looks of disapproval, I found myself approaching Eating Day with an entirely different mindset. Although I knew that my mother would be horrified by the size and richness of the breakfast I planned to make for myself, I relished the idea of demonstrating my capacity for food. I believed that letting my mother see how much food I truly craved, and finding out together how much food I could actually consume, would make her realize the extent of the restraint that I exercised on a daily basis. She had NO idea, but on this day she would find out. Without embarrassment, with total legitimacy (because it was, after all, on doctor's orders), I would allow the creature that lived inside me to devour everything it longed for.

My mother always asked me, after a night at my father's house, what had been served for dinner. Somehow she had never asked about breakfast. Perhaps she thought that everyone ate as she did in the morning. Now, however, she asked, "Where did you learn how to make that?"  Not yet savvy enough to understand that my mother hated my stepmother, the woman who had "stolen" the husband she didn't want and made it possible for her to marry the man she loved, I said, "Dita taught me."  "She's made this for you for breakfast?"  My mother's tone let me know that I had better answer carefully. "Yes. Well, just a couple of times. Do you want to try some?"  She shook her head and made a face as though I had just offered her poison. Knowing what we now know about the relationship of ingested cholesterol to coronary artery disease, I suppose I was offering her poison... but we didn't know it then.

Without another word my mother got up and began emphatically cleaning the mess I had made of the stove. I ignored her and focused on enjoying every bite of the breakfast I knew would probably never again be seen in that kitchen. When I finished, when my plate was totally clean, I brought it over to the sink where my mother stood still scrubbing the skillet. "Well," she said, "I don't suppose we'll be going to Topsy's for lunch today after all."  "What do you mean?" I asked in a panic, all my fantasies of a perfect Eating Day fading.

I can hardly bear to describe Topsy's - because it's gone. In all these years, the only restaurant food that has ever come close for me is served at Sylvia's in New York City's Harlem.  Topsy's, oddly situated in Forest Hills, Queens, a white middleclass suburb, offered up southern food at its very best.  Baskets of hot sweet rolls, crunchy red cabbage salad with tangy orange-colored dressing; the best fried chicken ever anywhere, served with a tureen of thick peppery cream gravy;  round, Spaldeen-sized corn fritters accompanied by real maple syrup, sweet potato pie, spicy greens and, for dessert, a peach cobbler so perfect  it rendered me forever incapable of enjoying any other. To me, Eating Day meant not having to forego the rolls, or choose between half a corn fritter and a sliver of sweet potato pie; not ordering the childrens' size portion of chicken or telling the waitress to hold the gravy; and certainly not leaving before dessert.

Not go to Topsy's?  Was she going to punish me for the breakfast I had eaten?  "Suzy," she said, "You cannot tell me that you are going to be able to eat lunch at Topsy's after that enormous breakfast."  Ah. I understood. It was like my mother feeling cold and insisting that I put on a sweater. Immeasurably relieved, I reassured my mother for the first of many, many times that day that I could indeed eat more, that I was not anywhere near full, that I would not have a stomach ache, and that I was simply doing what the doctor had instructed me to do: eat as much as I possibly could.

While my mother continued to ponder the likelihood of my being able to eat a big lunch four hours hence, I spent the time getting dressed and worrying about how I would get to eat all the food I still intended to eat before lunch. In my head was the list that had been accumulating throughout the week since my visit to The Lab -- a list of all the tastes I craved and had been prohibited from enjoying since my body had started to blossom. I had an eating plan for the entire day, and at 9:30 a.m. I was already falling behind.