Some blogs take me longer to write than others. This one, I started four years ago, shortly after my grandmother, Evelyn, died suddenly of a stroke at 95 years old. Ravaged by Alzheimer’s, her memory had badly deteriorated, and she was residing in a senior living facility with a great staff who cared for her.
The latter point is at least the rumor because I do not know firsthand; I never actually visited her there. My grandmother and I had not seen each other in probably a couple of years when she passed. Although her memory problems were at first an annoyance to which we responded with humor – for example, my father would respond to her “How’s work?” questions with “Fine” rather than remind her that he was retired – her memory grew more concerning over time. First, she called my wife by the wrong name, then forgot her name entirely. My fear was that I would walk into her room and hear, “Who are you?” That would have been tough to take.
My grandmother was a complicated person. Everybody has challenges, some more than others, and she quite often met hers with twists of the truth. If you knew Evelyn well, then you know exactly what I mean. So the distance that divided us in recent years was both of my own making and her limitations.
Before that though, our relationship was solid. Although Evelyn was a reluctant mother who never truly embraced parenthood and the life changes that it requires, grandmotherhood was an entirely different story, and she was damn good at it. That included great-grandmotherhood. At a family gathering close to a decade ago, my niece and nephew were acting a bit rambunctiously and ignoring their parents’ directives to calm down. Their great-grandmother came over and said to the kids, “Let’s have a contest to see who can stay quietest the longest.” Right away, both children went silent. My brother turned to me, shocked. “I can’t believe that actually worked!”
My three favorite memories of my grandmother are as follows:
- When I was little – and I mean little, like nursery school or early elementary school little – she handed me a couple of dollars, as my grandparents often generously did when they visited. Not meaning it as a hint, but rather just stating a fact, I told her that I was just a couple more dollars shy of being able to buy a Dukes of Hazzard toy that I wanted. Right away, she reached into her pocket and gave me the money I needed. Thirty-something years later, that generous move has stuck with me.
- My brother and I occasionally had sleepovers at my grandparents’ condo. Typically, I stayed in one room with my grandmother while my brother shared a room with my grandfather. One evening, they switched things up, which did not go over well. Faced with the prospect of spending the night with my grandfather, I began crying. And then, apparently, I did not stop. I remember him, totally at a loss, calling for his wife, “Ev, he’s crying!” We switched back to the traditional configuration. In the morning, I woke up to find my grandmother looking at me and smiling, and I remember feeling very comfortable and safe.
- My grandparents visited us practically every Sunday except during the winters when they migrated to Florida. Each week, Evelyn arrived with food, including baked goods of various qualities. When I was a teenager, she caught wind of my liking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Every Sunday, for weeks and weeks on end, she showed up with PB&J she had made for me. Peanut butter and jelly is cool and all, but there is a limit. Afraid of offending her, I was wary of asking her to stop, yet I could see no end in sight. Anxiously, I dreaded waves of weekly sandwiches that could potentially keep coming until I went away to college. Still, I certainly appreciated the kindness behind her gesture, and that is what I remember most.
Food was a source of stress with my grandmother in other ways, too. As is typical of people who lived through the Great Depression, both she and my grandfather hated to waste food themselves, and it irked them when others did as well. Americans often forget that it was not too long ago in our history that food scarcity was a widespread and significant problem. Some of the original dietary guidelines from the 1940s emphasized the importance of butter and sugar because so many calorie-starved young men were failing their military physicals. Today, our area food banks and the lines outside food pantries are evidence that many of our neighbors still struggle to get enough sustenance.
People who have experienced food shortages oftentimes rebound by eating too much when food eventually becomes plentiful again. Virtually anybody who has ever dieted can relate to this, as food scarcity is often self-imposed. For Evelyn, these behaviors became so ingrained that decades later she still cleaned her plate and expressed dismay if others left food. “But there are starving people in China!” she would exclaim, as if someone overeating in Boston would make any difference whatsoever for a malnourished individual on the other side of the globe.
Eating with my grandparents was stressful, as I never liked being told to continue eating when I knew I was already full. To my parents’ credit, they stood up for me and overrode my grandparents’ commands. Still, the tension made family meals unpleasant because I felt pressure from both grandparents to eat past the point of comfortable fullness. They would comment if the portion I served myself seemed too small to them, and I certainly heard about it if I left food on my plate.
It took me years to figure out why I sometimes get anxious eating in restaurants, but through working on my own relationship with food, now I understand that it traces back to my grandparents. If a portion is set in front of me that I assess as more than I can comfortably eat, the anxiety sets in, the enjoyment of eating diminishes, and then the internal questioning begins. What fraction of the meal must I eat to feel confident that the waitstaff will not get mad at me? Can I entice my wife to eat some of it? Will anybody notice if I hide food in my napkin?
Rationally, I know the truth is that the waitstaff probably do not care how much I eat. So long as I pay for the food, how much of it I eat is irrelevant to them. If they do judge my consumption, it probably has more to do with disturbances in their own relationships with food or perhaps fear that I did not enjoy my meal.
Irrationally though, I continue to project my grandparents’ judgment onto the waitstaff. My work is ongoing, and I know that eventually I will overcome this, but in the meantime, I have figured out some workarounds that mitigate my anxiety while also honoring my body’s intuitive eating cues. For example, I may ask the waitstaff to pack up the remainder of my meal even if I know I will dispose of the leftovers as soon as we leave. One might argue that is a waste of packing materials, a valid point, but it is certainly a better choice than using my body as a garbage disposal.
Sometimes, I challenge myself. If I feel particularly courageous, I will just leave a heap of food on my plate, ask the waitstaff to take it away, and see how they react. In literally every single case, the waitstaff have never made a comment about the amount that I have left. Seeing the juxtaposition between my fears and reality has helped significantly, but the process continues.
Few of you care about my grandmother and my own food woes, a reality to which I take no offense, but all of this is meant to illustrate that the work we do in my office is typically deeper than people expect. In order to create meaningful change, we often have to look beyond calories and grams and instead focus on how people make decisions about what, when, and how much to eat. Doing so may involve examining the historical influences that shaped one’s current eating behaviors, which in turn paves the way for moving into the future with a healthier relationship with food.