Monday, September 07, 2009
"Mom, do you think I'm pretty?"
My mother looked up from the ever present stack of high school english papers she was grading and said,"You're pretty enough, but you should be more worried about your brains than beauty. It'll serve you better in life"!
In retrospect, those were wise words, but to a 13 year old girl they only showed a total lack of understanding. Huffing to my bedroom, I flung myself down on the floor of my closet and dissolved into tears.
Softly, there was a knock at my door and my father peeked into the room. He crossed to the bed and patted the space beside him. "Come to your old Bappa and tell him what's wrong." "Come on", he insisted. I sat down beside him on the bed and wiped my tears into his strong shoulder. "There's Daddy's girl", he said as he softly stroked my hair. "Now what's wrong"?
"No boy is ever going to like me", I proclaimed, sniffling. "Look at me! I've got frizzy red hair, pale skin and freckles, braces, and NO BOOBS", I wailed.
This was, after all, the summer of 1970 when teenage girls idolized the "Coppertone girl" -- Voluptuous, tanned, with platinum blond hair, ironed straight. I was about as far away from her as you could get.
My father drew me back and looked at me. "Now now", he replied with all sincerity. "In a year or so, you'll be a swan. You wait and see". He was of course alluding to the children's fable, The Ugly Duckling. In just a few words he had acknowledged my feelings without being condescending. He knew a 13 year old girl wasn't ready to buy the "beauty comes from within" spiel. Yet he bestowed some hope at the same time.
In a few years, I had indeed finally developed a figure, learned how to avoid freckles with sunscreen, and managed to tame my "auburn" hair into soft waves with a brush and hairdryer. My pale skin was porcelain and clear, while my friends all seemed to be plagued with acne. And yes, I was noticed plenty by the boys.
My father was fourth of 6 children born to German immigrant parents in 1913. He was poor and had memories of growing up with days where he only had a slice of bread spread with lard on it to eat. On days when his day laborer father had found work there might be a little meat and some sugar for the bread. His mother gardened and canned but it was never enough. During the start of depression, his older brother drowned, and so now being the oldest son, he dropped out of 8th grade to work in a lumber mill 60 hours a week. He enlisted after Pearl Harbor and served in the army in the south pacific, coming home with a war bride from New Zealand at the war's end.
My father was so proud that after the war, he got a steady job making patterns in a carbon paper factory. Unlike his childhood, he was able to put ample food on our family table so that my three older siblings and I never knew a hungry day. Dinner time was an important occasion at our house, and you were expected to be on time and presentable. No hair rollers on your head at my father's table! My mother served up kettles full of starchy casseroles, accompanied by margarine ladened vegetables and potatoes, and a stack of white bread served with more "oleo". Both parents, having survived the depression, stressed how fortunate we were to have so much to eat. There was never any question of liking or not liking a food. You ate what was put in front of you and with gusto. You could have seconds, but certainly never left anything behind on the plate. Even though I don't recall them ever actually saying you couldn't, it just never occurred to me to do otherwise.
Years went by and, as we all do, I grew up. I met a wonderful man, married, and had three children of my own. We lived close to my parents and as I stayed home when my children were very small, my now retired father would come over for coffee daily and share recipes with me. I served my family many of the same starchy casseroles I grew up eating. My dad and I shared another common bond. By now, all that starchy eating, and cleaning the plate had left me as an obese adult. My father had long since succumbed to the effects of such daily fare, and sported a big waistline of his own.
I always remember my mother being a large woman, and in her 40's she developed Type II diabetes. This was the beginning of a downward health spiral that eventually lead to a stroke, and ultimately heart disease that killed her shortly after a mastectomy for breast cancer.
My father was ten years older than my mother and although she was young by today's standards when she died at age 66, he was 76 and definitely heading into his twilight years. One thing seemed to make a difference though. He got a yen for a Schwinn exercise bike and surprised us all by purchasing a nice new one and he proudly set it up on his front porch. It had handles that moved back and forth toning the arms while you worked your legs. He road that bike, revving it up to quite a sweat, 5 miles a day, 5 days a week without fail. He began to read magazines like Prevention, and watch how much fat he ate. He avoided sugar and switched to whole grains and wheat long before it really became popular. Yet strong as he became, he failed to lose a lot of weight because he struggled just like me, with portion control. It didn't matter if your sandwiches were made with 100% whole wheat bread if you were eating two at a time instead of a modest one.
When our children were leaving the nest and we were down to just one in high school, we moved in with my father so we could take care of the yard and do the house maintenance that he could no longer keep up with. I have wonderful memories of sharing cups of coffee with him after eating dinner, discussing politics, religion, work, and of course food. After our last one went off to college we bought a nice big home on a beautiful street and moved him and his exercise bike in with us. This time the dynamic had changed. It was my home and I was in charge of the shopping and cooking. I felt a since of relief because finally I felt freer to eat how I knew I should. I began to make healthier food in smaller portions. He didn't complain and was always grateful. Everything I cooked was "the best he'd ever eaten"! I began to throw away many uneaten leftovers from my husband and I, albeit, discreetly. I started riding his exercise bike more, as he started forgetting to ride it at all. I began losing weight and as my profile story goes, I turned age 50 as a thin and fit woman. To my father that was the ultimate. He told me constantly what a beautiful woman I had become. More and more, though, I could see signs of him slipping into old age. Physical health as well as mental health was declining. After all he was in his 90's by now. Politics were no longer a topic of discussion. Instead of asking who he would vote for, I was asking if he needed help emptying his catheter bag.
We started with having home health care nurses come in during the day while we were at work, but they couldn't stay all day. We tried hiring a "day companion" who would do light housekeeping, but she chain smoked, cooked herself a steak for lunch out of our freezer, and only swept the kitchen floor. All for an outrageous sum of money per day.
I made the decision a little over a year ago at age 94 that he needed more care than I was able to give at home. I moved him into a very nice nursing home close to where we live.
At first, every visit was tough. He repeatedly asked me why was he there? When could he come home? He promised he wouldn't be a burden to us anymore. He'd be real good. I'd leave the nursing home in tears. He eventually got too foggy to remember that he had even lived in our house recently and except for the perpetual question of who is paying for his hotel room, he seems to have acclimated. Like with most elderly, his long term memory is much better than his short term memory, so he usually remembers me with only occasional prompting needed as to which daughter I am.
He's been in an out of the hospital three times this year with pneumonia. He's developed a chronic lung problem and so he is prone to it. Each time he leaves the hospital, he seems to be weaker. A few days ago, he laid waiting on a gurney in the emergency room once again, feverish, disoriented, and short of breath despite the flow of oxygen. I was overwhelmed at just how frail he looked. He kept mumbling something over and over. I took his shaking hand in mine and leaning over into his now thin shoulder asked, "Daddy what's wrong? What can I do for you?"
He looked at me and gasped, "Why doesn't the Lord just take me home?".
Stroking his thin white hair, I replied, "Bappa, I don't know..."