My mother embodies the definition of selfless. Now retired in south Jersey, she spends her time making bagged lunches for homeless people in Camden and Philadelphia. She takes the bus up to New York City once a month to meet my sister and me for lunch and brings with her 25 bagged lunches to give out to homeless people in the Port Authority.
There are never enough lunches, she tells me. Each time, I make one extra lunch, but when I go to hand them out, there’s still always one hungry person left without a bag. It’s heartbreaking.
As she is telling me this, I can barely hear her words. Instead, I notice bones protruding through her skin, the skeleton of her face jabbing through as she talks.
We are sitting at our usual restaurant spot in Manhattan, and I am anxiously eating, quickly pouring food into my mouth, restlessly waiting for a miracle to happen so that my mother will eat her food.
I announce how delicious everything is. I bring more and more forkfuls of steaming food to my mouth. Maybe she will see my enthusiasm and start to bring her own fork towards her instead of nibbling on a tomato or two and then dumping it onto my plate.
Lunch is over. It’s happened again.
I am my mother’s daughter. I have learned to eat her meals for her.
My mom taught me my way into the world. She was my first step. She was my first word. And she was my first bite. She fed me constantly, always making sure I had more than enough. Pumpkin and banana bread, lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs, every possible Italian delight. It wasn’t until much later in life that I noticed that she had fed me well but had starved herself – that my serving had always been twice as high as if to make up for the fact that she wouldn’t eat.
What does love look like if the person loving doesn’t love themselves?
It looks like a never-ending gush of water that flows so hard that you don’t get a chance to look past the water and see the person behind it.
My spaghetti was piled so enormously high on my plate that I couldn’t even see that her plate was empty.
What does affection look like from someone who has not healed from the abuse of their body?
It is fast and hurried: a kiss that is also a jab, leaving me with a bright red kiss mark, but no lingering warmth.
What does food taste like if the person who made it is afraid of eating? Is afraid of food?
Abusers leave tiny mines inside the body that, once stepped upon, will leave the person in a sudden explosion of fear and anger. My mom’s body is often still frozen in fear from being struck. Her lips are gripped together tightly, unable to relax enough to let a meal find its way through.
All my mom wanted was for me to have a different life than she did, to be free of the trauma that she had endured. I never doubted her love. She was – and is – an amazing person and mother, but how could she not feed me the fear and self-hate on which she was raised? She inadvertently taught me that being skinny is more valuable than anything else.
I ate well and without self-consciousness all those years that she starved herself. It wasn’t until college that I was faced with the hardest challenge of all: feeding myself. Between 18 and 28, eating was a source of extreme anxiety. As I would carry the fork to my mouth, an underlying voice would cry, Please don’t make me fat. Please don’t make me ugly. I want to be loved, but eating this food makes me fat, ugly, and unloveable.
If I had a choice, I would rather not have fed my body at all. I just wanted to be beautiful and loved. Eating threatened any hope for that.
In my mid-20s, I was in my first deeply loving and attentive relationship. It was the first time I had been able to relax around food for a number of years. We cooked great meals together, spent hours in each other’s arms, and practiced music all day long, side by side. I had never been shown so much affection and care. I was slowly learning, through his gaze, that I was loveable. But my wall of self-hate was hard to erode. Many times, when I was getting ready near the mirror, he would come in and say, Mariel, you are so beautiful. And I would try to see myself as he did, but there was a thick gray cloud between myself and my reflection, and his voice felt miles away.
When the relationship ended, I was devastated. The only person I had ever truly trusted and fully opened up to had given up on me. And so, I wanted to give up on myself.
I spent a week lying on my friend’s couch, unable to eat or sleep. Finally, with what little will I had, I picked myself up enough to make it to a farm in southern Oregon.
My first week, I spent a lot of time ferociously weeding, writing endlessly in my journal, playing sad piano improvisations in the barn, and cradling myself in my tent, listening to the eerie cries of the coyotes at night and hoping they would cover up my own grief. At the farm, I first learned how to take care of plants, how to harvest, how to plant seeds and starts, how compost works, and how to spend all day with my hands and body caked in mud, streaked with sun, helping to nurture the plants that would in turn nurture and help heal me.
Every activity at the farm centered around food and honoring life. We’d be weeding, tilling, planting, harvesting, cooking, eating, and cleaning. Everything done was done together, in a group, all working together to fill ourselves with sustenance. When you’re sitting around a long table sharing stories from the day, there’s less time to worry that if you eat, you’ll become ugly and unloveable. In between bites of deliciousness, you are laughing and held by a community that nourishes and supports you.
It was then that I decided that I wanted to live. And it was then that I knew how I wanted to live: with others. Always.
I returned to a farm again in Oregon years later. It was at this farm that I realized that the love I had come here to find had to come from me. I could thrive off a beautiful community and be surrounded by loving energy, but in order to fully heal, I had to love myself unconditionally. One night in particular, I was fighting myself about food and was feeling pain in my stomach from all the anxiety. I lay in the middle of the field under the stars and stroked my belly over and over again and told it, I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you.
I loved myself to sleep.
When I came back from Oregon the second time, I started the collective in Brooklyn where I still live. Through this house, I have created so many joyful memories centered around food and gardening. My roommates cook and laugh together all the time. Now when I think of food, I think of friends, conversations, and self-love. I think of mochi and egg mornings with Julia, kale salads with Abigail, banana bread with Chanel, and squash soup with Liz.
I still struggle. But I surround myself by people who nourish and support one another.
My whole life I’ve been hoping that if I learned to love myself, I would overflow sustenance into my mother’s frail and emaciated body. It’s as if I’ve been holding onto my umbilical cord all my life, sending nutrients the reverse way back to my mom in order to keep her alive.
Will my mom ever find the will within her to nourish herself? Will she one day make one extra bagged lunch and this time give it to herself? Even if she doesn’t, I will continue every day to choose to eat, to choose to live.
I will eat for both of us.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a young white woman about to eat a croissant. She has reddish brown hair pulled back and she is wearing a white tank top. She is looking at the camera and smiling.]
Mariel Berger is a composer, pianist, singer, teacher, writer, and gardener living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been playing the piano since she was three and, in the last seven years, has taken to writing poetry and prose. Having recorded her debut singer-songwriter CD in May of 2014, Mariel has bridged her two passions of music and poetry. She writes for Tom Tom Magazine, which features female drummers, and hosts a monthly house concert series promoting women, trans*, and gender-non-conforming musicians and artists. She gets her biggest inspiration from her young music students who teach her how to be gentle, patient, joyful, and curious. You can find her website at www.marielberger.com.