Last in a monthly series.
“I bought a salmon,” she said. “It’s a very big piece.”
I had just come in from the garden, where I’d spent a few hours planting allium and feeding a climbing rose while Susan put in peas, arugula and Little Gem lettuces. My mother called as I was washing my hands in the kitchen sink; she sounded unaccountably, suspiciously happy.
“I also bought a chicken. And some Brussels sprouts. They make it very good.”
It was a late Saturday afternoon; the weather was beautiful and was just turning warm, and she’d gone out for a walk on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. On her way home, she stopped off at her favorite local restaurant and picked up some things; the food there is excellent, but it tends to be a little salty.
“You need to watch the sodium, Mom,” I started to say, without thinking.
“I thought you wanted me to EAT!” she shouted.
“I do,” I said.
“So,” she announced, the accomplishment gone from her voice, “I’m eating. Isn’t that enough?”
It was a fair question; we were both quiet. My response had been pure reflex. In the way that my mother thinks I’ll never be thin enough or tall enough or wear enough makeup, I think she will never be careful enough, that she won’t eat enough, and that if she does, she’ll choose the wrong things; historically, her ability to make good choices has been less than stellar. But in truth, I had actually won the battle, and I didn’t even realize it: My mother was bringing food into her own home with the intention of eating it, without my nudging her to do so. It wasn’t fancy (it didn’t have to be). It wasn’t organic (I wished it was, but it wasn’t). It wasn’t trendy. (Who cares?) It was good and reasonably nourishing and simple, and she had made the executive decision on her own to go out and spend her shekels on it (instead of, say, nail polish or lipstick) in order to sustain herself. Isn’t that what I’d been wanting all along?
And then I went and complained about the sodium.
“You’re trying to save her,” Susan said, “the way I tried to save mine.” My spouse had filled her mother’s cabinets with low-salt this and salt-free that; there had been a diagnosis at 93 of congestive heart failure, but the only result was that my mother-in-law would unscrew the cap on her salt shaker and pour it over whatever she ate when we weren’t watching.
“It’s a natural thing to do, to try and save them,” Susan went on, “but sometimes, you just need to acknowledge that she’s trying. She’s made some progress. That’s no small feat.”
Susan was right. Ours has been a lifetime of contradiction, paradox, incongruity and argument: My mother is the bright to my dark, the thin to my heft, the tall to my short, the food-fearful to my chronically famished. Together, we have spent our lives starving: she, for the wisp-like physique she was certain would propel her onto the performance stage and model’s runway, and which, for many years, did; and I, for the sustenance and nurturing that I find at the table, in the act of cooking for and feeding others and myself. We each assumed the other wanted the same thing; we were both wrong.
It has taken a year of writing this column to dissect the nature of my mother’s relationship with food, nutrition and body image as she has gotten older, with what is on her plate, in her body, staring back at her from her mirror. The result has been surprising: Our connection to food and each other — with how I feed her, my expectations of her appetite and how I hoped she would feed herself — has shifted since I wrote the first installment. Now, I see a social trinity that we withhold from most seniors as a matter of course: listening to them, having respect for them and engaging in conversation with them, rather than talking at them. When I stopped telling her what she ought to eat and instead listened to her talk about what she wants (which was sometimes very little), what she likes (or not) and why (or not), and then fed her accordingly, she invariably ate more and was less fearful of the table.
When we hit an impasse, readers had suggestions: “Just give her Ensure,” many said. That was not an option: Ensure, while a quick, cheap and easy source of calories (which is why so many elder-care facilities and hospitals love it), contains 15 grams of sugar per serving and is composed of little more than starch and fat. “At her age, she’s never going to change, and you’re a [expletive] fool to think she will,” another offered, adding, “Just let her eat what she wants, or nothing at all,” as though ignoring the ramifications of poor senior nutrition is a viable moral option. Simply looking the other way because we can’t be bothered or because it’s otherwise burdensome not to points to a greater issue: our ingrained societal disinclination to make senior citizens part of our national food conversation. According to the Census, by 2050, the American population will include an estimated 80.5 million seniors; leaving them to their own nutritional devices is certain to result in a health-care catastrophe of epidemic proportion.
Over the past year — and using this column as a kind of journal — I’ve learned to feed my mother on her own terms, with respect for her likes and dislikes, her preferences and aversions, and with the knowledge that the more isolated she is, the less inclined she will be to eat at all. I’ve learned to feed her smaller amounts of things that she truly likes, even if it’s the same things over and over again: simple roast chicken, slow-cooked salmon, braised brisket, Italian vegetables splashed with good olive oil, the piles of broccoli that she likes cooked to the point of soft collapse, dotted with flecks of caramelized garlic. And I’ve learned to be patient and to not rush her; she eats slowly, moving the food around on her plate the way she used to when she was a teenage singer trying to get on television and food was the enemy.
“I just want what I want and not what I don’t,” my mother is fond of saying when I ask her what she’s hungry for. I once took that statement for petulance: an adamant, foot-stamping refusal to play by the rules of the table. In fact, they weren’t the rules of the table; they were my rules of the table. But the decision to eat what one wants and not what one doesn’t is part of what makes us human adults; it makes us free to choose, whether the choice is good or it isn’t. It is pure independence, just as my mother’s elemental act of going out food shopping for herself is, as well.
So for as long as my mother can tell me what she wants and what she doesn’t, I will listen to her and oblige; I will always hope for more, but I will always be there to feed her however she needs me to. After all, she’s my mother, and my love for her is boundless.
Altman is the author of “Poor Man’s Feast” (Berkley Books, 2015) and the upcoming “Treyf” (Berkley Books, 2016). She writes the James Beard Award-winning blog PoorMansFeast.com.
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