The restaurant is always French; my heels are always high.
I pick up my mother from her West Side apartment; heads turn as she strides like a gazelle through the lobby and into my car, and lowers the mirror to check her lipstick, which is always red. She is dressed in a silver-and-blue Sonia Rykiel sweater from the 1980s, a leopard-print pashmina thrown over one shoulder and dark-wash jeans so narrow that I could have last comfortably worn them right before I hit puberty, if I had lain down to zip them up.
“I don’t want a lot of food —” she warns, when I tell her how stunning she looks. “— and you shouldn’t be wearing stripes.”
She turns her body to glare at me in my French sailor shirt, sitting in the driver’s seat.
My mother is a gorgeous, rail-thin former television singer and model nearing 80. I’m her short, ever-so-slightly-chubby, middle-aged writer daughter, and her only child. Her life revolves around remaining, at all costs, the skinny glamourpuss she has been for most of her life. My life revolves, professionally and profoundly, around the very thing that terrorizes her: food.
On this Mother’s Day, her asymmetrical haircut has been trimmed with geometric precision; the massive round black sunglasses she has worn since long before Iris Apfel made them fashionable are her calling card. Although she had two falls last year — one at home and the other in the street, which required five stitches above her left eye — she is still beautiful, a quintessential city girl who walks everywhere, in part to keep the weight off. Born and raised in Brooklyn, educated at the School of Performing Arts, my mother modeled as recently as 10 years ago and would rather starve than run out of the eyeliner she keeps stockpiled in the guest bathroom vanity, which is why, on this holiday — as on every other day — my goal is to feed her. Hers is to not eat.
My mother has had a belligerent relationship with the table since her late teens, when she fought to lose the childhood pounds that plagued her and that, she believed, would prevent her from being the model and television performer she ultimately became. In high school, she turned to a strict diet of coffee and cigarettes, and she shed the weight like a snake sheds its skin. Standing 5 foot 7 at her tallest, she has never topped 117 pounds. When she was pregnant, in the early 1960s, she carried her baby to term and gave birth to a four-pound me; I was the size of an average supermarket chicken. In my 1970s childhood home, Diet White bread was the norm, boxes of Ayds diet candies graced every room like Whitman Samplers, and we drank Tab to such excess that our family dentist promised the collective demise of our teeth within the decade.
Every Mother’s Day is the same: I don particular items of clothing I know will delight her. One day a year, I manage to squeeze my typically loafer-clad feet into the Tod’s heels that she loves because they slim me, even as I stomp around in them like Corporal Klinger. Together, we head downtown to a particular bistro she loves; she coos at the handsome young server, who coos back. She orders a glass of Chablis and demolishes the contents of the bread basket, although she’s certain she has developed an allergy to gluten.
“I’ll just have a side salad,” she says to me as we peruse the menu. “What are you having?”
I consider the quenelles, or the truite meuniere, or the frisee aux lardons. Maybe, I tell her, I’ll have the hachis parmentier.
“What’s that?” she asks, dourly.
I explain the dish to her: It’s a Lyonnaise gratin of ground beef and vegetables baked beneath a thick lid of buttery potatoes.
“Do you always have to eat so much?” she asks, unsmiling.
“Do you always have to eat so little?” I say.
She groans when I mention the studies: that insufficient nutrition in senior citizens can lead to a loss of muscle mass, according to Linda Fried, dean of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, who helped coin the term “frailty syndrome.” Over the past two years, my mother has sometimes seemed wobbly, walking as if she were learning to ice-skate; she has developed osteoarthritis in her back, making the long city walks she loves often difficult and tenuous.
“I don’t want you falling anymore like you did last year, if we can prevent it,” I add, while she shushes me.
“I didn’t fall,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I sat down. On purpose.”
“Order something good, Mom. Have the salmon.”
“I hate salmon.”
“Have the roast chicken.”
“I ate it last night, from the takeout place.”
“I want you to eat,” I say, getting louder.
“I refuse to get fat,” she declares, her eyes brimming with rage.
The berth between us is widening; the silence is deafening. At her last doctor’s appointment, her physician privately voiced concern about her nutrition. He mentioned Ensure; I balked at the popular supplement drink that contains 15 grams of sugar per serving and whose second two ingredients (after water) are corn maltodextrin (a grain starch) and sugar.
“I will not give that to her,” I told him brusquely. “Not while I’m able to cook for her, or take her out for meals.”
“She has to eat,” he implored quietly.
She never went back to him.
On this Mother’s Day, we eat in silence while the bistro bustles around us; the frisee aux lardons we both ordered sits ravaged on her plate. My mother spends the hour deftly pushing the tangle of bitter greens around and around in a circle, tucking the thick cubes of bacon underneath them like a child hiding her vitamins. She picks at the salad’s poached egg and drinks a cup of black, unsweetened coffee while I clean my plate.
“Thank you so much, honey,” she says, reapplying her lipstick while I pay the bill.
“It’s been a lovely Mother’s Day,” she adds, patting her tiny tummy, “and I’m so full.”
This is a new monthly column exploring the author’s struggles to fortify her aging mother. Altman is the author of “Poor Man’s Feast” (Berkley Books, 2013) and the upcoming “Treyf” (Berkley Books, 2016). She writes the James Beard Award-winning blog PoorMansFeast.com.