Third in a monthly series


It is buried in the recesses of her living room desk, forgotten for more than 30 years until I liberate it one day when I arrive to take my mother out for dinner: a small, red paisley, comb-bound photo album carried for as long as I can remember by my beloved maternal grandmother, Clara, in her black leather handbag amid ancient sucking candies and disintegrating packets of Sweet’N Low. After she died, on a snowy April night in 1982, Grandma Clara’s purse disappeared into the bowels of my mother’s Manhattan hallway closet along with her Persian lamb stole, but not before my mother extracted the photo album and hid it under papers in the desk drawer. Filled with 1940s photos of my mother as a child — round-faced and dour — the album is a stark reminder of a weight she wishes she could forget.

“I can’t bear to look at those pictures,” my mother says when I tell her that I’m taking the album home. I want to know her not only as the gorgeous model and television singer she eventually became — so lithe that she has rarely topped a size 2 in the 52 years that I’ve been alive — but also as the frightened child determined to grow up and, against all odds, morph physically into someone else.

My mother, resplendent in a lime-green sweater and gold scarf, flips through the small album, and her face drops; she shakes her head, taunted by images of herself staring back like ghosts, and her hand automatically falls to her belly, flat as a crepe. She tells me the tale like a bedtime story I’ve heard repeatedly: Having lived through the Depression, her own mother thought fat children were the most beautiful and the healthiest. As a young child — before she was shrewd enough to sell her sandwiches in high school — my mother ate a diet consisting mostly of plain broiled meat and potatoes (steak several times a week, lamb chops less frequently, chicken every Friday) for lunch and carbs with dairy (fruit-filled blintzes topped with sour cream, sweet noodle puddings laden with farmer’s cheese, potato pancakes dolloped with applesauce) for dinner. Required to drink a glass of warm milk before bed, my mother was violently ill nearly every night of her young life: My grandmother never knew that her daughter was lactose intolerant — according to Johns Hopkins, a full 75 percent of Jewish people are — and when she angrily chased my preteen mother down the hallway with a frothy glass of the stuff sloshing over its sides, and my mother tripped and toppled down the stairs and broke her nose, it wasn’t because her daughter was being insolent.

“It made me sick. It made me fat. And I didn’t want it anymore,” my mother says in a taut staccato over a lunch of a simple green salad topped with a deck-of-cards-size block of roasted salmon. “I didn’t want anything she fed me after that,” she adds, picking at the greens in front of her. “I wanted to be on television. And you can’t be fat and be on television. They have rules.”

She grows quiet, and thoughtful. “Your grandmother herself was fat; she thought that was normal. ”

“But can’t there be a middle ground?” I ask her, taking a sip of wine.

“Do I have to be heavy?” she suddenly snaps, slamming down her fork and pushing the photo album at me. To my mother, life is black-and-white: Thin is good, and weight — even the smallest amount, even if it helps fend off frailty, as a 2013 article in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association indicates it could — is the devil.

An icy hand of worry creeps up my back as we talk, and I fret about her health and safety in the coming years; her wire-thin gold bracelets and the chunky Bakelite tortoiseshell bangle we bought for her in Paris, stacked up like a Slinky, dangle off her narrow wrist and threaten to fall to the floor. Still round-faced despite her diminutive size, my mother looks in the mirror, and the heavy little girl in the wartime beanie and thick woolen coat stares back. Now in her eighth decade and at her fighting weight of 112 pounds, she eats slowly — the salad, salmon and a cup of tea takes more than an hour — and I’m reminded of the way a Buddhist on a mindfulness retreat might eat a grain of rice. She lifts fork to mouth as though it is a dumbbell.

I think of what she has been through since the mid-1990s, when she was still modeling and her life was a swirl of Manhattan dinners and luncheons and cabaret performances and recording gigs: She lost her second husband suddenly in 1997. I left New York in 2000. She stopped modeling in 2002. She took a job as a Fifth Avenue medical receptionist to the stars in 2003 and impetuously quit after a fight with a patient in 2005. Her many friends — most of them older than she — began dying in waves a few years later.

In a city of more than 8 million people, my mother, like many senior citizens, is profoundly isolated. And, according to Holly Grishkat of the Renfrew Center, a national network of eating-disorder treatment facilities, “eating disorder triggers differ for younger versus older women in that older women are dealing a lot more with issues of loss and grieving.” For my mother, her early life of disordered eating was recently sparked again by the two things that had set them off so many years earlier: fear and seclusion, the tag team that affects the lives of countless seniors everywhere. Couple them with the inevitable loss and grieving associated with aging, and my mother’s plate is empty, no matter how much food I make sure is on it. Without joy and camaraderie, the desire to eat — to sustain herself and her life — is nonexistent.

I visit my mother once a week: My spouse and I take her out for dinner to places we know she loves — places where she is likely to be recognized — and we do nothing more than listen. We hear her stories of going to the Stork Club and 21, and dating the man who wrote the Miss America theme song, and we watch as she eats slowly, painstakingly, almost sheepishly. We stay overnight, and she continues to talk, cornering us in the hallway, the kitchen, outside the bathroom at 3 in the morning. We have breakfast with her, and her stories amble on, and as she tells them to us, she eats, however slowly. The pace at which she nourishes herself has always been tentative, but when it’s time for us to get back to our own lives, it grinds to a halt.

I call her when I get home from our visit; while I cradle the phone on my shoulder, I take out the photo album and set it on my desk, where it lives now.

“What are you having for lunch?” I ask, wondering about the eggs, bread, jelly, bagels, salmon and roast chicken I sent her a few days earlier.

“I’ll eat when I’m hungry,” she answers in a monotone. “Whenever that is.”

I vow to see her more often.

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.