My mother at about age 4, with her parents and older sister early in the war--1940 or so.

Sunday, February 27th, was my mother’s 75th birthday. She has been dead for almost 26 years. Longer than she was alive in my life.

I had been thinking about the day for months. I have no close family nearby. I wanted to remember her right. It would have been easy with my young daughter, but she was at her father’s house that weekend. We would have gone through photos from my childhood. “See,” I would have said, pointing to photos where I myself was a gangly 11-year-old. “Grandmother was younger than I am now when I was your age. Much younger.” We would have talked about what life was like when her grandmother herself was 11 years old. She loved the rabbits they had in the backyard, even though they would be eaten. And the chickens they kept for the eggs. Putti, the rather obnoxious dwarf hen, was her favorite.

The year my mother turned 11, 1947, was the coldest winter anyone could remember in Middle Europe. Hundreds of thousands of Germans perished for lack of heat and food after the war ended, even as spirits were up and relief over the fall of the Nazi regime was palpable. My mother’s family had those rabbits and chickens, and close relatives who owned a dairy farm just twenty miles away. Still, I would have shown my daughter a letter her barely 11-year-old grandmother wrote to what, in 1947, must have seemed the family’s fairy godmother – the glamorous Brooklyn-Sicilian fiancée of an uncle. Nobody in the family had ever met this young woman, but she kept sending care packages throughout and after the war. “Thank you,” my mother wrote (in perfect schoolgirl German, in stilted handwriting on lined paper), “especially for the cozy underwear. I have only hand-me-downs from my older sister and everything is worn very thin and doesn’t really fit.”

No, nothing really fit this scrawny girl. In a separate thank-you letter to the Brooklyn fairy, her mother (my grandmother) mentioned not only the same underwear, but a gift of sugar, flour, Melba Toast, and, most importantly, margarine, which she intended to put on the slices of bread her daughters took for their school lunches – especially the younger one, my mother. “She is so thin! Only 8 children out of her class of 48 have qualified for extra food stamps because of their weight and she is one of them. That’s all good and well, if only there were anything to buy!” lamented my grandmother.

I would have told my daughter all this on my mother’s birthday, and one day soon I will. How that scrawny girl grew into a slender, beautiful, accomplished young woman, a teacher and pianist. How my daughter looks more and more like her, the grandmother she has never met, before ovarian cancer ravished that petite body.

Regardless, I needed to face this day by myself. I bought flowers the day before. I went to church that Sunday morning, not because I am very religious, but because I needed to be somewhere where I could be in peace and listen to beautiful music. I had known this would be hard. Every year, Lent has been hard for me. It always starts, roughly, with my mother’s birthday, and it ends with the anniversary of her death. Because my mother died early in the morning on Easter Sunday 1985. The actual anniversary of her death has always felt less important – it is always Easter to me.

All of this had weighed heavy on my mind and heart for many months. While my mother was dying, she asked not to have a marked grave. We were devastated; we were all so afraid of life without her. She was just as afraid, but my father, my brother, and I could hide behind her wish and her fear. She had not wanted a gravesite, so there would be none. We would not have to face a testimonial to her ultimate absence. To this day, I regret the decision.

As it happened, I went for a medical checkup last November. I was close to my 48th birthday, the age at which my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. Everything was fine, except that I moaned and complained about the subtle (and then less subtle) constant weight gain throughout my 40s. Dr. Pat  took one stern look at me and put me on her seriously serious diet. We discussed my weight goal and nutrition. I bought a scale and dutifully reported to her office to be weighed every other week.

I lost 24 pounds in twelve weeks. I now weigh what I did throughout my 20s and most of my 30s, including the first few years after my daughter was born. As it happens, I reached my weight goal of 120 pounds the week before my mother’s birthday. As it also happens, this is the weight she maintained for decades, right until the end of her life.

So on her birthday, I ate half a grapefruit and a soft-boiled egg for breakfast while thinking back on my childhood. I intend to maintain my current weight. I feel fitter and more energetic than I have in many years. I am happier and I just like myself better when I look into the mirror in the morning. And I know that there is no reason – no excuse! – to ever weigh an ounce more than my beautiful mother did in her whole life. Sure, it takes a little more effort as I am about to enter the sixth decade of my life – a decade my mother never lived to enjoy.

To eat right, to exercise, to always drink enough water, and to instill all of these values in my daughter: it may not seem much. But this is what I can do out of respect and love for my mother, who is now, in my late 40s, the closest soulmate I can imagine. For her, for my daughter, and for myself, I hope I will be able to honor her memory by taking good care of my body for many years to come.

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  • b. elliott April 16, 2011 at 12:22 pm

    Such a beautiful story that motivated an outcome that would make any mother proud.

  • Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen April 14, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Agnes was a perfect candidate for the Dr. Pat diet. She is mindful and understands the necessity of preparation. This is a diet for an intelligent focused woman. Agnes was at a point in her life where she decided that she wanted her self back. She never complained, she embraced the discipline and order of this way of eating and in short order achieved her goal.

    Now she knows how to enjoy cooking and eating but recognizes that not every meal is meant to be “special” with portions too large and choices that are always calorie rich.

    The maintenance diet will be with Agnes always. She has a new way of looking at food and its emotional place in her life.

    Wonderful work Agnes as you have reinvented your life on many planes.

    Dr. Pat