Through the Fire
I have been in an outdoor exercise class for 7 years or maybe a little longer. Now we are a small hearty band of over 55 yr olds, with the exception of our wonderful fearless instructor. Our needs have changed over all those years. For me, now, it is about keeping the strength I have. I’d be happy to have some more endurance and stamina. And I need to keep moving my creaky joints, staying flexible and being as energetic as I can. Plus, it’s great camaraderie and hello, being outside!
My mother was athletic as a girl and young woman, playing lots of sports in high school and college. While at Vassar, she earned the nickname of “Ex”, which stood for exercise. Her family and friends from those days called her that her whole life.
So, my brothers and I grew up with this passion she had. To her very great regret, none of us shared it. We lived on a lake and I learned to enjoy swimming in the summer and ice skating in the winter. These activities were fun! As I got older and chubbier, her efforts to get me moving increased. I got my revenge one summer ( in junior high, I think) when her plans for me to exercise more and lose weight backfired in that SHE developed muscle and got a little buffed up during our Air Force calisthenics routine we did together. And, as I remember, I hated almost every minute of it, and didn’t lose any weight. I think she had to buy some new blouses!
Her efforts often got what I now consider abusive. This falls along the same lines as my recent post about stealing cookies. I knew I hated it ( and her in those moments) but it was what I knew. I was just a lazy fat kid who was a great disappointment to her mother. One of the outstanding examples of this was when she decided I needed to learn to play tennis. Did I want to play tennis ? No. Did she even ask me ? I don’t think so. Was it any kind of fun ? NO. Not for either of us. I remember being out in the hot Ohio summer sun on that asphalt court, sweating up a storm, crying up a storm, her yelling up a storm. Not only was I not able to easily run around the court, I had ( still have) challenges visually with depth perception. Instead of starting out slowly, teaching me actually how to hit the ball, doing something to make it fun, etc., she would hit it far enough away from me that I would have to run to get to it, see where the ball was, and figure out how to hit it back to her. Not a lot of success. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for her to give up on me and tennis. As I said earlier, I love to swim. She took advantage of this and we enrolled in Lifesaving Certification together, me in the Junior class and she in the Senior. I did OK but suffered under her constant scrutiny and her competitiveness that made her need to be the best in the group.
Ok, I don’t mean to make this all a rant against my mother. I loved her dearly and miss her terribly at times, since her death almost 6 years ago. I’m happy to have had so much healing around all of our issues. (Obviously, there is still an angry edge!) Thankfully, while she was still alive, I was able to move from a place of larger anger to having understanding, forgiveness, and compassion for her. And, thank God, I have been able to raise my own crummy level of self esteem brought on by all that pushing.
As I have grown older and dealt with my own problems in therapy and all the other avenues I pursued, I see Mama in a much different light. Her parents treated her terribly. She ( as did I) had all her material needs met and lived a very privileged life. What she lacked was love and respect from her family. Her self esteem was almost non existent. She was smart, attractive, very friendly and giving, and thought she was fat and ugly and stupid. She pushed herself constantly. She was never good enough at anything! She didn’t swim because she loved it ( though she really did). She always swam as if someone was chasing her. So competitive with her self, but also so angry and afraid.
She proudly weighed the same at 89 as she did in her 40’s. She weighed herself daily and would eat even more sparsely than she usually did if the scale dared to creep up even a few ounces. Some would say this is a good habit. In her case, it was not. She didn’t do this out of love or wanting to do something that would make her feel good. There was shame, there was anger.
She didn’t experience much pleasure in her life. There was no pleasure in eating. As much as she exercised, she didn’t love it. I like to think she felt good when she and my Dad danced which they sometimes would do in our living room. I know she didn’t find pleasure in their sexual relationship. I wasn’t witness to a lot of happiness. I treasure the memories of her laughing and recounting times when she enjoyed herself.
I’ll end this with a very healing story for both Mama and me. She got cancer and was in a lot of pain. Her last few weeks she was in the nursing care section of the place where she lived. Her appetite was waning and her doctors gave her permission and insisted that she eat whatever she wanted. Amazingly enough, one of those things turned out to be chocolate ice cream! My whole life, I thought my mom didn’t like chocolate. Turns out, it was her iron will and discipline that never let her have any until the end. She would eat a few bites of lunch of some sort and have a bowl of chocolate frozen yoghurt. At dinner, the few bites of dinner began with her beloved gin and tonic and were followed by a bowl of Moose Tracks chocolate ice cream ( sometimes even 2 scoops). One evening as I was sitting with her, she asked me if I wanted the staff to bring me some! Not since I was a little girl had she offered me ice cream!! I hardly ever eat ice cream and food snob that I am, I really didn’t want that sort of ice cream. Plus, I am lactose intolerant so there was that!! But, as you can imagine, this was an amazing moment , so my mom and I quietly enjoyed our chocolate ice cream together. I had to leave the room and cry a few tears before coming back to kiss her good night. I am so glad this is one of our final sweet moments together. I will never forget it.