My mother, Alice, was never a starving Armenian. Still, she dreams about food, the way a starving person might. Most people with Alzheimer’s lose interest in meals. Instead, hunger consumes her. Her particular conformation of plaques and tangles seems to set up short circuits that re-introduce hunger within an hour of eating. What sticks to her insides is not the memory of her last meal or snack. She has gone from trim and stylish to quite large. Lane Bryant here we come.
My mother’s parents did in fact starve, barely surviving the genocide of 1915, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians were marched into the Mesopotamian desert, without food, to die a slow death. I used to wonder if starvation in one generation might account for a run of obesity in the next. My trim stylish mother stood out among her fat female cousins, all of them first generation immigrants. In the second generation, I was lucky enough to inherit a healthy Mediterranean diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, yogurt, and olive oil from my Armenian ancestors, as well as normal attitudes about food from my mother.
Now that my mother is simultaneously starving and fat, I sometimes wonder if her hunger is a distant childhood memory, perhaps one that even spans generations. As soon as she learned to speak English, in kindergarten, little Alice was the one sent to the butcher to ask for free bones for the dog, though no good Armenian would ever have kept a dog in a New York, walk-up, railroad apartment in 1938. Those bones she brought home made for good soup, thick with slices of day old bread. No, she didn’t starve when money was tight.
My mother’s neurologist keeps imploring us to watch her weight. We’ve watched it, doing our best to ration my starving mother’s food. We’ve kept bowls of fresh fruit and vegetables out on the counter so she could pop little loligner (Armenian for tomatoes) into her mouth like candy. A similar bowl on a table near her bed allowed her to eat and head back to sleep without interrupting my sweet dreams. I was fresh the morning after the night that broccoli grew from her ears. When she told me that she would rather have apple trees with new fruits appearing every time she reached out to pick one, I knew she was on to something.