I was born too late for the marshmallow experiment. In 1972, researchers at Stanford University offered a group of four-year-old children a choice between one marshmallow now or several marshmallows if they waited alone in a room for 15 minutes. The children who were able to delay gratification, to wait for the greater reward, grew up to be more “successful”. They attained higher levels of educational achievement and healthier body mass indexes.
I would have failed the marshmallow experiment as a child. I would probably fail it now. At the age of four, the adults in my life routinely lied to me, and often about food. I wouldn’t have believed them that an adult would return with a greater quantity of such a high-value reward. I would have snatched at the single marshmallow and gobbled it, then sat listening for the sound of the adult on the other side of the door greedily doing the same.
Earlier this year my mother starved herself to death. It took four weeks. During that time, I sat at her bedside with mashed potato, with gravy, with crustless white bread sandwiches, with soups of decreasing thickness, with rice pudding, with tinned fruit, jelly and ice-cream, with marshmallows, with lemonade and fruit juices and sugary tea, and finally with a wet sponge on a stick. Even this she turned her head away from.
It occurred to me I was offering my mother food in the exact opposite progression of an educational diet given to an infant. The texture, nutrition and complexity of the offerings were decreasing incrementally. After a week of her refusing chopped food, I moved to lumpy, then coarsely mashed, then finely mashed, then smooth, until it was only milk or water and then nothing at all. If I was another sort of daughter, a daughter more compassionate, less estranged from my animal self, perhaps I would have offered my starving mother my breast, for what is food at the start and end of life but comfort? What is a mother to a daughter, and a daughter to a mother, but succour?
My mother was a war baby. She was born in a village outside of the Yorkshire mill town of Halifax in 1941. Her father was in the RAF cleaning fighter planes in Canada when she was born. He didn’t make it home until she was nearly four. The little girl resented being ousted from her place in the marital bed. She didn’t like how her father smelt, his loud voice and bristly moustache. She was sent away to her granny, an addled old lady who lived in a filthy council flat in the next village. Fridays were special – fish and chips – but mostly they lived on bread and jam, broken biscuits sold in 20-ounce bags at the local market and the hard-boiled sweets my mother stole from Granny’s handbag.
Granny died when my mother was 10, so she went back home again. She had a younger sister now, much loved by both parents. My mother seemed to take up a Cinderella position in the family. She cleaned and ironed. She kept to herself. She sat in corners watching and waiting. Her sister resented having to share a room with this silent older girl. When the family went to the seaside for a holiday the girls were bought ice-creams from a van. The younger sister didn’t like her choice of flavour, threw it on the pier and started to cry. My mother was ordered to give her ice-cream to her sister. On the same holiday my mother was made to swap clothes in public with her sister, who preferred the older girl’s outfit and had begun to scream. Each Christmas my mother spent her present – a few pennies – on toffees that she hid under her pillow and sucked through the night.
There is a powerful connection in my family between sadness and sugar.
My mother believed she had been rejected by her parents because she was defective. This distorted conclusion about herself produced feelings of shame. The shame grew with her. I suspect the sweets she stole from her grandmother, and the toffees she hoarded, were about comfort as much as hunger. Stealing is bad; greed is bad. When you are already bad, shame entices you to act in ways that confirm it. Shame is beguiling. Recently asked to describe my mother’s personality to a doctor, I said, “secretive and suspicious”. I fear my children may say the same about me.
My mother’s family was poor. My grandfather worked part time as a cleaner at the local community centre. My grandmother was unable to work due to industrial deafness from being sent into the knitting mills at 12. My mother endured long, painful nights dabbing oil of cloves on her teeth as they decayed. The dentist was feared and rarely visited. There are only a few photographs of my mother at this time. She had learnt not to smile.
Both sisters had rotten teeth, but my mother also had hypodontia – the congenital absence of the lateral incisors. It’s cute in children, but the large gaps on either side of the two front teeth are infantilising for adults, giving them an underdeveloped, devious look. Dental literature describes hypodontia as causing an “unfavourable appearance”. I was born with it too.
When my mother left school and got a job in the office at a local garage, she became painfully aware of her appearance, always holding her hand in front of her mouth when she spoke. Her father’s gift to her at the age of 18 was the extraction of her teeth and their replacement with upper and lower dentures. In Victorian times it was common for a bride’s father to pay for the removal of his daughter’s teeth as a practical wedding gift – relieving the husband of the costliness of future dental procedures. My mother had her teeth extracted in 1960. Dentists refer to it as a “full clearance”. Within two years my mother was pregnant to an apprentice mechanic. A wedding was hastily arranged before my brother was born, and exactly a year later they had their final child, me.
I don’t know when my father found out that my mother had false teeth. He came from a slightly wealthier family and most of his own teeth were intact, albeit filled with mercury amalgam the colour of old pencil lead. What happened when my father, or later my stepfather, awoke in the bed next to my mother at night and wanted to kiss her? Did she put the false teeth back in? How did she locate them in the dark?
My parent’s marriage was troubled. The house thrummed with currents of resentment and blame that sometimes erupted into violence. My mother could be sullen and unresponsive. She struggled to express her emotions. She was also a terrible cook. Our childhood dinners were mostly fish fingers and baked beans, often with chips cooked in the pan of evil brown oil that lived on the stovetop. It was a good night when she managed to keep the coating on the fish fingers. My brother and I didn’t care, because what you ate first was simply the warm-up for what came next: rice pudding from a tin, store-bought cakes, biscuits, ice-cream and chocolate.
False teeth are impervious to sugar. During the day, my mother chomped through packets of barley sugar or tubes of Rowntrees fruit gums. The glovebox of her Mini-Minor was jammed with tins of travel sweets packed in icing sugar. The textures and flavours of the sugary foods we ate form some of my earliest memories. The aromatic orange jelly sandwiched between the chocolate and sponge of a Jaffa Cake biscuit. The monstrous Yorkie Bar – It’s not for girls! according to the wrapper. After Eight Mint Chocolate Thins, in their classy cellophane envelopes, with a creamy white filling that tasted like toothpaste. I reasoned they removed my need to brush if eaten last thing at night. When a packet of fruit jellies congealed into an unbudgeable concretion in my gullet, my mother let me sip her milky tea – three sugars – to wash it down. Much of this sugar flooding happened in front of the television while my brother and I were numbed by the safe, happy lives of The Goodies, Captain Pugwash and Rupert Bear.
I was seven in 1972 when my family migrated to Western Australia. I grew up without grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins, although both my mother and father had conflict with their families so it’s unlikely I would have formed sustaining relationships with them had we stayed. Migration also cut us off from the sugary foods we had used to substitute for the lack of familial love, creating a kind of double lack. We had been exiled from the tastes that consoled us. And we were the wrong sort of migrants: just more latecomer colonisers. We didn’t bring a food language and food culture with us, but merely pined for what could no longer be bought in the shops.
My mother was still a young woman when we arrived and I remember her smiling on occasions – a quick, rueful smile that seemed to erupt without her consent. I thought she was pretty, and part of this prettiness was her even white teeth. She was extremely secretive about her false teeth. It wasn’t until they broke, when I was a teenager, that I realised her pretty teeth were not her own. In retrospect this surprises me. Surveillance was my main occupation. I opened my father’s mail, I went through my mother’s pockets and eavesdropped on her conversations. I was more like an embedded spy than a child of the family. My mother held a hanky in front of her mouth for several days while her dentures were being repaired. She refused to meet my gaze and I knew not to ask her why.
The structure, activity and perhaps social connections at her public-service job seemed to help her control her sugar habit, but as soon as she retired, she ballooned. She was embarrassed about her weight. It was never mentioned. She hid her inevitable diagnoses of fatty liver disease and diabetes.
Ten years ago, when my mother came to visit me in Melbourne, she brought a gift – a box of the Jaffa Cakes that had been my favourite as a child. She was delighted that this brand of British biscuits was now being imported to her local supermarket in Perth. In fact, she was so delighted that the box was empty. She had eaten them at the airport. She was in her late sixties then and still failing the marshmallow test.
The very last thing I saw my mother eat was strawberry ice-cream. Her refusal of food came shortly after she refused to wear her dentures. I was shocked the first time I saw her without teeth. I hadn’t realised their role in scaffolding her face, how they had underpinned her appearance. There were disturbing new angles – the tip of her nose curved grotesquely towards the point of her chin like a Punch and Judy puppet. I found it hard to look at the collapsed, sphincter lips around the tiny cave of her mouth. I tried to coax her into returning to the false teeth. I offered them to her – fetching the denture bath and holding it close to her face. When it became clear she would no longer put the dentures in herself I tried to prise open her lips and force them in, but there’s an antiquated technique to it, like pulling galoshes on over shoes. I didn’t like touching them. I gave up trying and within a few weeks I got used to how my toothless mother looked, and, I’m embarrassed to say, became conceited about my acceptance. I wanted other people to flinch while I was steadfast. Although I still had hope she might suddenly decide to wear the teeth again.
Death by starvation is not how it appears in film and literature. My mother was no hunger artist. Starvation is violent. The body eats its fat, then it eats its organs, its soft tissue and its skin. In the final stage the flesh and limbs start to rot. My mother’s hands and feet turned grey, then blue, then purple, then black from gangrene. I could not hold these cold, black hands that lay on her sunken chest like roosting bats. I kept them covered, even though I wasn’t sure if the weight of the sheets caused her pain.
When my mother died, I walked from room to room emptying the house she shared with my stepfather, who had died 10 weeks before her. I found the plaster casts of her upper and lower jaw and several old pairs of false teeth, with their wet-pink acrylic gums – I threw them out. I threw out my mother’s diabetes medication, her diet books, her scales, her three wardrobes full of clothes from size 14 up to size 22. She had kept the smaller sized clothes for more than 30 years in the doleful hope she might wear them again. I vacuumed up the infestations of ants and moths and silverfish in the cupboards and even the drawers of her nightstand, which were confetti-ed with loose jelly beans, packets of congealed Tim Tams, barley sugars and half-chewed toffees. I was saddest of all throwing out the food. I knew it had helped to kill my mother and that it had given her comfort. We have a choice about what we put in our mouths, but when I think about my mother’s life, choice was an illusion.
My mother’s birthday, which often came without a present when she was a girl, is two days before Christmas. I’m writing this in early December when I learn my brother has just been diagnosed with diabetes. The weather is finally getting hot and my memories are blistering. My brother is one year older than me. Sugar is our mother tongue. It is our inheritance. Its effects are coming for me like a freight train. Perhaps the only hope in this story is that my brother did not think to hide his diagnosis. He told me. He told his children. We talked. We told him how much we loved him and needed him to be alive, to be well.
This struggle to nourish our fragile animal bodies that are so easily damaged by our fallible animal minds. We must eat from what life has served us, or we die.
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