“Maybe sadness was a kind of hunger, she thought. Maybe the two went together.”

The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

 

The Big House, as we called it, came to Grandma through auction in the summer of 1992. A small grouping of tract homes, on the outskirts of the California desert where we lived, had gone bankrupt because no one was buying 3500-square-foot houses during a recession. People in our town were more concerned with eating regular meals than luxury living. But in our family—that small unit consisting of just Grandma and me—beautiful architecture and unnecessary square footage trumped food. All of the abandoned homes in the small neighborhood were for sale. They were gorgeous pastel stucco two-stories with Spanish tile roofs and large airy rooms. But they’d been dumped into the middle of bare yards, cinder block walls dividing the lots from the trailer park next door. Grandma wanted the model home, completely landscaped and furnished. Its bedrooms were supposed to simulate easy living, the living rooms (two of them) were designed to make even a family of ten comfortable, and the dining table set for a wax ham-and-potatoes dinner enticed buyers to pull up a chair.

The facade had failed. That should’ve been a warning to anyone who wanted to live there.

The auction was held in a motel that had once been a razzle-dazzle place along Sierra Highway, but was now home to transients, off-the-books day workers, and immigrants. Before the auction, Grandma parked her aging maroon Cadillac in the faded parking lot and groaned when she slid out from behind the wheel. Her back popped. Her pumps crunched the broken asphalt. She flicked a lighter and stood in the pitted lot while smoking a cigarette. She said, “I’m not going above 130.” How she arrived at this number I didn’t know. She might as well have said she wasn’t going to go above two million. To me, all numbers were the same: money we didn’t have, money others did.

Inside, the conference room smelled like a Las Vegas casino—dead promises and stale cigarettes. It had low ceilings, dim lighting, wood-paneled walls, brown shag carpet. On the day she bought The Big House, we sat in the first row of folding chairs set out before a long banquet table covered with a white cloth. A man standing at a podium clicked a slide projector when each home was put on the block. When the model house came up for bid, Grandma raised her marker. The price reached 135, and still she bid. Up, up, up it went. A Middle-Eastern couple across the aisle kept raising their marker. When the price reached 195, I squeezed Grandma’s elbow, a gesture that was meant to say Please stop. Just stop.

Grandma lifted her marker at 199, and before I knew what was happening she’d won. I was silent, stricken with fear. I just knew the house would “go back” as she said whenever she was borrowing from Peter MasterCard to pay Paul Visa. She incessantly called one of her ex-husbands for more alimony. I’m not exactly sure how she managed to buy a house without having a nickel in the bank or a steady income, but I’ve since learned that recession homes can be purchased with spit and a promise.

Once all of the paperwork was complete—a process that took less than an hour and included several tongue clicks as Grandma signed on a series of dotted lines—we walked out into the desert afternoon and climbed inside the Cadillac. The cracked leather seats scorched my thighs. I couldn’t look at her, and spent the ride back to our house attempting to ignore the churning of my empty stomach, the anxiety that had plagued me for all of the years I’d lived with her. My head began to ache and pulse above my temples and eyes. Grandma spoke only once. Stopped at a red light, she lit a cigarette and said, “You wanted that house so badly you pinched me on the arm. I think you left a bruise.”

* *

We couldn’t afford a new house and I knew moving wouldn’t solve anything—I’d fallen into a state of depression when I turned thirteen. At times, Grandma called it “hormones.” But mostly she blamed it on the genetically far-fetched ideas of my incarcerated father’s bad blood and her daughter’s stupidity in marrying him in the first place. She often told me that if I strayed from her teachings, I’d become white trash just like the both of them. When I heard these words, I thought of a reverse Cinderella—a kingdom falling in on itself, a pumpkin instantly transformed from carriage to rot. But her threats seemed to lose their impact when I entered my teens.

So, because she was the type of person to run from problems, the only solution she could think of was to move me into a grand house where I could build a new persona. Or the persona of what she called A Good Girl. A Good Girl was a ghost. A Good Girl didn’t date, go to the movies with friends, sleep over at girlfriends’ houses, or talk on the telephone. A Good Girl went to school, occasionally participated in a school-sanctioned activity like a club meeting or a dance, and never socialized with classmates outside of the confines of the school grounds. A Good Girl lived unknown to her peers. No one knew what went on within the confines of her home.

What went on behind this Good Girl’s closed door was the utter absence of food. Grandma had a purse full of credit cards, all maxed out, and no income. The only work we had was going to garage sales on Thursday and Friday afternoons, and reselling the items we found at the local Swap Meet on Saturdays and Sundays. I spent Friday nights cleaning and repairing trashed items, readying them for a markup. Grandma gave them each a “family history” to entice potential buyers. We’d arrive at the Swap Meet before the sunrise and leave after dark. I’d subsist on water and four boiled eggs until Sunday when Grandma stopped at VONS and bought bread, canned vegetables, a chicken, cheese, Coke Classic, canned tuna, and cartons of cigarettes. Then we’d return to the confines of the beautiful house.

Perhaps because of the housing boom and bust of the early 21st century, American society is now more aware of the “near poor” or people who are just getting by.[1] But when I was a teenager, normal-looking actually meant “just like everyone else.” No one knew I was hungry and poor. And I believed Grandma when she said all I needed was a change of address to improve my mood. Everyone in my small hometown—home of the T-shirt that read “Would the last person to leave Littlerock, CA please turn off the lights?”—knew my father was in prison and my mother had left me with Grandma years before. My days were spent under close watch, and I was Grandma’s sole companion. Even in the middle of the night, when other kids’ parents were sleeping, she was vigilant, sitting up in bed with the television blaring its End of Broadcast signal, afraid that if she slept I’d somehow sneak away and leave her all alone.

By the summer she bought The Big House, I’d lived under Grandma’s roof for six years, and though the move was meant to pull me out of my depression, it only worked to make me more aware of my shortcomings, the differences between me and all of the other kids my age. My new school was more affluent, filled with kids whose parents were doctors, teachers, lawyers, ranchers. They ate a never-ending supply of Pop Tarts—something I knew the name of but had never tasted—and never bothered to pick up change they dropped in the school parking lot. While they were from two-parent families and complained about having to eat asparagus while sitting next to annoying siblings at the dinner table, I longed for food that might fill a plate and for siblings with whom I could talk.

I was ashamed of my hunger and kept quiet about it. No one knew that our fridge seemed to have only three purposes: to keep Cokes, milk, and leftovers cold, to house two glass jugs of water, and to preserve her Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes. No one knew a typical day in our home met me with a bowl of cold cereal and nothing more. No one knew dinner was optional. On good days, Grandma baked a chicken, smothered in onions, and a huge pot of fluffy white rice. Or steak and gravy and green beans. Or goulash. Or spaghetti. I remember these meals only because they were so infrequent they are burned into my memory. Most of the time, dinner was an iceberg lettuce wedge smeared with mayonnaise and a sprinkle of garlic powder. Or sugared toast. Or another bowl of cereal.

Grandma never cooked anything until all of the leftovers from a meal had been consumed. So never was I allowed to say, “I don’t want to eat that again.” I’d tried it less than a handful of times and learned the result was an empty belly until the next morning. I thought dinner rolls, biscuits, croissants, and French bread were only for braggarts. I once went to a neighbor’s house and her mother made chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. They were as big as my hand and she let us eat as many as we wanted with huge glasses of milk. When I got home and reported my awe, Grandma’s response was to say, “If you think that sort of thing happens every day, you’ve got another thing coming, gal. I’ve got more important things to do than bake cookies for kids to just eat up in one sitting.” She did make cookies once, the dough out of a tube. I was given two. The next day at school I dreamed of those cookies and couldn’t wait to get home. But when I arrived, they were all gone. She’d eaten them.

I realize that the food I managed to survive on during my childhood is more than some children today find awaiting them when they get in from school, especially those born to the “working poor.”[2] Like those kids, my main meal of the day came during school lunch. Grandma bought me a lunch card at the start of every month, and I watched each day as the thin construction paper square was consumed by the lunch lady’s hole punch. Thirty years later, I still have nightmares that I arrive in line for lunch and have lost my punch card. I look everywhere for it—even in my socks—but it’s gone and I have to go without my only sure-fire meal of the day.

 

At some point in Grandma’s life—probably between her fourth and fifth marriages—she was diagnosed with agoraphobia and prescribed Valium. I have vague memories of a small brown bottle in her purse right next to her Pall Malls. Every so often, she’d split a little yellow pill through its holed center and down it with a swig of Coke. By the time she bought The Big House, though, the valium had gone. Instead of heading to a doctor and getting a new prescription, Grandma simply stemmed her increased nervousness with more cigarettes. Smoking helps those with money worries “cope with high levels of stress and depression.” A 2013 study reveals that depravity “creates enormous mental anguish. One of the fastest, most convenient ways to help is a cigarette.” Put simply, “smoking treats hunger pangs.”[3]

She’d tried to quit smoking only once in her life. “That’s when I got as big around as a house,” she often recalled of herself without nicotine. She’d bring out her photo albums, a monthly ritual, and point to her “fat” pictures. The only difference I could see was that her face was fuller, her bosom more pronounced. When the albums appeared, she smoked more and picked at her meals, only eating a small portion before dumping them back into the pot or pan. I’d like to think she did this because we didn’t have the money to grocery shop and she was allowing for more food for the upcoming days. But it was vanity.

Along with the photos went the stories—relatives long-dead, holidays spent on vacation, tables laden with food prepared for a reunion or homecoming. The glory of her past, my lineage, sat on the table before us and listening to her talk about each picture filled my meal-time hours. She’d seen people die from hunger and malnutrition from the earliest times she could remember. She was born in 1930, and for the first ten years of her life her family hardly had enough food to survive. Though she never admitted going hungry, she would proudly tell me how poor they’d been, as if challenging me to contradict the sepia-toned evidence. They lived on a farm in East Texas. My great-grandmother, Eula Mae, was a Humble—as in Humble Oil and Humble, Texas—my great-grandfather, William, was supposedly Cherokee Indian. The two met and fell in love and Eula was doomed, as Grandma said it, “to live a life beneath her” until their divorce when Grandma and most of her siblings were already adults.

She’d had rich cousins, aunts, and uncles on her mother’s side who visited the farm and brought hand-me-down clothes and tins of saltine crackers. They took pictures of the family, flashed them around Humble and said things like, “Just look at our country cousins.” Grandma never smiled in the pictures. She hated being a country cousin. Poverty, or her rise from it, was her badge of honor. Even as an adult, she hungered for the life she’d seen from her Humble cousins. And The Big House, her Cadillac, her Good Girl granddaughter, all flew in the face of that life-long hurt. These things might’ve been compromised if she’d quit smoking and suddenly allowed herself to eat. Her self-worth was somehow at stake.

Ruminations over old photographs were the extent of her conversations about pain, physical or mental. She spoke matter-of-factly about the scorn from her city cousins. She never elaborated on why, when she was still an infant, her mother left her father for a short time. Left the kids in his care. Or why, when her mother returned, after Grandma had already begun to walk, she clung to her oldest sister. “I didn’t know my own mother,” she told me. “I screamed when she tried to hold me. I thought Sister was my mother, I guess.” Never did she outwardly admit that as the fourth living child in a family of ten she had to scramble for table scraps, to suck the meat from a chicken neck, eat a sliver of cornbread in a mug of buttermilk as her only meal. Nor did she ever know that prolonged malnutrition within the first year of life causes higher anxiety, egocentrism, and lowered sociability in adults.[4]

Instead, she told stories about the people she said were “really poor”—the displaced families of The Great Depression, who traveled in droves through Texas. If the stragglers neared the family farm, my great-grandmother would feed them. Sometimes twenty people would eat off the same chicken. A pan of cornbread could feed a mob. As a small child, Grandma sat in the barn loft and watched the men huddle around a campfire in the yard while sucking chicken bones. Off in the distance, the women either crowded around their own fire or clustered together trying desperately to get a new mother to release the long-dead baby she clutched to her chest. The men ate because when the work came they’d have to be strong enough to do it. The babies and women starved. She told me how repulsed she was, how she would never be that bad off.

 

On the evenings when we sat down to a proper dinner, Grandma’s attention was often elsewhere, sometimes on the television but more often she simply held a far-away gaze almost as if she was in a trance. She lit a cigarette and let it burn nearly to her fingers before realizing she’d done it. Then she’d light another and puff away. At the time I was grateful for the silence—could concentrate on the luxury of the food on my plate. But as I think about those evening meals, I recall that she hardly touched her food. Instead, she let the silence consume her, thoughts of her past, her family, their East Texas farm. Or maybe she was worried about us, the fact that we might not have money for the next bill or the next. And maybe, that led to regret, fear, and anger,[5] because on those glazed-over evenings she would, eventually, become furious and stay up late into the night cursing something, someone. And, eventually, she’d come around to “dirty, filthy men” and the husbands she’d left. And, eventually, The Leather Jacket Man.

The Leather Jacket Man wasn’t his name, it was the name I gave to his story. She never told me his name, never fleshed out his appearance or lineage or any love he may have felt for her in return. He was a boyfriend from her early teens who rode a motorcycle. The Depression had ended and the country was booming from war-industry jobs. Oilfield and mill towns burst with people from all over the country. One of them was this much-loved man, the one she wished she’d never let go, the one who could’ve given her the life she wanted. He was the one she spent years regretting. She told me, “It was the smell of his leather jacket. The way the noon sun fell on a jagged fence in the middle of that field beyond the barn. How it felt like he squeezed my heart. Into a tiny fist. That’s it, mostly. But you can’t convince yourself, no matter how hard you try, that a man will deliver. When you’re young you want everything fixed right away. You want someone to do that. So. Sometimes where the heart goes, the mind just won’t follow.”

I’d then listen to her talk about running away from her tiny family farm, not to marry The Leather Jacket Man who brought her cotton candy and half-melted ice cream cones from the tiny town mercantile, but into the arms of a man twice her age who lived in a nearby city. He bought her pretty clothes but she claimed, “He never touched me.” She ran away from that husband to work on the riverboats of Lake Pontchartrain. She met a woman with the last name Moneymaker who took her on trips to Chicago and New York. Eventually, she became pregnant with a married man’s child and cuckolded another husband. Her second illegitimate child got her run out of The South, all the way to California, where she married husband four or five. But always, she came full circle to that first love, the motorcycle she rode while wrapping her arms around his waist, resting her cool cheek against the warm leather jacket.

Now that I’m an adult, I understand why creating me as A Good Girl in the way she did was so important to Grandma. It was an attempt to save me not just from myself, but from her past. Perhaps to keep me from the pain she must’ve felt for the majority of her life. Her external behavior masked a serious internal, mental deficit that began with childhood hunger[6] and went unnamed for the entirety of her life. Her depression shaped me more than anything that went on behind the walls of The Big House.

 

I never thought Grandma would consciously not eat. Even if it was simply potato chips and cigarettes and Coke, I was sure she’d have enough. But after I left home, she quit cooking and actively starved herself to pay the mortgage and utilities on The Big House. When her alimony payments dried up, she sold most of her antiques and slept on a narrow couch in the den near the front door because she was afraid of intruders in the night. Her mind began to slip, her memories escaping like ravenous field mice. Eventually, she sold The Big House and moved into a retirement complex. She’d call me from her small apartment and leave message after message about how sick she felt, how her back and head hurt, how she wanted to move back to The Big House. I equated this last comment with a threat of suicide and didn’t know what to say when I returned her calls. I tried to get her to talk about her family farm, The Great Depression, The Leather Jacket Man, until one day when she scoffed with indignity and said, “What the hell are you talking about, a man in a leather jacket? I’ve never ridden a motorcycle in my life.”

Perhaps if she’d been born after The Great Depression, or not been left by her mother, or if she’d acknowledged her own suffering beyond nostalgia, Grandma might’ve escaped her own mind, perhaps she wouldn’t have become so physically frail that the wind seemed to whistle through her bones. Or if I’d been stronger, been able to handle life without a father and mother and food on the table, she never would’ve bought The Big House and instead she could’ve bought groceries and fed her memories with more than ghost stories and nicotine. Perhaps then she could’ve continued to remember The Leather Jacket Man instead of losing him, too.

I have a sepia-toned photo of Grandma in her late teens, the years of The Leather Jacket Man. In it, she seems happy. She’s plump-faced and sitting on what looks to be a veranda, on a stone bench near an iron rail. A mural of palm trees is painted behind her. I can see why so many men loved her—big eyes and full lips. I have no idea where the photo was taken because it was given to me after her death by her brother, who came across it from an old friend. The friend had the photo for over fifty years and claimed Grandma had given it to him. I think of this nameless, faceless old man as the young leather jacket lover who held the photo for years, even during his own marriage, recalling a time in his life when he was happiest.

That photo squeezes my heart, thinking about the loneliness that the then-happy girl would grow up to face.

In the photo, she looks just like me, or I look like her. The resemblance used to throw me into a panic where I feared I was doomed by blood and circumstance. For the majority of my adult life, I’ve struggled with the depression that began in my youth. At times, it consumes me so much that I cry for no reason. On my way home from work, I’ll turn down a road off of my usual route, pull over to the curb, and simply stare out into the sky. It causes me to run to the store for more groceries. I finally realized, after a particularly long bout of depression where I hoarded not only potato chips but also laundry detergent, that I needed help. When I approached my doctor, I thought of Grandma and her far-away gaze at the dinner table. I told my physician, “I’ve been thinking of killing myself.”

Nonplussed he said, “How long have you had these thoughts?”

“Since I was thirteen.”

He frantically scratched on a prescription pad and encouraged me to seek out a psychiatrist. That was eight years ago. And every night, when I take my little blue pill, I remind myself that the past, this depression, is a dangerous thing. I can’t forget to take the pills, to fill the prescription, or my afternoon sky gazing will become too much. I’ll seek out the nearest closet and use my own belt as a noose.

And I think of Grandma, and her regrets. Of her past spread all around her like a field of wheat at harvest time. As far as the eye can see are decades. One loaf of bread grown from those crops initiates a series of memories, some ending with abandonment, starvation, and pining. And when she wasn’t careful, an entire field left her crying into her bone-light hands.

Just before her death, Grandma wrestled with days of mania, forgetting where she stored her towels, soap, coffee. She accused her neighbors of stealing. My mother took her to the grocery store and made sure her cabinets were overstocked. But she forgot to eat. And the lack of food allowed her mind to fade even further into depression. When I remember her now, she’s sitting at the glass-topped table of the tiny kitchen in her last apartment, not the huge looming kitchen of The Big House. She drinks coffee and smokes cigarettes, and though there is a full plate before her, she doesn’t eat. Instead, she stares in silence through the large window at the clear blue sky. As if she’s waiting for The Leather Jacket Man and the return of the time when he made her forget her poverty. As if the fields of her memory are full of nothing else but him and something intangible she’s always hungered for.

[1] Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise. “Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle Census.” The New York Times. November 18, 2011.

[2] DeParle, Gebeloff, and Tavernise. “Older, Suburban and Struggling, ‘Near Poor’ Startle the Census.” The New York Times. November 18, 2011.

[3] “For the poor, cigarettes a salve for hunger pangs and mental woes.” Philadelphia Inquirer. November 11, 2013.

[4] Galler, Bryce, Zichlin, Waber, Exner, Fitzmaurice, & Costa. “Malnutrition in the first year of life and personality at age 40” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health. 2013.

[5] Trafton, Anne. “‘Hunger Hormone’ Linked to PTSD: Chronic Stress elevates ghrelin, increasing susceptibility to fear.” Technology Review. January 1, 2014.

[6] Galler, Briyce, Waber, Sichlin, Fitzmourice, & Eaglesfield. “Socioeconomic outcomes in adults malnourished in the first year of life: a 40 year study.” Pediatrics. June 25, 2012.


Essays by JW Young have appeared in The Apple Valley Review, Front Porch, Memoir, and other journals. Her work has been anthologized by Random House, Pinchback Press, and Dzanc Books. She is a graduate of The University of California, Irvine’s English program, and earned her MFA at the University of Mississippi. She recently finished writing her first memoir, which chronicles her childhood as the daughter of a serial rapist. She teaches English and Writing in Georgia where she lives with her husband and three children.