Thanks For Being Crunchy: An Ode To My Mother

My mother has had a passion for nutrition for as far back as I can remember. We didn't eat white bread. My brother and I weren't allowed to eat cereal for breakfast if one of the first three ingredients was sugar, which naturally eliminated everything our friends were munching on.

Jan 4, 2013 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

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Mom and me, all smiles in 2011.

Last week, I was enjoying my breakfast when I realized I was becoming my mother. And while becoming their mother may be terrifying for some, I was pretty excited. I think my mom is amazing. But had I had this epiphany 10 years ago, I probably would have flung my oatmeal at the wall in defiance. 

My mother is the epitome of soft strength -- fearlessly independent while still remaining warm, open and caring. She is able to be herself without worrying what everyone else will think of her. She taught me that being different is a good thing; “weird” is good. Us weirdos have to stick together. 

But many of the things I love about her now -- things I am downright proud of -- used to embarrass me to no end back when I was younger and self-conscious and hormonal. It's funny how those things work. So while I adore my mother now,  her earthy uniqueness did nothing but embarrass me when I was growing up. (Sorry, Ma!)

We didn't have a television until I was in grade school, and when we did get one, it was just for watching movies on our VCR -- no cable. So whatever children's television shows were popular in the very early 90s, I missed out on. This wasn't because we couldn't afford one, but because my mother didn't want us sitting in front of a television.

I was eating barley in my high chair, my mother's affinity for health already taking hold. Natural and lovely, my mother didn't wear make-up or color her hair. She didn't wear deodorant. For a while, she wouldn't shave her legs or armpits (more on that later). In some places, this would have been “normal.” But in our affluent Connecticut suburb, it was not.

When we're very young, we often tend to be enamored with our parents because they're all we know. For some of us, this changes. Shame -- of your family and of yourself -- is learned. I'm not sure when I first realized my mother wasn't like my friend's mothers. Desperate to fit in, I wanted to be like everybody else, so I wanted my mother to be exactly like everybody else's mother. And she simply was not.

On day when I was in the first grade, I woke up in a panic. It was crazy hat day at school, and I had completely forgotten. I was hatless. I tore downstairs to my mother, and told her my predicament. I HAD to have a crazy hat for school. EVERYONE else would have one.

Ever inventive, my mother opened the fridge, removed a head of romaine lettuce and cored it, leaving only the floppy, outer leaves. Placing it on my head, she used toothpicks to secure carrots, tomatoes and radishes in place. My crazy hat was a salad. Off to school I went.

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I couldn't find any photos of my salad head, so here's my mom wielding fresh picked veggies.

At first, I had thought my hat was terrific. My teacher loved it, and I won some sort of prize for “most creative.” But my classmates? They weren't so impressed. I mean, I was wearing a salad on my head. Boys openly teased me, and girls practiced their passive aggressive eye rolls. It was one of the first times I remember feeling “weird.”

This feeling would follow me through high school -- an awkward cloud that seemed to surround me, like the moment after you make a joke that no one gets, and it just kind of hangs there. Crazy hat day was my first meeting with that cloud of awkward, and at the time, I blamed my mother.

And, ahh, the lettuce head. My mother has had a passion for nutrition for as far back as I can remember. We didn't eat white bread. We shopped at a co-op and our pantry was stocked with Tetra Paks of rice milk. We were eating organic before all of the hipsters got their hands on it.

My brother and I weren't allowed to eat cereal for breakfast if one of the first three ingredients was sugar, which naturally eliminated everything our friends were munching on. Grape Nuts it was!

In late high school, I came full circle and began adoring the same healthy style of eating, but I spent the majority of my adolescence coveting the crap in my friend's cupboards. I would come home with them after school to stare in awe at their cellophane wrapped Hostess snacks, eat Doritos by the bag, and make sandwich after sandwich with the holy grail of processed food -- the ever elusive Wonder Bread. My friend's mothers used to joke I had a tape worm, because I was all ribs and collarbones but could eat an entire  salami in one sitting.

This was ironic, because as a profession, my mother is a chef. So in her kitchen she was banging out delicious nutritious food that people would quite literally pay money for, and all I wanted to eat was single serving Kraft cheese slices on Wonder Bread with eight tablespoons of Hellman's mayo.

When I was 8, my mother beat breast cancer, and went even further down the crunchy-granola road. She stopped eating sugar for a while, and for some reason she stopped shaving her armpits. This made me unbearably self-conscious.

Every summer throughout junior high, I spent four glorious weeks at sleep-away camp. For these four weeks, I was able to reinvent myself. I was sociable and confident. I made jokes that the other kids found funny, and no one was giving me that awkward “who invited you?” stare. But the summer my mother decided to stop shaving her armpits was a summer I lived in fear. 

On the last day of camp, there was some big formal dance, and our parents showed up to take us home. I knew that in the warm weather, my mother would come to pick me up in one of her sleeveless tops (she has killer arms) and all of my friends would see her armpits. THEY WOULD KNOW!

Seriously. I angsted over this all summer long. I sulked. I sweated. When she actually came to get me, pits blazing as imagined, everyone was so excited to see their parents no one noticed. 

The following year, I hit puberty and my German Jewish legs slowly began to resemble two bumbling boney longhaired dachshunds stuffed into a pair of Sketchers. In the locker room, my friends started commenting on them. Their legs were either still prepubescently hairless, or gleaming in all of their Skintimate glory. But I wasn't allowed to shave my legs.

I begged and begged for a razor and shaving cream, but my mother said no. She thought I was too young, and the fact that my legs had the soft coat of a 50-year-old man seemed irrelevant to her. I also wasn't allowed to wear “regular” deodorant because of my mother's bout with breast cancer. (Some think the aluminum-based compounds in generic deodorants can cause cancer.)  

So there I was, at the precipice of puberty, and not allowed to shave or wear deodorant that didn't leave me smelling of onions. I was the hairy smelly girl. And I blamed my mother.

As summer approached and exposing my legs became inevitable, I started sneakily shaving with my dad's razor. I thought I was the epitome of stealth, when really I was leaving the bathroom with patches of shaving cream on the back of my knees.

One morning, probably because my dad was complaining about the abduction of his razor, I awoke to find a basket on my dresser containing a pack of razors, shaving cream and a loofah. A note accompanying it read something like, “Welcome to womanhood. Love, your hairy (but caring) mother.”

I am pretty sure the note, and word “womanhood,” caused a bubble of embarrassment that nearly overshadowed my excitement about the hairlessness that was on the horizon. 

I didn't want to talk about “womanhood” with my mom. Not at 10, or 12, or 15. I also didn't want to talk about masturbation. Or sex. But my parents had always been relatively open with these subjects. They wanted us to understand what was natural and normal,  and my mother was not only open, but vocal.

I remember one particular ride to the mall in 2002. I was 13. Green Day had released International Superhits and I was listening to it in the car with a girlfriend and our respective basement make-out buddies. My mom was driving, and we were listening to “Longview” when the line about masturbation came on: “When masturbation's lost its fun/You're fuckin' lonely.” 

Automatically, I blushed over the fact that my mother heard the word masturbation while in the same vicinity as me. Not satisfied with the awkward tension, mother quipped, “He doesn't know what he is talking about! Masturbation never loses its fun!” And then I died.

In high school, my mother's (amazing!) sense of humor would again reduce me to a quivering pile of teenage shame. I came home from school one afternoon to find our bathroom littered with empty douche boxes, and my mother in the tub with our 90-pound retriever/shepard mix, Thor. Apparently, he had been sprayed by a skunk, and my mother had heard bathing him in douche juice would remove the smell.

In response to the horrified look on my face (I was 15, folks) she crowed, “My puppy is gonna smell like a clean pussy!”

I wish I had been able to harness this spirit when I was younger, before I realized the things that made me feel “awkward” were in fact what made me pretty awesome. I no longer spend time trying to fit in with people who leave me feeling like a walking awkward silence, but seek out those who embrace and applaud my weirdness.

My mom is my biggest advocate. She shaped me into the healthy, quirky, occasionally raunchy, lettuce-munching dirt lover I am today. If I ever have a daughter, I will probably talk about my masturbatory habits in front of all her friends and tell her she'll thank me for it later.

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Being besties, hiking in Taiwan.

Currently, my mother (now divorced from dad) runs two farms with her partner. One is a rock and moss farm in Connecticut, not far from the suburb I grew up in. The other is in Pahoa, Hawaii. Between the two locations, they hold 10-day silent meditation retreats, run a large organic vegetable farm, manage a bed and breakfast, teach cooking classes, hold drum circles, kombucha workshops, yoga classes, healing circles, labyrinth walks, and more and more and more. 

I love both of these places. They are entirely unique and wonderful, much like my mother. Now, the things I used to be ashamed of are my favorite things about her. Sorry to cheese all over you guys now, but I just have to say how proud I am to be the daughter of someone who has the ability to be herself and live a life that is truly her own.

Fuck all the haters -- my 10-year-old self, included.

Zoe Eisenberg tries her best to keep her lettuce on her plate and off her head. Follow her on Twitter @sexytofublog for the occasional dirty humor, often but not always inspired by her mother.