Empty

By TIA JENSEN

NONFICTION FINALIST

I was hungry. Ramen noodles were not available in Kentucky until I was in high school. Daddy would boil them for an hour, ’til they softened, expanded, swelled. He’d toss the water out, add spice last. Shared with four people, one packet never enough. We ate sticks of butter for snacks; not the real kind—government issued. My great grandmother received rations; Alma didn’t cook, didn’t butter, gave the useless to us. This imitation butter—cheap, oily—filled empty hollows, made our gurgling quieter. It stopped our asking. I preferred wild onions from the yard. Daddy, dead now, would hurt if he read this. He worked three jobs, but when I was little, growing, always wanting, never full enough, I noticed when I was empty. Mother insisted we have the other stuff, toys we couldn’t afford, obligations charading as gifts. Let everyone looking see there is no wanting. I wanted love. I only wanted him.

***

City chicken, a special treat, random butcher floor grinds embedded, placed on sticks and fried. Pepper loaf, not real deli, but peppered remnants, a quilted meat pate. The inked plastic on pork chops: fought over. Who got to eat the gristle soaked wrapper? My sister would chew on bones from the chicken. Alma would save the blood from the meat, any leftovers placed back in it; soaked, re-imbued with life fluid, then fried. The dogs didn’t have dog food. Only scraps after dinner. Never much. Our dogs so skinny, they hunted, killed other people’s pets; dined. Daddy buttered bread, placed thin turkey slices on top. Dumped gravy on each plate. One TV dinner fed the family. A neighbor gave us stale bread to feed the catfish in the creek. I would roll it into tight balls, feel fuller longer. Pretended to share it with the fish, shoved in my mouth, sucked ’til it dissolved.

“Stop smashing your bread,” the grandmother who only visited once chastised. Called “Grannot,” as in Grandma not here. She didn’t like us, returned to California.

“Stop,” all she said ever to me, “Just stop.”

***

The grandmother I knew canned, put up veggies but never ate them. Beautiful jars that molded, rotted in the basement. Harvested from field and hoarded, each spring. I’d help Nanny dump the contents, saving the blue jars from burst. Sitting in unmown grass, I poured moldy beans into a pile; ticks crawled into my hair, feasting. Later, one hand on the steering wheel, the other seeking, pinching, I removed and tossed the black seeded bodies out the window.

***

I remember with ecstasy a muskmelon, broken by an uncle’s strong hands. I put my whole head in it. Came up dripping juice, smiling. He got me another, and my belly swelled with the pleasure of sweetness, and the consequent pain.

My mother used oven cleaner, sprayed on top of a muffin. Alarmed at the sharp chemical that assailed my nostrils, “What is this?”

I tossed her temptation into the trash.

Smiling and gazing somewhere distant, she feigned, “My mistake.”

Poison so easy to share. So many dogs died drinking antifreeze. Thirsty and drooling, they lay in our yard.

“The neighbors hate you” she’d say. The neighbors moved, yet poison stayed. My dogs continued to die. Mother continued smiling and filling water dishes. Poison found a way into everything. Eventually, I gave up bonding. Lost an interest in eating.

“Are you dying or something?” My first real friend turned around in class and asked, eighth grade.

I didn’t know how to answer. “No. Why?”

“Because you are so skinny. I’ve seen kids like you on TV.”

I didn’t think I was skinny. I looked.

She was right.

I followed her around the halls at school wanting more …

What else?

***

In college, I achieved 100 pounds. On full scholarship, my room and board covered, I sat in the cafeteria alone, exploring the offerings: grits, cabbage, chitterlings. Nothing without merit. I selfishly chewed, absorbed, and practiced filling up.

When school was out, I found odd jobs, lived on a boyfriend’s couch, ate out of a dumpster behind Kentucky Fried Chicken. A classmate would place past-time fryers in a special garbage sack. I survived summer break. A friend bought me a Reese’s cup at the gas station once. Such an extravagant offering. I didn’t earn it. I still feel I should have thanked him or perhaps apologized. I grew to 117 pounds, was 5-foot-8.

***

Three years later, I married. Soon a baby added 10 more pounds. Pregnant and surprised at the craving for calories, for sustenance, I managed only soup.

Had I poured more into my daughter, filled her to the brim with solid goodness, would it have changed things? I never anticipated that stockpiling, that finding enough to sustain her would matter. Unpracticed. What kind of mother was I? What could I share?

As a baby, I had crawled through the yard, pulled green onions. They laughed when I ate them—dirt, grubs, all.

“That one’s got an appetite.”

They had me all wrong. I was not like my mother. Always needing more. Wouldn’t be her. I lived by Subtraction, not Addition. So good at deprivation, I could take things to a whole new level. Could go without warmth, expect nothing in return, resolve to wait and savor. So empty I’d float. Strange men have tried to lift me in bars. I can’t watch like they did. Won’t let my child follow in the same vein. Mother. I will be different. Somehow, I will learn to fill my daughter up with all good things.

Then life smiled and betrayed me…

Crohn’s disease stole my daughter from me. As a teenager, she melted into bones, ribs, a skeletal shell. Unable to digest and absorb nutrition, she’d watch the Food Channel hour after hour, when nothing could pass her lips. She was desiccated and fed through a line placed in her heart, while I pushed bags of digested hamburgers, vegetables, banquets, into IVs and grieved her loss of participation, her acceptance, her self-punishment. Why force yourself to watch when you can’t partake? Nibbling in my car so she wouldn’t smell what I was eating, I snuck morsels, dodged the kitchen, used mouthwash. Silent, she lay on the couch watching Paula Deen.

What choice did we have?

If I could have chewed and chewed and spit into her bird mouth what I knew deep down, all I had and wanted to give her, I would have done it. Taken nothing in return. But with no option, I could only gulp and force myself to swallow. Hope there was enough nourishment in yolk to sustain her until the hatching. Perched on a limb, watching, Baby, my baby, she doesn’t cry out, only because she doesn’t yet know she is hungry. One day she will and this mother will be ready.

I will fill my baby up.

 

Tia Jensen grew up in Florence, Kentucky, and now writes from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. She has participated in the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky, the last three years. She is currently working on a memoir about midlife, finding her way, and summers spent camping in a Volkswagen hippie van. She travels with her husband, two of their three children, and two 150-pound dogs.

 


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2 comments

  1. Shatteringly beautiful.. How does it feel knowing you’re
    GIFTED ?
    Bless you
    Thank you
    Love
    Susan

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