Saturday, October 15, 2005

Canned Spinach Beats Potato Chips: How Dorothy Saved Me

When my parents realized that I wasn’t growing, they fired my nanny and hired Dorothy, the first nanny I actually remember. I was two at the time. I was a shrimp of a kid, in the bottom tenth percentile for height and weight. My parents asked a doctor for advice and he told them to keep a careful diary of everything I ate for at least a day. It turned out that all I ate was sugary cereal, coke, potato chips, and cookies. My mom had taken a year off from work to breastfeed and care for me, but after that I was in the hands of the nanny. I don’t remember that nanny and how my parents fired her, but those first days with Dorothy are some of my earliest memories because the change in my diet was so sudden and dramatic.

Dorothy practically crammed scrambled eggs and toast down my throat for breakfast, canned spinach and grill cheese for lunch, and glasses of milk and apples for snacks. It sure wasn’t organic food picked fresh from a local farm and sold at a farmer’s market, but it was better than potato chips. I doubt anybody in Mobile, Alabama used the word organic at the time. It was the era of fake pine-board walls in the living room, TVs with dials next to the screen and no remote, and canned, processed everything. The canned spinach Dorothy fed me tasted bad and she had to persuade me to open my mouth.

“Popeye eats spinach and look how strong he is. Don’t you want to be that strong?” Dorothy would say. She had poofy, permed hair that I thought grew naturally that way on white women. Dorothy would sit down next to me on the floor by the coffee table and try to put the spinach in my mouth. “Come on, be like Popeye.”

It would be many years before I could sneer at clichés like the overeducated liberal that I am now, but even then as a kid, I knew Dorothy was playing on my desires and fears. To my own surprise, I found myself repeating her leading question as an assertion. “Mom, I’m going to be as strong as Popeye.” It was embarrassing to be played, but my resentment for Dorothy melted away. I would wake up at night and ask for her. She didn’t live with us. If it wasn’t yet late, as in grown-up people late, I would talk to Dorothy over the phone and she reassured me. Just knowing that she still existed, that she would force feed me with more canned food the next day, did the trick and I went back to bed.

It’s amazing that both my parents were conscientious doctors, but they still did not know how to control my diet, not until my growth had noticeably faltered. My older brother had been a glowing, chubby boy, but he was cared for in India for the first two years of his life, not only by my mother but by a house full of aunts, cousins, my grandmother, and servants. They fed him dal, yogurt, rice, mangos, shiro, milk, and chapatti. The disjuncture caused by moving from the middle-class life in India to the middle-class life in the United States contributed to my crummy diet.

Yet, I don’t believe that immigration is the whole story. Millions of kids in families that have staid in the same place for generations are living on cookies and potato chips. Women everywhere are working while trying to meet the same burden of caring for children and elderly without the old networks of support. The relentless onslaught of commercials and branding is everywhere. I was fortunate to have Dorothy. She saved me.

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