I am hungry. The image that returns to me repeatedly is a fee-fi-fo-fum giant with three enormous fingers hooking underneath my ribcage to take me to a scarier place. There is a burning, a squeezing, a fist shoving itself just above my navel where I most intensely experience this hunger. It sharpens at the end of each exhalation.
I haven’t eaten for twenty-four hours. This self-imposed fast is not the same as the hunger I often experienced as a child and adolescent, but the memories of that hunger descend upon me. Though I have read about studies of the health benefits of periodic limited fasting since I was a young adult, I have needed the distance of these many years before I myself could successfully fast.
We lived on a farm until I turned five. We primarily grew olives, but to eat them we pulled pitted ones out of a can—they had to be cured before being consumed, and just like most children, we stuck them on our fingertips before sucking them into our mouths. Occasionally we siblings wandered to the orange trees, seeking a snack, or made mud cakes in the irrigation ditch and pretended to eat. Despite living where food was grown, I am told our worst poverty hit just before we moved from the farm to a city. I don’t remember this phase of hunger we endured.
I changed schools frequently in kindergarten and first grade, always confused about the routines the other children seemed to understand. Lunch time at school often felt like a crisis. The other children had sandwiches with the edges cut off by doting mothers, apples and cookies in brown paper sacks or metal lunch boxes decorated with their favorite cartoon characters. They had coins to buy milk. Or they had money to eat in the cafeteria, which held heavenly items like meatloaf, cornbread, and green beans. Occasionally my mother gave me money that enabled me to join them in the cafeteria. I could not understand why other children left food on their plates.
But more often I walked home for lunch, because that was the final option for children who didn’t bring a lunch or money. My arrival home was a nuisance to my mother, who would groan when she saw me—if not audibly, then a groan I could hear nonetheless. Before retreating to her bedroom she would make a statement like, “See what you can find.” And I would search, trying to fill my growling stomach.
We had a drawer for bread, but usually the slices were moldy. Saltines were a good alternative, and most of the time we had them around. We usually had milk, but sometimes it would spoil after our weekly delivery by milk truck, because it could sit on our porch for hours before someone would refrigerate it—which was me when I got older and caught on, and was home from school.
We generally had celery. I ate so much celery–fresh or so old I could make both ends touch—that I developed an allergy to it. My mother dismissed it when I showed her my itchy hives that spread up and down my body; she said it was “nerves.” (After an allergy test as an adult confirmed my suspicions, I avoid celery.)
But I do remember returning to school after finding nothing at all to eat, so that happened also.
After one move during the school year during first grade, a kind young teacher noticed I had no lunch. She offered to cut her sandwich in two so we both could eat half of it. I was elated, though I spoke little outside the family until I was ten, so I am not sure I even said thank you.
The next day at lunch I waited for my half of sandwich. The teacher seemed irritated, and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t share my sandwich every day. You’re going to have to bring your own lunch.” And that was the end of that.
In seventh grade, we had a hip science teacher. We all adored him, especially us girls because we considered him attractive. I cannot fathom why, but one day he pointed me out to the whole class, mortifying me for the entertainment of the other students. I had been sitting quietly, and had done nothing to provoke this. He announced, “Maureen is so skinny if she turned sideways you would think you were only seeing a zipper.”
My revenge took place later that year when we measured the difference between our biceps at rest and flexed. I had the biggest differential in the class of girls and boys, and when they were skeptical I showed them my Popeye muscles. A couple boys appeared shocked, which satisfied me greatly. The hours a week of scrubbing dishes, countertops, and our kitchen floor made my arms stronger than any of theirs.
In high school I babysat for other families and earned enough to buy a hot dog and a milk at lunch. I soon hated the daily hot dog, almost gagged with nausea choking it down, but it and milk were the cheapest and most nutritious combination I could buy to try to fill me. My mother complained when I took babysitting jobs, because she said she needed me to stay home to clean for our large family. But even though I was usually compliant, I ignored her and arranged for the parents of the children I cared for to pick me up for the jobs that were too far for me to walk to, ensuring myself at least a sickly lunch the following days.
And now I am going to go eat from our packed refrigerator and cupboards, full of fresh, delicious, healthy foods. I am keenly aware of how fortunate we are, keenly aware of the great number of adults, teens, and children who have no choice about the hunger they are experiencing right now, pain like three giant fingers gouging them below their ribcage.