Heirloom Diet: A Letter in Four Parts



It’s spring and you’re holding a lime margarita. Pedestrians pass, wearing black sequins and riding boots. Next door, a bar is playing “Wagon Wheel” and the sun is down, glowing like hot coal. You’re wearing jeans, a cardigan and dark lipstick.

“You look pretty, Momma,” I say.

“Yeah,” you say. “Okay.”

I remember your old closet. Work clothes hung high, like game meat—both treasured where we’re from. But Momma, your closet had no Carhartt jackets, no denim frayed with mud. Instead there was red cotton, black silk—dresses you wore with your morning coffee, soft as your hands stirring me awake.

In your thirties, you were a district manager of a propane company leading conference tables of men. You came home late, perfumed in tobacco. Years later, you tell me your boss liked your dresses, too … though not with my same sense of wonder.

“I’m thirsty,” I say, ordering a beer. I try not to think of malted barley, of calories in corn grits and yeast.

“You know alcohol dehydrates you,” my sister says. She’s clutching the buzzer, waiting for our table—uncomfortable in bars.

The bartender asks for my ID, my newly legal face. You laugh, smoothing down your cardigan. “What…you don’t want mine?” you ask.

He smiles politely. “It’s the only perk of age,” he says. You nod and sip your drink, salt falling from the rim.


“They’re like a treat,” Nanny says.

It’s Christmas Eve but she’s still counting, still skipping potatoes and rolls. I remember her fried cornbread, white beans simmered, with chunks of ham hock. Now she’s seventy-two and forty pounds down. She tells me her daily regime: fat free cottage cheese, sugar-free jello. My sister and I exchange looks, ask her if that’s healthy.

“At my age,” she says, “you do anything to get it off.”

Nanny was a country singer, a blonde in a cotton blue dress. She has pictures in headphones: her stance, her ease like Dottie West or Tammy Wynette. But that was forty, fifty years ago. Now her husband is dead and she’s dating online. She’s taking a dietary supplement, all-natural.

“It’s from a plant,” she says, then adds, quietly, “Won’t even show up in your blood work.”

We find it in the vitamin section.

“That’s a good sign,” my sister says.

We repeat what Nanny has told us. It’s from a plant. It’s natural. We divide the contents evenly and agree to keep it secret.


Our fitness coach is clapping. Another week of grilled chicken, another three-pound loss. I watch you on the scale, measured like deli meat. You are 5’8 wearing a size four, size two. I’m thirteen and thirty pounds heavier. You’re forty now but I forget, can hardly remember. I see photos of you from 1995 and think no time has passed.

You’re getting dressed for a date. Dad thinks you’re too thin, he barely holds you now. But you can’t stop yourself from touching, from pinching excess skin. You cup your bra—ivory and lace—and watch it fall again. You want a cigarette, but resist. Your chest hangs lower than you remember. You put on your robe and cross your arms. You’re shivering. But Momma, it’s summer. It’s summer and you’re blistered, tender as berries, spinning like pinwheels without wind.


My sushi has no cream cheese, no deep-fried skin. It’s rolled in brown rice without teriyaki. I’m dieting for graduation, for weddings, maybe for my health. I order two rolls but don’t finish them.

You’re across the table, wearing a sweatshirt that’s too big. You rarely dress up now. My sister gives us her new low-fat coleslaw recipe. We talk about women from church.

“She looks great for her age,” I say.

“She should … she’s had enough work done.” You laugh, the tone unsettling. “Not that I can blame her.”

My eyes squint. “What’d you mean?”

You shrug. “I’m older, I’ve gained some weight…you know.” You clasp your hands. “I’ve thought about having some work done.”

I look down at my plate. I ask why. You tell me about the UPS guy, the one who thought you were fifty. Fifty—a hill you’re barely near. This will crush you in ways I don’t yet understand. You become quiet. I become angry. I tell you our society is wrong, that you shouldn’t feel this way.

“You’re right,” you say.
“You don’t need to change,” I say. I reach inside my purse.

“What’s that?” you ask.

I’m holding a brown pill, colossal-sized, tangy as grass. It’s the same supplement my sister and I split months ago—only now, I have my own supply.

“My vitamin,” I say.

You laugh, roll your eyes. Say nothing.

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