I wrote this piece a couple of weeks ago.* It has been really difficult to wrap my head around this experience and how it has affected my personal life, my activism and my art. I am working this text into the one-woman show I am writing about my experience growing up Fat and Queer.
I Try To Love Myself As Much As She Loved Me
by Bevin Branlandingham
I met Liz when I was 11 years old, when she decided to marry my absentee father.
Dad and Liz got engaged 9 days after they met as adults. They both grew up in the same mid-size city in California’s Central Valley and were high school classmates. An accident at the factory Dad worked at brought him to the emergency room where Liz was an intake clerk.
Once they were engaged, Dad called me to tell me about it. I remember speaking to Liz on the phone, she was so excited to finally “have a daughter”. She said it over and over again, that she’d always wanted a daughter.
Liz had two sons, 19 year old Richard Luke was living in Germany with the army. (I could never wrap my head around why that kid had two first names.) The youngest, Shawn, was almost 14 still lived at home. My Dad moved in with them right away.
At this point in my life my dad was intermittently in the picture. My parents separated by the time I was 15 months old and my mom worked really hard to make sure he had a presence in my upbringing, even though we lived two hours away in the Bay Area. My mom ran out of steam covering for my dad’s lazy parenting by the time I was 6 or so, and I hadn’t really seen him more than a couple times a year. The logistics of getting a kid for a weekend when you live two hours away is a little complicated for someone who doesn’t make a lot of money and barely pays his child support as it is.
By the time I was 11 I was horribly shy. I was always a fat kid and being a fat kid turns from cute to, well, graceless around the Tween years. Of course they didn’t have that cutesy word in the 80s, back then it was just fat and awkward.
I was well-aware of my fat by then, everyone in my life teachers, peers, relatives and my beloved television wanted to remind me of the fact that I was fat. I was a total bookworm. In books I didn’t have to see the differences so starkly between me and the main characters. I could easily blend into the Baby Sitters Club. I always identified with cosmopolitan native New Yorker Stacy. She had fluffy blond hair and good fashion sense.
In real life I had fluffy golden brown hair with streaks I got in the summertime at camp. I longed to be normal and thin.
Liz was fat, too. Not just sort of in between fat, either, like my mom and other female relatives were at the time (though now, of course, most of them are around my size). She was short and round, with a round face, black curly hair and a mouth that was always smiling. She was half Italian half Mexican and very girly.
The first time we met, Liz was ready to be a huge part of my life. I was mistrustful and didn’t understand why she loved me so much already. I was used to adults liking me, since as an only child I learned to socialize well with grown-ups and I was very bright. But the way she just immediately loved me, in that I-loved-you-before-I-knew-you way that parents talk about felt so weird. As I continued into adolescence and hated myself more and more, the more suspicious I was of her unconditional love.
My mom wasn’t what I would call emotionally nurturing. She was a stressed out single mom putting herself through undergrad. There was always a contingency and a reward to meet. Usually it was “get good grades and you’ll get this” and “lose weight and you’ll get that”. I was exceptionally good at the former. The fact that Liz was so proud of me regardless of my latest accomplishment felt bizarre. My weight was never an issue.
She had lived in the same town almost all of her 40 years. Everywhere we went when I visited she either already knew someone or got to know someone new. She would always introduce me as her daughter. I would blush when she said this because I thought it wasn’t true and it never made sense to me. I also felt a little weird because she was so open and friendly with strangers. She had a huge heart and was extremely welcoming to strangers. She was proud of being friends with all sort of people, including a big biker crowd from her younger days. I was jealous of her self-confidence.
I didn’t get to go to Dad and Liz’s wedding because of some last minute drama having to do with some friend of the family who was supposed to be my chaperone on greyhound that didn’t work out. I went for Thanksgiving a few weeks later and watched the wedding video so many times over the next few years each frame feels like my own memory.
Her family was huge. Five girls, all fat, most of them had five kids of their own. Everyone would gather at Liz’s mom’s house the day after Thanksgiving to make tamales. It was a huge ordeal, making hundreds of them, with many different stations going at once and different groups responsible for different parts of the assembly.
The house was cozy and humid, smelled sweet with a tang of chili and meat and filled with talking and laughing. I was placed in the masa station, spreading a white dough made from cornmeal dough, lard and salt on the insides of damp corn husks. Liz and one of her sisters or her mom would put meat and an olive inside each one. One of the kids would fold them into little pockets. They would then go into a steamer for awhile and then placed into freezer bags by the dozen.
I remember my step brother Shawn complaining that the other kids in the family had to be teenagers before they got to spread the masa, but somehow I was the exception. Liz ignored his complaint, and I kept assembling tamales.
They treated me like one of their own, and I came back year after year with Liz to spread the masa.
My visits to my Dad increased exponentially once Liz was there to motivate them.
Liz loved to go garage saling, where she taught me to haggle and bought me lots of stuffed animals I didn’t need but I certainly wanted. We would pile into her car with her friend Terry, who was a little fatter than Liz. I remember one time Terry pulled out a seat belt extender so that she could use the seatbelt in the car, they were both very excited that their older cars with seat belts made for very small people were just a little bit safer for them.
We spent a lot of time crafting. She would set me up with a cross stitch or a beading project and we would sit at TV trays side by side watching TV and laughing. When I let my guard down around Liz I felt very comfortable. She talked about what it would be like when I had babies and how she couldn’t wait for me to have a daughter. I was just being adolescent and contrary when I claimed I would refuse to let her put my babies in ruffle butt tights.
She loved clothes. I remember when she got approved for a Lane Bryant credit card she was ecstatic and immediately maxed it out on new things from the catalog.
She loved the color pink. She collected elephant everything. Whenever I was at a loss for what to get her for christmas I would get her a blinged out elephant knick knack and she would love it.
Richard Luke got married in Germany. Liz was devastated that she couldn’t go to the wedding, but a transcontinental trip was entirely out of the question financially. I promised she would have a lot of fun at my wedding and was already working out in my head how I would handle the mom/step-mom dynamics.
Liz told me about her ex husband a few times. Richard Luke was born out of wedlock and later she married Shawn’s dad. He was abusive. Her struggle to leave him was epic and she had to work her way off welfare.
Liz and Dad loved each other a lot, that was clear. My dad hit my mom, which was why she left. I am unsure whether or not Dad was ever violent with Liz, though I remember a screaming fight I witnessed when I was 16 or so that drove Shawn out of the house with me in hot pursuit. From what I could tell they mostly fought about money and Dad’s drinking. They also expressed their love pretty regularly, too. She saved one dried flower from every bouquet Dad ever gave her in a jar under the TV.
While Liz was outgoing and confident, and dressed as well as she could manage with not a lot of money or access to cute plus size clothes, she did talk about losing weight. Not as regularly as my mom, but of course I didn’t live with her so I’ll never know for sure. She had a lot of chronic health problems that her doctors always blamed on weight. She was regularly dealing with asthma, bronchitis, diabetes, among other things. She also complained of aches and pains and trouble walking.
Being fat was hard for her, too. She didn’t always fit in seats. Had she ever made that transcontinental flight she would have been in a lot of pain from the armrests.
I remember one time we were in our pajamas and I saw her belly peak out from under her loungerie. It had a dimple in it, below the belly button. I thought it was so odd and was slightly horrified. I developed the same dimple myself by the time I was 20. I hadn’t been exposed to naked fat women before, I didn’t know what that kind of flesh was supposed to look like.
She dealt with being fat very differently from my mother. Mom switched us to nonfat milk really early in my childhood, I don’t remember ever having butter instead of margarine. We stocked our pantry with diet food. Things could have tasted so much better if we focused on moderation, vegetables and using real ingredients.
Liz would cook full force with fat. One time when I saw the giant bucket of lard from the tamales I was shocked. But she never really stopped, and her cooking was incredible. I think she would occasionally diet.
Around 1996 the drug Fen-Phen started making its rounds. It was a weight-loss drug made from fenfluramine and phentermine. It was heavily marketed and people were seeing pretty immediate results. I was about to graduate from high school and my mom suggested I start taking it. I blew her off, as I often did, especially about weight loss stuff.
A year or so later Liz told me over the phone that she had been taking Fen-Phen to help with her medical issues and was losing weight pretty quickly. She was excited about that.
In early 1997 valvular heart disease and pulmonary hypertension started showing up, mostly in women who took the drug. It was taken off the market in September of that year. While I was in college I saw Liz and Dad less because I was busy with school and my social life. She stopped taking Fen-Phen and I never did notice any difference in her weight.
In mid-1998, toward the end of my Sophomore year of college, I went to visit Dad and Liz for Dad’s graduation from Community College and his 50th birthday. It was really important to Liz that I be there. We did all of our regular stuff, crafting, hanging out. She told me that weekend she was trying to get in touch with the child my Dad fathered in high school but was put up for adoption, and that Dad was putting up resistance.
Just three months later I was coordinating move-in at my dorm. That morning I had been getting ready and looked outside my window at the sky and felt really peaceful and happy, which was unusual for me at the time—I was starting to come out of a several year long depression and was taking steps to stop hating myself. I got a message from my mom to call home right away. When I talked to my mom that night she told me that Liz had died.
Liz woke up, kissed Dad and went out to the living room. About and hour later he got up to join her. She was on the couch, dead from a heart attack. She was 48 years old. That week she had been complaining that her asthma was acting up. Her heart was weakened. Probably from the Fen-Phen.
I was devastated and in shock. Mom offered to come with me to the funeral but I said no. I didn’t want to add to the confusion and weirdness with the ex-wife dynamic. The weekend was bizarre and hard. I had never been to a funeral before. My dad was drinking again. He had me sleep on Liz’s side of the bed, and I didn’t know how to say no, that that was weird and bad boundaries and I didn’t want to sleep on my dead step-mom’s side of the bed.
We’re all Catholic, at least mostly. The Rosary was the night before the funeral and it was open casket. I walked up the aisle and burst into hysterics that I didn’t want to see her like that. My Dad’s mom, who had been really cruel to me as a child, was the nicest and most nurturing I’d ever known her to be that night. She brought me into the pew and told me I didn’t have to see her like that if I didn’t want to.
The mass was big and weird and there were hundreds of people there. I felt this obligation to stay with my dad, even though I probably should have just gone with my grandparents. His house became this huge party with all of this drinking and pot smoking and at 19 years old I was still pretty square and still wasn’t drinking a lot in college. I felt uncomfortable, unsafe, and scared. I didn’t know how to articulate what I needed because I didn’t know how to advocate for myself.
I went back to school. I tried not to deal with it. I did pretty well.
I am angry that I only knew Liz when I was an adolescent and didn’t appreciate her the way I wish I had. I am angry that her physical heart was affected because her doctors treated her weight and not her symptoms. I am angry that Liz never got to go to any of her children’s weddings. I am angry that Dad never joined the class action suits against the makers of Fen-Phen. They paid out over $14 billion in settlements. But at the same time I certainly didn’t want to have to think about it or interact with him that much to do the work of making it happen.
Over the years little things occur to me. The way Liz always wanted to make people feel special and at ease, the way she was welcoming. I get that from her. I loved that about her. Her huge metaphorical heart cannot be weakened by a pharmaceutical company’s greed and exploitation.
I think about the plus size resale store I work in now and how much she would have loved it. I work hard at body liberation activism because I want to make it easier for people to live in this world and I don’t want Fen-Phen to ever happen again. I think about Liz every time I see an elephant tchotchke. I can’t wait to have a daughter.
*I feel compelled to share this story now, as an initial draft, as a way of honoring Liz and bringing her into my adult life. Especially in light of the perpetual crop of weight-loss drugs on the market, the fact that I keep hearing ads for them on the radio and in side-bars on websites, and the fact that on Friday the LA Times and New York Times reported that the FDA in America chose to recommend “stronger warnings” on the sides of Meridia bottles while the European Union recommended a ban of the product. I guess posting this story is my way of turning my rage over that news into productivity.