Unable to reach the sink, I stood inches from the top. I couldn’t see the whole body, just the curves. My mother, with her hands on a pink–grey neck, wept. She didn’t say anything, turning on the tap. She brushed her hair behind her ears and scrubbed all the down that wasn’t singed off its body.
My father cleaned factory floors at night, raised money for a small, now-defunct college during the workweek, distributed the Omaha World-Herald with my mother and siblings, and painted houses when the weather was good. When he wasn’t paid in cash, he accepted frozen birds that still had buckshot in them. My mother cooked, and we ate.
I never felt hunger at home. My mother had the gift of multiplication like Strega Nona or Mickey Mouse or Jesus.
At 24, I lay in bed next to my husband. When he got up, he was gone longer than usual, but I fell asleep before having the chance to ask why.
In the morning, I opened the refrigerator to find a can of refried beans missing its center. He dug a hole dug in ravening desperation. We ate anything we could find. We went to church hoping for a potluck and rationed our milk, drinking just enough to sleep through the night.
Two days ago, my daughter tugged on my leg, crying and signing “more” for milk, but it was gone. Back at the sink, I wept, not knowing if I was a woman or a girl. But I wanted my mother.
I wrote this in the fall as I was working out some ideas about hunger. I wrote a column about it in the process.
Throughout my life, I’ve been in situations that would be considered “food insecure.” I didn’t know that term until I was a staff writer at a newspaper and had to write about the county’s needs. I didn’t know I’d been one of those statistics.
People can look perfectly healthy and put together and go to bed hungry. Contrary to the stereotype, these people work hard and live in clean spaces. Many don’t qualify for government assistance and the circumstance doesn’t feel dire enough to go to a soup kitchen or mention anything to church or other social support groups.
Don’t misunderstand me. This group of people who experience temporary and intermittent hunger are better off than so many in the world who will eventually die of starvation and malnutrition. That is something I’m not even qualified by experience to cover in personal, narrative nonfiction.
For my own work, I’m interested in how invisible hunger like this affects how a person functions. Nights of praying for sleep just to ignore that feeling change you and your relationship to food.