WE ARE MORE: Sustenance

By

My earliest vivid and sensory memory is from kindergarten. It must have been a half-day because I was home alone with my mom, and my two older brothers were still in school. She made me a peanut butter sandwich on a bun because we were out of sliced bread. I remember thinking this was something special. As I sat on her lap in the sunroom, she read me a Berenstain Bears book that we had checked out of the library. And I can still remember the light—the way the sun filtered in through the glass. I remember warmth.

I remember the sandwich tasting extraordinary. Maybe it was the bun? Maybe the perfect world? I asked for another, which she made. And I remember knowing, even then, that it was rare that she would allow me more than my share.

 

As a teenager, I argued with my parents at the dinner table over the “necessity” of eating meat. It would go something like:

“No, I really don’t want it.”

And then my mom would suggest, “Just try it, Holly.”

“No, I won’t eat it.”

Dad would insist, “Eat the steak. It’s really nice.”

“Please, god, no.”

“It’s really fancy. It’s flank steak,” Mom would say as if the cut made a difference.

And after more protests, a sturdy “you have to” from my dad would put an end to the back-and-forth. And with hot, teary eyes, I would press a small bite of flank steak onto my fork. Lifting the red flesh to my mouth ever so slowly, I would wince dramatically, then take the bite. The animal rolling around my tongue, its flesh between my teeth. The smell of both life and death.

That is how it always was for me with meat. An awareness. I could smell the animal. I tasted the animal in its living form. I would feel the gristle and want to stop.

 

My father is from Nashville, Tennessee. And my grandma Mason’s table was filled with fried, breaded, baked, and greasy foods. A typical dinner consisted of fried pork chops, mashed potatoes and heavy gravy, baked cinnamon apples, and green beans slathered in butter. And the actual event of the meal was meant to be quiet. The dinner table was not a place for conversation.

I remember a time when my Nashville grandparents were babysitting while my parents were out of town. As my grandmother told me I wasn’t being very “lady like” by singing at the table, I was moving the pork chop around my plate with my fork. The food at the table hurt my stomach.

My mother is from Southern Kurdistan and Baghdad. When my Kurdish grandmother, BB, would visit, my very large extended family would come, too. And they would all spend hours in the kitchen with BB, laughing and preparing a dolma feast. The noise and chaos that happened during preparation and cooking was probably an ingredient itself. They would stuff a mixture of rice, dill, lemon juice, tomato paste, and diced meat into grape leaves, cabbage, peppers, onions, squash, and zucchini. The house would smell of this for days, and my clothes would too. The scent was so strong, girls at my dance studio told me I smelled bad. “Ew,” they said leaning into my shoulder, “What’s that smell?” I felt both incredibly embarrassed and defensive (even though I didn’t like the dolma).

 

 

In 1980, when my Nashville grandma found out that her son was planning on marrying a Kurdish girl, she pitched a literal fit (as the story goes). She wanted a “good,” Southern belle, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Christian woman for her son—for all her sons. My mom says Grandma Mason protested, saying, “You can’t marry her—she’s a foreigner,” and claimed, “She will ruin your life and steal from you.”

My mom says that even as the years progressed, Grandma Mason was still unkind toward her—that is until she had a baby, giving Grandma Mason her first grandchild. But then, she was only pleasant enough.

 

My mom did, however, convert to Christianity. Though it wasn’t technically conversion, as her Kurdish family did not really practice religion. So as a family, we grew up going to church and reading the Bible and praying at dinner. My brothers and I grew up in Christian school. This religion was the guiding force in our home.

 

At eighteen, when I told my parents that I was a vegetarian, it was a big ordeal. They objected with, “But how will you get enough protein?” and “Are you sure you will be healthy enough?” My dad said, “Well, what’s wrong with meat?” Mom’s concern: “What am I supposed to cook now? We’ll have to have separate dinners.” It was as if I was confessing conversion to a different religion. (Which, in truth, at that point, I had been questioning the religious principles I grew up with). They took it as a personal offense. A blow to their parenting and beliefs.

I tried to calm the situation, “Well, I eat fish—I’m technically a pescatarian.” But that didn’t help.

 

After being a pescatarian for a little over a year, I started to notice my stomach hurting after eating fish. I did some research. A doctor explains that “the levels of enzymes that digest protein and fat can drop when you stop eating meat.” And “if you haven’t eaten meat for a while, it’s going to stay in your stomach longer when you do.”

So, over the past ten years my stomach has lost most of the enzymes it needs to break down fish. I can eat fish, but only in small amounts, and it needs to be really fresh. Otherwise, I have to chomp tums before bed.

I like this way of eating, conscious and colorful. It suits me. I must listen to my body, and that feels useful and right.

 

Well, get this: My parents have been eating a vegetarian diet for the past 4 years now. My mom makes vegetarian dolma.

When my mom was going through menopause, she gained weight quickly and could not, no matter how hard she tried, get rid of it. I recall an emotional conversation at the dinner table where she confided in me about feeling out of control of her body. She said she had tried everything to lose the weight but nothing was working. She was always an extremely mindful and healthy eater—she had to be to manage her type 1, juvenile diabetes.

My heart felt heavy at the sight of her chin quivering and her eyes watering. This was the first time I noticed my mom as human—vulnerable human. I hugged her tight, told her she was beautiful, and told her we would figure it out. Finally, her doctor recommended a vegetarian diet, and thus, vegetarian.

I was recalling this memory the other day, recalling this vulnerability, this moment of mothering my mother, and I felt a lump rising in my throat, even years later.

 

 

When I came out—when I told my parents I was dating a woman—the objections were similar to the vegetarian dilemma. “It’ll never work.” “It’s not what God intended.” “You’ll tear our family apart.” “You’ll have to choose; You’ll have to miss Christmas.” These objections, of course, cut me deeper than their protests to my “meat-free lifestyle.”

To fully dig into the ongoing battle that is my parents’ rejection of my love (or as they say, “lifestyle”) would require more pages than this essay. To be able to engagingly examine the way they spout Bible verses like recipes—measured and numerous—would take more space than I am going to give here.

 

When I was home last, they lured me into a conversation over a lunch of crummy Panera salads and sandwiches. If you are going to put me in this space, at least pour me a glass of wine and set out a nice spread—for all of our sakes. Anyway. For now, logic is impossible in these conversations. It is all emotion. All Bible. My dad points to a passage of scripture, turns it towards me, and says, gently in his southern accent, “See, here. It’s unnatural.”

I even asked my mom, “Okay, what if a Muslim girl believed in her heart that she should convert to Christianity, but her parents say they will not approve? What should she do?” And my mom responds, “She should switch to Christianity, it’s the right thing to do; it’s what I did.” I said, “See, you are proving my point! You did what you needed to do for your heart even though your parents didn’t approve.”

“Oh, that’s totally different,” she said. She refuses to acknowledge or see connections. Or maybe she cannot see them.

 

Trying to make a connection between Grandma Mason’s refusal of my mom and this scenario brushes past ringing ears and confused eyes. This space is incredibly difficult to navigate—what approach do I take? Do I remain calm and gentle, trying my best to communicate effectively? But then run the risk of seeming untouched or unhurt by the situation? So, perhaps it would be best if I allowed myself to feel what I feel so they can know how much I am hurting too?

How the rock sits in my throat. How like my mom, I also feel like “my head is going to explode.” There really isn’t a correct answer. And so I will keep trying different approaches. The ultimate goal is to have my family and have my love.

 

I teach English Composition at a university in Virginia, and I ask my students to list on the board things that make up their “identity.” I extrapolate on some ways this can be interpreted. Once they’ve made a large and sprawling list—Musician, queer, Polish, Palestinian-American, nerd, family, short, politics, religion, female, sexuality, gender, sports, culture, etc.—I say, “Now look at the list and tell me which items on here are Nature and which Nurture?” They raise their hands for both, and sometimes even both exist within the same element. “Okay,” I say, “so would you say your identity is made up of both things you were born into and things that you developed over the years?” They all nod in agreement, light in many of their eyes.

I learn a lot from my students. They give me hope for the future.

I think about the conversations with my parents where they say things like, “But, you’ve always dated boys and talked about how cute boys are,” and “You were in love with Duncan,” and, “You grew up in dance, changing with girls, wouldn’t you have been attracted to them,” and, “Don’t you think you’re just tired of waiting for the right guy, so, you’re settling?”

 

Yes, my palate once tolerated meat, but now it doesn’t. And my palate previously didn’t like mushrooms, but now it does. I ate meat—but did I ever like it? Does it matter? Also, the parallels between food and humans at this point get sticky and perhaps overwrought (perhaps even degrading). I do recall both enjoying and not enjoying intimacy with male partners in the past. But does that matter?

How do you explain these things to people who see life in absolutes? It’s like speaking in a foreign language. Or sometimes it feels like I’m speaking from inside a soundproof room or under water.

I wrote a poem over the summer about this situation—trying to navigate this difficult space of loving my family so deeply and not wanting to hurt them. And I ended that poem with a question: What happens when each person is praying for the other’s heart to change?

How does one navigate the in-between?

 

 

Often, one who goes vegetarian or vegan might be asked the question, “But how do you get your protein?” My parents certainly asked that question. Science has shown though that we can get enough protein from healthy vegetarian and vegan diets. Furthermore, some studies suggest we might even get better, healthier protein from non-meat options, like beans, grains, vegetables, and some dairy. Progress. Protein does not equal meat, but this was often the misconception.

You see, I still get plenty of protein, but not from meat. Just not in the “traditional” way.

Similarly, my mom equates relationships and marriage with traditional notions of heterosexuality.

When I was visiting, a few months after coming out, she opened her jewelry box in her bedroom to show me some new necklaces she got on sale. She laid them out on the bed, sparkling and bold. She pointed to a pearl necklace with a flower designed clasp, and said, “I was saving this for you for when you get married, but…”

This moment cuts me. I thought, “I can still get married.” And then in that split second, I wondered, “If I do get married to a woman, would my parents come?” I have to put the thoughts out of my head. I have to stay present.

Just as meat isn’t synonymous with protein, marriage is no longer synonymous with “husband and wife.” But she doesn’t see it that way.

She has made it clear that she wouldn’t be at the wedding. She also mentioned that if I had a child with “that woman” or any other woman, she couldn’t love “it” because “that would mean accepting the relationship.”

 

I wish I could ask my dad how he handled it, when his mom pitched a fit in protest? Did he just have to do what was best for him and hope his mom would come around? Has he forgotten what that was like? When you become a parent, do you forget what it was like to be the child?

I wish I could know what he did to push through.

As she changed her mind about a vegetarian diet, who knows, maybe in a couple years my mom will come out as gay too … because her doctor told her to. Bad joke.

But perhaps there will come a time when my parents will realize that we can all eat together at the same table and all will be fine and well within our world, within our home.

 

My partner and I make a meal of roasted carnival squash, kale, and wine. There are olives and nice cheeses, too. The late-autumn sun touches the window before it disappears. Every bite brings me to the present moment. The warmth, the salt, the sweet.

 

***

Rumpus original logo art by Mina M. Jafari. Additional artwork by Abdel Morched.


Holly Mason Badra received her MFA in Poetry from George Mason University. Her work appears in The Adroit Journal, Rabbit Catastrophe Review, The Northern Virginia Review, Foothill Poetry Journal, UA Poetry Center Blog, The Rumpus, CALYX, So to Speak, and elsewhere. She has been a panelist for OutWrite, RAWIFest, and DC's Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here events as a Kurdish-American poet. Holly is currently on the staff of Poetry Daily and lives in Northern Virginia with her wife and dog. More from this author →