Love and Rice Krispies Treats: How My Aunt Inspired Me to Eat with Mindfulness and Joy
As I sit down to write this blog post, my Aunt Lennis has just passed away from health complications stemming from a lifelong obesity problem. But when I remember the aunt I loved, I don’t think about her weight or her struggles with overeating. I recall her love for books and the way she read and commented on every piece of my writing I sent her; I picture the intricate quilts she sewed, with star and heart designs stretched out on frames in her living room. My aunt was born in the early 1950s, and she grew up in a time when the link between eating habits and mental health wasn’t understood in the same way it is today. But her example has helped me to face my own issues surrounding food and emotions, and I know she’d want me to write about those issues, just as she always encouraged my writing.
When I was in elementary and middle school, every summer, my mom and sister and I would make a weekly visit to Aunt Lennis’s house in the Pennsylvania countryside. My aunt lived in a beautiful forested area with a stream and a bench swing by the water where I could rock for hours, reading or dreaming. But what I remember most about those visits was my aunt’s cooking, especially the gooey, melt-in-your-mouth Rice Krispies Treats she always sent home with us. Those homemade goodies still taste like summer to me, but as I entered middle school and my teenage years, I began to feel bad about eating them. I came of age during the height of the “fat is poison” era, and I had seen my aunt melting sticks of butter and bags of marshmallows on her stove, crafting the base of those delicious sweets.
When I was in high school, Aunt Lennis would sometimes come stay with our family and help clean and organize our house—an impressive feat since she was already cooking and caring for a whole troop of kids and grandkids. In the mornings, my aunt would make what we called “Lennis eggs,” fried over-easy eggs with the yolk still runny, perfect for dipping buttered toast. But by that point, I was on a perpetual diet and only ate egg whites, never the yolk. I was always hungry and tired, but the risk of gaining weight and being less than perfect kept me from enjoying a good meal.
After I went to college and then moved to California, I became aware that Aunt Lennis was leaving her home less and less often. Eventually, my mom told me, Lennis had gained so much weight that she was too embarrassed to let my parents or sister visit her, although we all still talked to her on the phone. And while Lennis was gaining weight, I was trying to do the opposite. I wasn’t happy with the normal curves I developed in college, so I forced myself to go as long as possible without eating, then ended up overeating and beating myself up about it. I spent a lot of days not achieving as much as I could because I wasn’t well-nourished, and I wasted a lot of time thinking about food in an unproductive manner. At their root, my struggles with food weren’t about food at all, but about a desire for self-control and perfection.
As I was allowing my preoccupation with food to keep me from more important things in life, Lennis was doing the same. Lennis lived with her immediate family, but because her weight made it difficult to get around, she lost out on the chance to leave her home and visit with other friends and loved ones. As my mom explained to me, like my own issues with food, my aunt’s had a psychological basis: my aunt was the oldest and most aware of her siblings when their mom died, and from childhood on, she ate to help manage her emotions.
My bond with my aunt was about many things: our shared love for young adult and mystery novels; her kind, non-judgmental manner; her skill at sewing and quilting I so admired. But it was about food, too. The smell of freshly baked Rice Krispies Treats will always remind me of my aunt, and that’s not a bad thing—and neither is enjoying a sugary baked good once in a while. I’m lucky enough to live in a time when the medical community is more aware of the connection between what and how we eat and our mental state, a time when people are willing to share, examine and change their relationship with food. My aunt didn’t grow up with that luxury, and I owe it to her to see food as a positive, nourishing element that doesn’t exist in black and white. I’ll do my best to make mindful choices about my eating habits, while also allowing myself to enjoy life.
And for now, that means eating a Rice Krispies Treat when I want one, and remembering my talented, remarkable aunt and the experiences we shared.