Ever since I can remember my mother, Anna, has been highly interested if not obsessed with the human body's propensity to attract fat. She is by no means obese, perhaps is best described as a little plump, and has for years been a casual adherent of one diet or another. My sister Siobhan is of the opinion it has left all of her offspring bar the youngest, Dermot, scarred because we are similarly obsessed. She might have a point: Telephone conversations with one or other of my siblings will inevitably steer toward, "How's the weight?" or "I've lost three pounds" or "Deirdre's put on a little bit, you know."
On my recent trip 'home' (here I should explain an Irish tendency to permanently call one's parental home 'home' even though one has quit it years ago and, in my case, notwithstanding my parents sold it to my youngest brother and downsized upon his marriage) my mother scoured my frame after I'd deposited my coat on the back of a kitchen chair and said, "You're looking nice and lean though a tiny paunch since the last time you were home, I see." This affront seemed even more appalling than the tiny earring I'd had the nerve to sport on my first trip home eleven years ago, which I was ordered to remove before my father saw it. Instinctively, I clutched the front of my sweater, mumbled something about parties and eating too much over Christmas, that I was going on a diet on my return to the States, had even obtained a brochure and price list from the local 'Y' before I left.
As I said this, my eyes swept to the kitchen window that overlooks a valley of hedgerowed fields, in one of which Mum is suspicious a local farmer is experimenting with genetically modified corn because the plants push through some kind of odd plastic ground covering in springtime. In fact, she is so deeply suspicious she keeps binoculars by the window in order to better observe his doings each time she sees him enter the field. On the window ledge, next to her binoculars, I saw a glass jar containing pretty, colored crystals. Attracted to them like a magpie and anxious to change the subject, I went over, opened the lid and shook out amber, sapphire and ruby chunks--plastic chunks it turned out--into my palm.
"Mum, what the heck are these?" I asked.
"They're stones. I earned them."
"As you know Siobhan and I have recently joined a strict diet program
so I won't be eating very much while you're over."
"Oh please...you can break it for a week."
"Hmmm. As I was telling you...and Damian, you really must get
your hair cut because it looks dry and is far too long for the
shape of your face...your sister and I go to a weigh-in class
every Monday evening now. For every pound of fat I lose during the
preceding week, I receive a crystal which is presented in front
of the entire class. It's a very good motivator because I'd
die of embarrassment in front of everyone if I didn't earn
at least one stone per week. I shouldn't really say, but so far I've
collected more stones for my jar than your sister. In fact,
next week, I will be receiving my first black stone which represents
a loss of half-a-stone"
(FYI, that's seven pounds in American.)
"How is Siobhan, Michael and the kids?" I asked as I tossed
the crystals into the jar.
"You can go in next-door and count what's in her jar if you'd like.
There's definitely not as many."
(My parents live on the outskirts of a small town, in what is commonly called a compound arrangement in the States. From a tract of land Dad owned, he built a house and sold it to Siobhan and her husband, attached another bit to it for Mum and him to live upon the sale of the family home, and on an acre beyond that he'd already constructed another house for my brother, Seamus, and his family a few years prior.)
Sensing an air of competition, I declined and asked for tea. Unfortunately, during the length of our stay, there was much eating out and much consumption of forbidden foods such as Irish Wheaten bread, cheese and wine (the latter on Siobhan's part because Mum doesn't like alcohol and has taken the RC Church pledge of abstinence, in fact has resorted to drink only once, in abject desperation years ago after beseeching the local parish priest to give her a dispensation, to calm her nerves because she was taking her driving test for the fifth time and sick of failing it--Yes, she passed the test high on brandy) and Mum did not earn the coveted black crystal the following week. She informed me that her name was called out aloud immediately after the supervisor had tallied the results of the weigh-in and was then required to walk up the room and return two of the crystals, one amber and one ruby, into a communal jar.