I was nine years old and in third grade when my best friend, Rachel Owre, moved away and broke my heart. Rachel and I were quick soul sisters, both enamored with horses and books and scribbling our thoughts and pencil drawings in dog-eared notebooks we stashed in desk drawers at home. I had had good friends before, but Rachel was the first person who really “got” me. As a chubby, shy, awkward little girl and the youngest of seven, it was heady stuff to feel seen and understood by another. We hadn’t been friends for even a year before she left.
Rachel sent me her new address–somewhere far away on the east coast, Virginia, I think–and she and I exchanged a few letters after she left. Before long, the letters dwindled and eventually stopped and I went about my clumsy life, still dreaming of horses and books but more by myself than with anyone else. That summer, I built a fort in a corner of my backyard under the awning of three fir trees, the natural drape and swathe of their limbs creating a woodsy roof and a sense of seclusion. It was my clubhouse, a secret hideaway where I’d go to write and think and pretend I was the president of an exclusive club for girls who loved horses.
And just like that, Rachel moved back.
It was the start of fourth grade and I was thrilled to welcome back this beloved kindred spirit of mine. Suddenly, all was right in my little world again and I couldn’t wait to invite Rachel over to huddle together in our secret clubhouse and write stories. But Rachel Owre came back as Rachel Robinson.
Rachel’s parents were the first I knew to be divorced. Divorce was unusual in our suburban community during those years. If divorce was discussed at all, it was done in hushed whispers and nearly always between adults. Rachel didn’t talk about her parents’ split or her new father and her new (wonderfully alliterative) name, but I didn’t care. I was over-the-moon delighted to have my person back.
Suburban housewife style in the seventies ran the gamut from conservative frocks with rounded collars, cinched-in waistbands and full circle skirts to the newly-emerging hippie style with wide, bellbottom pants and patterned smocks. My own mother, who I thought looked like Elizabeth Taylor when I was very young, quickly eschewed skirts in favor of comfortable, stretchy pants and artsy blouses as the decade wore on. My misfit family tended to march to the beat of their own, very liberal and non-conformist drummer and my mother’s style reflected that.
It was a blustery Friday night in October when Rachel invited me over for dinner and a sleep-over at her new house with her new father and step-siblings. I was excited to spend time with my best friend and a little nervous at the prospect of having to be on my best behavior with these strangers. Rachel’s mom greeted me at the front door, complete with impeccably coifed hair, her tiny waist encircled in a trim, white belt that coordinated with the full skirt of her perfect dress and smart, white leather pumps. She was a stunning, flawless representation of Mad Men’s Betty Draper.
Their modest, tract-home rambler was filled with the aroma of dinner cooking and it wasn’t long before Rachel and I were called into the dining room to eat. Betty Draper and her Mr. Robinson husband, each sitting at their respective ends of the table, Rachel and I and her newly acquired siblings filling in the sides. We joined hands and bowed heads while Mr. Robinson recited grace before dinner. Even coming from a Lutheran minister’s family, this formality always made me uncomfortable. I closed my eyes, hoping my hands weren’t sweaty and pretended to pray.
Food was passed and plates were filled with Betty Draper’s chicken and dumplings. As much as my family cooked wonderful food, chicken and dumplings was a brand new thing for me. It smelled heavenly. As I dug into my serving, I silently swooned over how good it all tasted. And the dumplings! Like warm, tender bread balls soaked in a savory stew. I even managed to choke down a few of the mushy green peas I typically despised.
I cleaned my plate and washed it down with a chug of cold milk and searched for the serving bowl of chicken and dumplings. Politely, I asked if I could have a second helping. After all, Mr. Robinson was on his second and third dumpling and there was plenty left. Betty Draper flashed me a disapproving glance and begrudgingly shoved the bowl in my direction. My face grew red hot with shame–a shame I didn’t understand but knotted into a tight ball in my stomach and made me pray I could disappear. “Well, go on,” she barked, waiting for me to pick up the serving spoon. Rachel sat beside me, head down and wordless. I fished out the smallest remaining dumpling and put it on my plate. Rachel’s family and I choked down the rest of our dinner in uneasy silence.
Rachel and I spent the night in her basement, sharing a musty queen mattress, surrounded by shelves of old books and stacked board games. Mr. Robinson’s fishing and hunting gear stowed in a far corner, its forms casting eerie shadows on the walls and cobwebbed ceiling beams as I lay awake most of the night. I still imagine that very basement with the steep, creaky, wooden stairs leading from a door in the kitchen down to its murky depths every time I hear or read a horror story about bad things happening in basements.
It wasn’t long before Rachel moved again, this time for good and far away. After that dinner of her mother’s chicken and dumplings, we didn’t hang out as much. She never got to see my secret clubhouse nestled in the corner of my backyard beneath the thick canopy of evergreens.
And I never ate chicken and dumplings again. Well, until recently.
TWO: CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS
It was October and a recipe from Smitten Kitchen popped up on my social media newsfeed. Chicken and Dumplings, it read. Curious, I clicked on the recipe and scrolled down to read the reviews and comments. The best thing ever! someone swooned. On my regular rotation of cozy fall dinners! exclaimed another. Never fails to please the whole family!
Captivated and incredulous, I read through each of the comments and then the recipe and back again to the glowing comments. Before I knew it, I was back in time, sitting beside my best friend with her new family and her perfect mother’s delicious chicken and dumplings. The red-hot embarrassment searing my cheeks. The slap of shame. I shook my head to dislodge the memory and wondered how so many people actually ate chicken and dumplings with some regularity and enjoyed it?
I lived for many years with a secret but exhaustive list of forbidden foods that I would not touch. People around me marveled and praised my will power. Their praise fueled my disorder until there was never enough praise left. It’s taken hours of therapy to unravel my control issues around eating and how it defined me and my self-esteem. I am proud of the relationship I now have with food and eating but sometimes a seemingly innocuous recipe for Chicken and Dumplings reminds me of just how pervasive anorexia’s lasting influence can be.
I printed out Smitten Kitchen’s Chicken and Dumplings recipe, prepared a grocery list and made a plan. A Sunday dinner of Chicken and Dumplings was on the calendar.
With my favorite playlist on shuffle, I got to work that Sunday afternoon. Searing chicken thighs and rendering fat. Chopping and sautéing fragrant leeks and carrots and soft leaves of fresh tarragon. A pour of broth and milk, a stir of flour and an hour or so of simmer. I left out the gross, mushy peas. The house redolent and full of hearty aromas that invited you to pull up a stool, pour a glass of wine and sit for a bit. This Sunday, however, I was alone. Alone and on a mission.
The chicken stew nearly complete, it was time to make the dumplings. Flour, baking powder, salt and a bit of chicken fat. Golf-ball sized blobs nestled onto the stop of the bubbling chicken and vegetables. Cover and wait until doubled in size. I peered into the Dutch oven after 20 minutes and decided it was time. I pushed aside the dumplings and spooned the stew into my bowl. I carefully placed two dumplings on top of that. Proud of my creation and knowing the emotional heft it held, I snapped a photo of the bowl and posted it to my Instagram story. “I have a whole story about chicken and dumplings”, I wrote. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
But for now on this Sunday evening, it was about me and my bowl of chicken and dumplings. This beautiful food I had prepared from scratch on my own, with love and the intent of nourishment. With the hope of healing some remnants of shame from a dinner long, long ago. The stew–sublime, perfectly balanced, rich flavors of chicken with notes of tarragon. And the dumplings?
I wasn’t a fan of the dumplings. They were tasty, as I’m sure most dumplings are, but I found myself pushing them aside in favor of the rest of the dish. I wondered how Betty Draper’s dumplings compared to mine. What was it that made them so delicious that night around their dinner table? I sat with my bowl and finished it and got a little bit more, thinking of Rachel’s mother the whole time, wondering if she was still alive and how Rachel had faired through the divorce and the moving and the rest of her life. Did she ever think of me? Would she even remember that night around her dinner table?
Leftovers packed away and in the refrigerator, I felt a sense of accomplishment. Chicken and Dumplings, now just another recipe, another food to eat or not eat.
Its power of shame and emotion beautifully, mindfully extracted from the soft dumplings and left in my bowl.
THREE: THE STORIES WE TELL
I first heard Portland-based author Lidia Yucknavitch say “I am not the story you made of me” at a writing workshop I took with her a couple years ago.
In my work as a yoga teacher and Wellness Coach, I hear countless stories from many people each and every week. I am continually amazed at how attached we humans are to our stories and how we limit and punish ourselves with these often false narratives. Imagine what we lose in the midst of our allegiance to stories that hold no truth for us.
My arms are too short for yoga.
I need people to like me.
I can’t lift heavy weights because I was a high school cheerleader.
Meditation and going within just don’t work for me. I need to stay busy.
I don’t deserve to be happy.
I’m not enough.
If I just lose five/ten/twenty pounds…
I can’t eat chicken and dumplings.
Each one of us has stories–lots of stories–that we tell ourselves every day. Some we have lugged around for decades from our formative years, those stories others have built around and about us for their own comfort and convenience that we accept without question. Other stories we adhere to in an effort to avoid pain. There are stories that are convenient and comfortable for us, but not necessarily true.
“I am not the story you made of me” is what kept repeating in my mind as I remembered the dumplings and as I prepared my own on that recent Sunday afternoon.
“We don’t have to accept the stories we inherit, the ones that tell us who we’re supposed to be. We can stand up and say no at any point, even if we’ve been saying yes our entire lives. It’s never too late. We can always reject the story placed on top of us, and we can always revise and destroy one story and restore another. It’s a never-ending possibility.” ~ Lidia Yucknavitch
It’s your narrative. Own it. Take time to make sure it’s true and that it reflects the highest, very best version of you.
Be brave enough to make your revisions.