In the summer before my senior year of high school, I got a job helping a man named Chester process sugar cane. My first day began at sunrise. Chester led me to a tin-roofed outbuilding containing a hundred or more bins of freshly harvested sugar cane. My job was to load some cane onto a flatbed cart, wheel it to a cylinder press, and feed one handful at a time into the machine. The press squeezed out the juices, which ran into a stainless-steel trough that led downhill to a smaller outbuilding, where Chester worked. Every now and then Chester would yell for me either to slow down or speed up — usually the latter.
The juice got all over me, making me tacky from head to foot and attracting insects that literally became stuck to my skin and clothes. By the end of the first day I was eager to collect my pay and take a shower. I made my way into the other building to find Chester. Inside was a brick oven topped with a maze of stainless-steel channels. With great care Chester was using a series of dams made from wooden slats to control the flow of juice from one heated channel to another. As it passed through the maze, the juice turned thicker and darker, until at the end it had been reduced to a deep brown syrup: molasses. Wooden shelves were lined with hundreds of unlabeled Mason jars filled with it.
I thought of childhood breakfasts at my grandparents’ house. After everyone was situated at the table and a simple prayer had been said, Grandmother would teeter to her pie safe and retrieve a Mason jar of molasses. She’d meticulously dole out just enough to satisfy each diner’s taste buds and then return the jar to the pie safe, as if it were treasure.
Cary A. Wilke
For lunch I decide to have orange slices from Whole Foods for the third time this week. The orange slices I eat don’t grow on trees. They are of the candy variety, contain zero vitamin C (unless citric acid is used as a preservative), and are fortified with modified cornstarch and pectin. They are one of the few proudly unwholesome products for sale in Whole Foods.
Candy oranges in hand, I get in line behind a mom whose cart is full of soy milk, honey-sweetened animal crackers, and frozen sweet-potato fries. Later I eye my co-workers’ salads and sushi and think, I’ll eat real food for dinner.
I first went on a diet when I was seventeen. For lunch I’d have lettuce and crackers from the high-school cafeteria’s salad bar. Then I cut back to just crackers. Lunch disappeared altogether in college, along with ten more pounds from my body and a good chunk of my self-esteem.
Although I was an English and journalism major, I did plenty of math, counting calories consumed and burned, the twisted algebra of anorexia: X - everything = happiness. I tried to go all day without any real food, but I did let myself eat candy: Laffy Taffy, Blow Pops, Swedish Fish, Mike and Ikes. When I began to slip up and eat again, I became bulimic so at least I could end each day empty and back “in control.” That worked until a concerned resident assistant and my annoyed roommate intervened. I went to an outpatient eating-disorders program, where I got into the habit of packing a lunch (if not eating it). But the program didn’t really help with the underlying nothingness I felt.
Now, in my late thirties, I have learned to eat protein at dinner and at least an energy bar for breakfast, but I still restrict and restrict, letting myself enjoy a hot meal only if I’ve made it through the day without “messing up.” (And, no, candy orange slices for lunch don’t count as a mistake in my crazy book.)
I know it’s wrong, but I lack the courage to make it right. I love being skinny and am terrified of living in a bigger body. I also love cherry sours, Lemonheads, orange slices, and grape jelly beans. I seldom drink and don’t smoke. I haven’t eaten at Taco Bell or tasted a french fry in twenty years. I deserve a treat.
I deserve it as much as I deserve the thousands of dollars in dental bills for crowns, bridges, veneers, and implants. I also deserve the slap of shame I get with every visit to the dentist. My dad was a dentist; my mom, his assistant. He died when I was six. I’ve been living on sugar ever since.
Falls Church, Virginia
“Do you like to eat cheeseburgers and pizza and ice cream?” the nurse asked me.
“Of course I do,” I replied. What eighteen-year-old didn’t?
“Well, you aren’t going to be eating those foods anymore,” he said. “No more sugar or fatty food. You are now diabetic.”
Nobody in my family had diabetes. I was the first. I felt angry and confused and depressed, and I wondered how a healthy young person could be diagnosed with a disease that would change everything so drastically. I would have to take insulin shots for the rest of my life.
Since then I have stabbed myself with a needle in the stomach or the leg four times a day, every day — 28,203 shots and counting. There hasn’t been a meal that I haven’t thought about sugar.
I lived on the high plains of Venezuela for several years. My neighbor Rosa was a roly-poly woman who spit tobacco juice. Her husband, Andres, left their tin shack for months at a time to work in the sugar-cane fields in the lowlands. Rosa struggled to feed and clothe their two children because Andres spent what little money he made mostly on alcohol. The neighbors told me he abused Rosa as well.
During sugar-cane harvest, the fields are first burned to remove the plants’ sharp-edged leaves and kill venomous snakes. The workers then slice off the cane stalks at ground level. Andres worked under the hot sun, covered in soot, bent over and swinging his sharp machete. Stalk after stalk. Day after day. I happened to drive through the cane fields during harvest once. As I watched the men harvesting, I thought, I’d spend all of my earnings on alcohol too.
One day Rosa came to see me about an after-school program I was starting. All she wanted, she told me, was for her children to learn to read. Then she shot an amber arc of tobacco juice and told me she’d hid in my bushes the night before: Andres had come home from harvesting in an especially bad mood. She knew she’d be safe from his anger near the gringa’s house.
On Saturdays in Venezuela I made cookies or cake to satisfy my sweet tooth. I’d take from the cabinet the five-pound bag of sugar I’d bought for so little money. It made a swishing sound as I poured it into my measuring cup. The pure crystals glistened.
Walla Walla, Washington
I’d always loved candy, but I had no idea how much I loved M&M’s until I got my driver’s license. Free to drive to the convenience store after school, I would buy a jumbo bag instead of the single-serving size sold in the vending machine at Saratoga High. Back inside the car, I’d place the open bag on the seat next to me, so I could nibble if I got hungry. (Ha!) As the chocolate coated my tongue and teeth, my worries, fears, and insecurities would melt away. It was so much easier to buy candy than to find a boyfriend.
When I got home, I’d hide the uneaten portion in a lower drawer of my desk. As I bent to open the drawer, my waistband would dig into my flesh.
When the clerks at 7-Eleven started saying, “Good to see you,” I switched stores. I stuffed the empty wrappers in the bottom of my purse or pocket until I could drop them into a public garbage can. At school I rarely said more than “Hi” to anyone. I didn’t need study buddies, teammates, or friends. I had candy. M&M’s never looked down on me or told me to be like them.
I thought my habit was harmless. The health films told us not to smoke or drink or do drugs. They didn’t say, “Don’t get hooked on sugar.”
B. Lynn Goodwin
I’ve struggled with sugar since I was a teenager — bingeing on it, not eating it at all, or trying to eat it in moderation by savoring one piece of chocolate a day. I prefer the taste of sweetness in my mouth to anything else, even the intimate touch of a lover. I know this because years ago I organized a contest: sugar versus sex.
One New Year’s Eve, after months of separation, my girlfriend and I reunited in Manhattan for a single night. Amy was cute and curvy with a wild imagination, and we’d always had a fantastic time in bed. Our hotel room featured floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the city, and I’d brought massage oil and lavender roses. We ordered room-service desserts, which we set on the night table, and then took off our clothes. Giggly and excited, we started making love, and oh, baby, it was wonderful.
By plan, we engaged in the most indulgent, glorious sexual act I could come up with, and when I was moments away from climax, I reached for the dessert plate and took a bite.
As soon as I tasted the raspberry-chocolate mousse, the contest ended. I just wanted Amy to stop distracting me while I ate.
I remember the smell of the sweet vapor billowing from Grandpa Anderson’s sugarhouse, where he boiled down maple-tree sap to make syrup. Every spring while growing up I helped gather the sap with my coverall-clad father. Sometimes I got out of the pickup in my rubber boots and helped; other times I waited in the warm cab, listening to the radio while Dad collected our buckets from roadside trees. I remember packaging maple-sugar candy for Grandma to sell (I ate a piece for every bag I packed) and sipping hot maple syrup, drawn straight off the boil, from a paper cup while Grandpa and Dad showed off their operation to curious tourists. But the strongest memory is of standing just outside the sugarhouse, enveloped in the sweet steam.
I’m proud that I come from such hardworking, resourceful people. (Grandpa started making maple syrup the year my dad was born, because they weren’t earning enough money from the farm.) I’m nostalgic for that precise season when the late-winter sunshine melts the snow just enough to cause the sap to run. I’m sad that, even though my father continued making Anderson’s Maple Products in his own sugarhouse, none of us kids had the desire or inclination to keep the business going. I’m disheartened that my mom is arranging for the local firemen to burn Grandpa’s sugarhouse before it falls down.
Most of all I feel profound grief over the loss of my father. Five years ago, after officially retiring from “sugaring,” my dad fell to his death from the rafters of the sugarhouse he’d built.
I live a three-hour drive from my childhood home, but because of a freakish March snowstorm on the day of my father’s fall, it took me nearly twice that long to get there. Late that night I went to bed beside my mother. Dad’s clock radio glowed and softly played Johnny Mathis and Doris Day, like it had when I was small and couldn’t sleep and was allowed to crawl into the warmth of Dad’s arms, enveloped in the sweetness of his smell.
Jeri Lyn Anderson
My grandfather visited us often the summer I was six. He had lost most of his eyesight and his left leg to diabetes and was confined to a wheelchair. I liked his smiling blue eyes and the way he made an O with his mouth to register surprise.
Illness hadn’t dampened my grandfather’s abounding love for sweets. He would hold a sugar cube between his teeth as he drank dark tea out of a glass, Russian-style, his face gleaming with pleasure. I would sit next to him and read him books about Dick and Jane and their dog Spot, and he would roll the sugar cube around in his mouth and laugh and say, “You’re such a lovely girl.”
He died that summer. Years later my mother told me about his difficult life in Russia and how he had traveled across an ocean to America on a ship that had rocked on the vast sea, bringing with him an ailing wife and six children. She told me how he’d turned a battered warehouse into a thriving supermarket.
My mother told me other stories too: of how her father had repeatedly cheated on his kind and loving wife; of how he’d let loose tirades that left his children shaking; of how he’d ripped the broom out of his clerk’s hand and furiously swept the corners where the boy had missed. Rage, my mother said, was his defining trait.
It is hard to reconcile these stories with the memory of those summer days when my grandfather sat in his wheelchair, savoring the sugar cube in his mouth and savoring me.
New York, New York
I learned at an early age how to feign illness to avoid school. Just as a test was passed out, I suddenly wouldn’t feel well. Off I’d go to the office, holding my head or stomach and telling the school secretary my symptoms. She would call my mother, who’d grant permission for me to come home.
Toward the end of sixth grade I was often thirsty and tired and constantly needed to pee. My grandfather was a doctor and urged my mother to take a urine sample from me for testing, which she did.
I arrived home from school one day to find my mother on the porch, looking pale. “Sweetie,” she said, “we have to go to the hospital.”
For the next week nurses made me pee in plastic cups, gave me injections, and taught me about my new affliction. It was the first time I’d ever heard the word diabetes. My disease was explained to me with a book in which cars represented cells in the body. The fuel for the cars was glucose, and the key to filling the “gas tank” was insulin. I learned that my body no longer made insulin, and I would have to take injections of it several times a day for the rest of my life.
I practiced giving shots of saline to oranges, then to benevolent nurses at the hospital, and eventually to myself. I also had to test my urine, mixing drops of it in a test tube with water and adding a magic tablet that fizzed like an Alka-Seltzer and either turned blue (low sugar) or orange (high sugar). I was also told to avoid eating sweets, which wasn’t easy for an eleven-year-old. Still the doctor said I could live a “normal” life. And I wasn’t as dismayed by my condition as I was by the sadness that had come over my family.
When I returned to school, I had to check in at the office. The secretary welcomed me back, offering her condolences and any assistance she could provide. She shook her head and said, “And all this time I thought you were only pretending to be sick.”
Los Altos, California
I slowly unwrap a square of my favorite dark chocolate and break it into four even pieces. Then I place one piece on my tongue, close my eyes, and lean back in my chair. The chocolate melts gradually, sweet and slightly bitter. I eat the other three pieces one by one and throw the wrapper into the wastebasket, satisfied.
When I was a girl, milk chocolate, not dark, was my favorite. Once, my teenage uncle was showing off by climbing a rope tied to a high branch behind my house. My father also climbed it, then bet me that I couldn’t do it. I was ten at the time and had no interest in rope climbing, plus I wasn’t fond of heights. But when he mentioned that my reward for winning the bet would be a chocolate bar, I told him he was on.
Father tied a red ribbon to the rope near the top; I had to reach it to win. I grasped the rope and looked up. The ribbon was far away. I took a big breath and began to climb hand over hand. After several minutes my arms and shoulders were screaming, and my hands felt raw. I halted, holding tight to the rope. I was so close, but I could go no farther. Then I thought of the chocolate, and in desperation I kicked my legs and reached up with my right hand. My fingertips touched the ribbon just before I let go of the rope and fell to the ground.
I scrambled to my feet with a big smile, yelling, “I did it! I did it!”
My father looked amused, but my uncle said, “Sheesh. You barely touched the ribbon.”
The next day my dad came home with the promised chocolate bar, and I took it behind the house. I sat enjoying its weight in my hands, which were still rubbed raw from the rope. Then I tore off the wrapping and ate quickly, as if afraid someone would take the candy away from me. I did not even want the last few bites — I felt sick — but I finished it anyway.
I didn’t realize I was addicted to chocolate until I joined the army at nineteen. For the first part of basic training we were not allowed any sweets, not even chocolate milk. Four weeks in I could think of nothing but chocolate. I dreamed nightly of it. Like an addict going through withdrawal, I felt irritable and couldn’t focus. In desperation I convinced my mother to send me an illicit chocolate bar by mail.
When it arrived, I was nervous that the drill sergeant passing out the mail would notice the bulge in the envelope. My hands trembled with anticipation, and my mouth was dry. When he gave me the letter, I slipped off to a bathroom stall for privacy and quietly opened the envelope. Inside was a Hershey bar, my least favorite brand. The chocolate was so stale it had turned chalky, but I didn’t care. I devoured it. Almost immediately I felt like myself again.
Clinton Corners, New York
When I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of twenty-three, the doctor reassured my mother and me that the cancer was highly treatable. My mom immediately established a set of dietary and lifestyle rules for me, putting my new adult autonomy on hold. At first I didn’t even question her “no sugar” decree. I wanted to do all I could to combat my body’s rogue cells.
About a week after the diagnosis, however, a friend was visiting from out of town, and we found ourselves yearning for something sweet. We stopped at a convenience store, and I decided that the “antioxidant-rich” dark-chocolate Raisinets posed the least threat to my system. I bought them, intending to hide the bag in my room the moment we got home, but my friend left it on the kitchen counter.
Two years later I’m cancer free, and my mom and I look back on that day and laugh about the sheer panic in her voice as she forbade me to consume even one “poisonous” Raisinet. But at the time it was serious. It was my first glimpse of the agony that consumes a parent whose child is suffering.
New York, New York
In high school my friends commented that my mother — who bore a striking resemblance to Betty Crocker — was a sugar temptress. Whenever they entered my home, Mom would put out a plate of freshly baked cookies and extract information from them. She was a wonderful listener and instinctive nurturer.
Three copper-colored cookie jars stood like beacons on our kitchen counter, each containing a different type of homemade cookie: chocolate chip, oatmeal, or almond. My mother was rarely without sweet, creamy tapioca to serve, and her pie crusts were lovingly made from scratch and filled with whatever fruit was in season.
I simply couldn’t get enough of my mother’s desserts, and I fought obesity through high school. In college I went to a psychologist for help with my weight issues. He suggested that I had an insatiable appetite for sweets because I resented my father for leaving to work for the U.S. government in Vietnam when I was twelve. Ah, yes, I thought, a true case of eating your feelings. The only problem was, I’d been fat since I was six.
As I grew older, lost the weight, and established a home of my own, I realized that I didn’t have any deep-seated resentment toward my parents or anyone else. I just liked sugar.
Many years later, as my mother lay dying in the hospital, I went to her apartment to retrieve some of her toiletries. While there, I opened her freezer and discovered five rolls of cookie dough. When I returned to the hospital, I asked my mother if she would like my sisters and me to bake the cookies for her memorial service.
She smiled and said, “That would be lovely, honey.”
And it was.
I went outside by myself to look at the sugar cane up close. Another bright day of dazzling sunshine in our quiet little plantation village on the Big Island of Hawaii, far from the cars, markets, and paved streets of the city. Already bored by small-town life at five years old, I longed to play with somebody besides the older boys, who threw guavas at me. Nobody stirred from the other rickety houses. Many of the adults had left for Hilo, where they hoped to find work for the military. The younger men had gone to fight as Americans in the war. Only the elderly and small children had stayed behind.
My mama had left me with her parents so that she could get a job as a nurse in a real hospital, not a plantation office. My Japanese grandparents moved so slowly, watering plants or fixing our meals of rice and poi and sometimes fish, that they made me impatient. I wrote Mama letters with my name spelled in block print next to a picture of a small girl looking up at airplanes in the sky. My auntie, who lived in a house with peeling paint near the Lucky Strike store, would write the address on the envelope and let me lick a three-cent stamp to send the message to Mama in Honolulu.
Now I sat on the weathered back steps. The fields of cane grew close to the clothesline behind our house. The overnight rain had left some droplets that glittered on the gently waving stalks. I knew the cane was abunai — dangerous. My grandparents had often warned me, “Don’t you go out there. You’ll be sorry if you do. Your feet will get all cut up.”
Well, I had slippers on. I loved to dance like a palm tree in the breeze while imagining that fairies appeared out of the shrubbery. I had read stories about fairies at the library and studied the illustrations; now I wanted to see one for myself. Carefully I made my way into the rows of cane, remembering every so often to look back at the house and get my bearings.
But the cane was far taller — or I was much shorter — than I thought, and I got lost. I tried to head back but couldn’t find my way. No fairies emerged. I remembered my grandmother telling me how, when she was young and worked in the fields, she and the other workers sang songs and could find each other that way. I sang “Easter Parade” — loud — but no one heard me.
I spotted a stalk of cane half broken off and thought about how the boys used their pocketknives to cut and peel the stalks, then chewed them to suck out every bit of the sweet juice inside. They never let me have any of it. I grabbed the broken stalk to yank it off, but the shiny green plant had fine, almost invisible prickles. A hot rush of pain crossed my palm, and I pulled my hand back. Not ready to give up, I reached to grab a big leaf instead, but it was ridged with thorns that stung my fingers.
With a yelp I dropped the hateful green cane and dashed in what I hoped was the direction of home. After a few minutes I flopped on the back steps, turned on the outside faucet, and ran water over my itching, stinging hands. For days my skin had tiny wounds from the sticky hairs and jagged leaves of the sugar cane.
My grandmother asked, “What have you learned?”
I shrugged and stayed silent. I didn’t want to look out at the fields of green anymore. They promised a sweetness I couldn’t taste.
My five siblings and I were raised on an Oklahoma farm that was “off the grid” long before that phrase came into vogue. We were almost totally self-sufficient, taking a wagon trip into town once a month to buy the few supplies we couldn’t provide ourselves.
Whenever any of us got sick, regardless of the ailment, the remedy was a spoonful of sugar laced with kerosene. I hated the taste of the kerosene but believed absolutely that the medicine would make me better — and it almost always did.
When I was a teenager, my family moved to California, and after college I chose a career in nutrition. I became an expert on what was healthy and what was not, and I didn’t hesitate to let my mother know that her home “remedy” had been to feed us two poisonous substances just when our immune systems were weakest.
My mother didn’t miss a beat. “That may be,” she said, “but pretty near every time it made you better.”
I had to admit she was right. Sometimes belief and love are the most powerful medicine.
I scan the convenience-store parking lot for familiar faces before I proceed into the building. The doors close behind me, and I glance around again for a face I recognize. If I see a colleague, friend, or acquaintance, I must abandon my mission and purchase something “acceptable.” I don’t want to be seen giving in to my compulsion.
My head down but not low enough to signal shame, I head for the candy shelves. Today I choose a gaily colored package of Swedish Fish: red, chewy, chemically flavored bits of sweetness that, truth be told, don’t taste particularly good — not the first, nor the fifteenth, nor the thirtieth. But then, it isn’t really about the taste. It’s the sneaking, the cheating, the lure of the forbidden.
In the checkout line I stand behind a house painter buying cigarettes, a thirty-something businessman buying a doughnut and coffee, and a young mother buying a twelve-pack of beer. At the next register a teenager asks for rolling papers. At the third register an older man asks for a Penthouse from behind the counter. A customer heads out the door with lottery tickets in hand.
I am struck by the realization that everything sold here — sugar, caffeine, fat, gasoline, nicotine, drug paraphernalia, celebrity gossip, porn, alcohol, lottery tickets — goes to feed various addictions. I wonder why I am so afraid of being seen feeding mine.
West Jefferson, North Carolina
My siblings and I were reeling from the loss of our young mother to cancer when our father packed us up and moved us from New York to central Michigan, hoping to make a new start in a drafty old house that had previously been divided into apartments. My room was what had been the kitchen of the upstairs flat; although the appliances had been removed, it still had the cupboards and the sink.
Since Mom had died, I’d nearly stopped eating. At four I weighed only forty pounds and ate mostly cornflakes and tomato soup with saltines. Anything else had to be liberally sprinkled with sugar, or I would not put it in my mouth. I remember the look of disgust on people’s faces as I covered my vegetables with sugar just so I could choke them down, but the pediatrician had said it was OK.
Unbeknown to my dad, I had a small metal box filled with sugar under my bed. Sometimes at night, after waking from a nightmare, I would pull it out and eat several spoonfuls. It was sickening yet soothing. Then I could go back to sleep.
Los Altos Hills, California
December 7, 1941, seemed like an ordinary Sunday morning until my father turned on the radio and we learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. For all of my fourteen years I had felt secure. Now, as I stood in our hillside home looking down at the naval ships in San Diego Bay, my world suddenly seemed in danger.
During the weeks that followed, signs of war were all around me: Barrage balloons floated in the sky to ward off enemy aircraft. The roof of Consolidated Aircraft was camouflaged to look like a field of alfalfa. At night the sparkling lights of the city were dimmed, and blackout curtains covered our windows.
My parents and my grandmother went to work at Consolidated. Because of gas rationing, they had to walk back and forth more than a mile over a series of steep hills. There were no complaints. After the lean years of the Depression, they at last had good jobs that paid well.
I did my part: I bought defense stamps; I planted a victory garden; I collected scrap metal. As I added the tin to the growing salvage heap in the center of the downtown plaza, a passing soldier, sailor, or marine often smiled or winked at me, and I blushed.
When food rationing went into effect, we had meat only once a week, which was no great sacrifice; during the Depression our only source of protein had often been beans. But sugar rationing was irksome. My brothers and I missed our mother’s cookies, cobblers, and puddings.
To ensure that each of us got a fair share of the monthly sugar ration, my father put equal amounts into six canisters and labeled each with the name of a family member. I trusted my parents and my grandmother not to cheat, but my brothers? Every time I took a teaspoon or two, I marked the level with a crayon. They didn’t take mine, but they quickly burned through their own supplies. I felt guilty for doubting their honesty, but also smug when their canisters were empty while I still had enough to make it to the first of the month.
Temple City, California
I didn’t appreciate Grandma Vivian’s gifts until a series of small strokes left her forgetful and confused. A child of the Great Depression, Grandma Vivian knew how to scrimp and save and make something wonderful out of nothing. She could take a cheap cut of beef and roast it so tender it would fall off your fork. But she was best known for her pies, pastries, rolls, and doughnuts. Every season had a different pie: rhubarb in spring, berry in summer, apple in fall, and pecan in winter.
Since childhood I had spent Sunday afternoons at my grandparents’ house, where we played cards, laughed, and ate Grandma Vivian’s delicious food. Then came the Sunday afternoon that she wouldn’t let us in. My husband, our three children, and I stood on her doorstep as Grandma looked bewilderedly through the window at us. When I realized she didn’t recognize us, I cried.
As Grandma’s memory worsened, Grandpa could no longer care for her, and she was moved to a nursing home. Grandma didn’t know what to do outside her kitchen. She sometimes wore her blue-and-white-checked apron, but without bread dough to knead or pie crusts to press into tins, she quickly became sullen and withdrawn. I regretted that I’d never asked her to teach me how to make her perfect pies or melt-in-your-mouth sweet rolls.
By the time Grandma died, most of the plans for the funeral had been made, but there was still the choice of urn to place her ashes in. They came in various shapes and sizes — all with large price tags. The family wanted to manage the funeral costs and also honor the woman we’d loved. So we made a decision I think would have appealed to Grandma Vivian: we buried her in the red sugar canister from her kitchen counter.
In the winter of 1972, at the age of nineteen, I was an organizer for the United Farm Workers of America in Florida. We were campaigning to improve the living and working conditions of the thousands of British West Indian sugar-cane cutters who migrated by the season to do this backbreaking work, as well as the African Americans who worked year-round tilling and maintaining the soil. They were all housed in crowded, filthy labor camps with inadequate sanitary facilities and were often cheated out of their meager pay through schemes and overcharging for food, housing, and medical care.
While trying to document conditions there, I was frequently arrested on trumped-up charges of “trespassing,” “inciting to riot,” or “disturbing the peace.” The local police were clearly in the pockets of Big Sugar. Sometimes my colleagues and I were locked up all weekend without a phone call. This was Klan country, and fear was palpable among both the migrant and American workers in the cane fields. As organizers we were under constant threat of violence.
Eliseo, our leader, felt that if we “shined some light” on the situation, we would be safer. He assigned me to show John, a young reporter from the Palm Beach Post, around the sugar-cane camps. We figured that the sheriff’s men would smack John and me around and mess up John’s car, and the cops didn’t disappoint. John acted like a violated maiden, demanding his phone call — to which the cop replied, “What phone call, boy?”
While we were held overnight, I filled John in on the working and living conditions of area farmworkers, and our cellmates backed up my statements. As soon as we were released John wrote a scathing article about the Florida sugar-cane industry. It was picked up by the Associated Press, and pretty soon we were visited by reporters from national papers. After that things were a little safer for me in the land of Big Sugar.
Hugh “Hawkeye” Tague
When we were nine and thirteen, my little sister and I lost our mother in a car accident. Because we distrusted grown-ups, and because our dad hadn’t let us see her body, we spent a long time hoping our mother would show up again.
A year after her death, my father married a twenty-three-year-old artist who claimed to be psychic. One Saturday my stepmother found my mother’s china sugar bowl lying on the countertop with one of its handles broken off. It was strange because my stepmother had moved my mother’s china into a corner cabinet far from the counter, and we never used it anymore.
“Something’s wrong,” my stepmother said. “Who went into that cabinet?”
I hadn’t. Dad hadn’t. My sister wasn’t home.
An hour later my sister arrived with a broken arm and a concussion from a motorcycle accident. She kept asking what time it was. As they rushed her to the emergency room, I heard my stepmother tell my father, “It was her. She was sending me a message.”
Did she mean my mother? Alone in the empty house, I approached the broken sugar bowl. Grains were scattered across the counter. I stood and strained to hear otherworldly sounds, but there was only the clock’s ticking and the hum of the refrigerator. I picked up some loose granules on my fingers and examined them. Each sugared fingertip seemed a galaxy of stars in my stubbornly hopeful universe.
My mother-in-law, Dora, asks for coffee and “something just a little bit sweet.” My husband and I exchange knowing smiles while the kids look for some cookies. Dora has told us that as a little girl in Poland she used to go to her friends’ houses and pretend her parents hadn’t fed her so she could get more food. “I was very fat,” she says.
That plump little girl fled just in time to Mexico. Her sister who stayed behind was killed by the Nazis, along with Dora’s grandparents and other relatives. My husband grew up in the shadow of his mother’s overwhelming grief.
But Dora’s sadness has for the most part been gone ever since a stroke rendered her forgetful and childlike. She has been living with us for a year, and my dignified, elegant, and often difficult mother-in-law has become quite round and filled to the brim with affection.
At night, through the baby monitor, we hear Dora wake up and talk with the “other woman” who shares her room — actually her own reflection in the large mirror facing her bed. We have thought of covering it to spare her the confusion, but she is often comforted by the woman’s company. Occasionally, however, she sees a little girl, and the visit is not so comforting. The little girl is always sick or dying or hungry or thirsty. A few times Dora has splashed water all over the room, trying to quench the little girl’s thirst. After the little girl’s visits, Dora makes her way slowly to the kitchen using her walker. In the morning we find an entire loaf of bread or box of cookies gone.
During the day we might catch Dora standing at the counter, eating sugar from the bowl by the spoonful and claiming, “I haven’t eaten for three days!” Sometimes part of her dignified former self becomes embarrassed at being caught, and we avert our eyes. But we make sure the sugar bowl is always full.
San Anselmo, California