Before vaccines, my siblings and I went through all the childhood illnesses as well as frequent bouts of ear aches, sore throats and stomach bugs. When we went to bed, our appetites took a nose dive and food didn’t appeal. My mother had two foods for invalids, toast and orange juice. She cut the toast into strips such as those above and made them into a little log cabin. She diluted the orange juice to a very pale version of itself and served it in a glass with a glass straw. When we saw the glass straw, we acknowledged that we were in fact sick.
Illnesses merited a special green metal tray to deliver food to the invalid. We were expected to eat all the toast and sip a glass of the pale juice before we were allowed to get out of bed and rejoin the family table. I still remember the mixed feelings of being treated as special but feeling horrible at the same time. I preferred regular meals.
My mother had some mysterious illness in childhood which she never really explained to us. All that she told us was that for a long time she had to drink beef juice. Apparently this was derived from meat somehow by the family cook. It sounded awful, and we were glad we didn’t have to drink it. When she was pregnant she had to eat calf’s liver per her doctor’s orders. Fortunately, she didn’t share it with us. However the fact that she didn’t share it made it seem very adult and very desirable, and I acquired a taste for it when I grew up.
As a parent I relied on steamed white rice when a child was ill. I still turn to it for myself when I am ailing. I never acquired a glass straw. Now, I hear, they may finally be coming back in fashion as a substitute for plastic ones. Everything old is new again!
Nobody had commented about diet during my early years. I ate whatever was put in front of me without complaint. The idea that parents would plan their meals around children’s preferences had not taken hold in the 1950’s. So I was quite surprised in third grade to be presented with a version of the poster above produced in the U.S. in 1956 and distributed nationwide.
This plan prescribed “good eating,” and our third grade teacher used it to discuss a “good breakfast.” Up to this point in my life I had happily enjoyed a bowl of cold cereal with milk every morning. On special mornings it was Frosted Flakes, but generally it was Corn Flakes or Rice Krispies. Our teacher went over the plan with us and then asked each one of us what we had eaten for breakfast that morning.
To my dismay, my classmates began describing hot breakfasts including eggs, bacon, orange juice or hot cereal, toast and orange juice. I quickly got the message and hastily invented the breakfast that I would report when it was my turn. So for that one day, I had two fried eggs, toast and bacon! It was the first time I felt shame about what I ate, but it would be far from the last time. Government edicts, women’s magazines and schools would be standing in line from then on to tell me what I ought to be eating.
My first formal exercise came in elementary school with a beloved teacher Mr. Graven. We had gym every day and had a little basket to keep our gym clothes and tennis shoes. Since all girls wore dresses we needed to change into shorts and blouses. We never knew what we would be doing and waited to hear if he said we needed to “dress down” or not.
Mr. Graven was incredibly supportive to me, a tiny, underweight, not all that coordinated kid. In fact at our eighth grade graduation he awarded me a school letter purely for my unfailing effort. But in the early grades he spent a lot of time helping me learn to do a somersault and then, to my amazement, a backward somersault. I never mastered cartwheels, hesitant to take both of my feet off solid ground. Standing on my head seemed a similarly pointless exercise.
But gym class had days where we learned folk dances and square dances. I loved all the variety of music and dances, especially when we whirled around. We also got to dance to the Hokey-Pokey putting first a right foot in then out. Even the Farmer in the Dell delighted us, not yet cynical about “children’s ” music.
My primary advantage came when we formed a pyramid with four girls on the bottom row, then three on the next, then two on the next. As the littlest, I always got to be lifted high onto the top of the pyramid. Then when he signaled us to collapse, I never got squashed as we fell.
So exercise was fun, not that different from regular play at recess and after school. No one had to encourage us to do it, and we all trooped happily to the gym.
Dis-spirited by all the wonderful pictures of spring bulbs, green trees, walks in the country and reports of warmth, I took this photo out our back window this morning. Yes, after escaping significant snow for almost the entire winter, we got this 10″ of March snow. Here it cruelly covers our barbecue grill, picnic bench and porch swing, chastising us for our recent hopes of using those items.
I would say that I got a lot of exercise from shoveling this mess, but it would be a lie. My husband had a delayed work schedule and spent the morning with our super snow blowing machine clearing our walks along with the single mother’s on one side and the widow’s on the other. I did augment his diet, however, making him a batch of his favorite almond oatmeal granola, timed to come out of the oven just as he finished.
Now you can all know why we say “March comes in like a lion.” It remains to be seen if it will “go out like a lamb.”
Our first exercise comes quite naturally as we learn to move our bodies as infants. First we do push-ups. After a while we attempt the daredevil roll over. Then we try to learn how to roll back rather than get stranded like upside down turtles. Next we attempt the sit without the dreaded falling over. Eventually we will try to move forward on hands and knees, though we adopt many individual ways of doing this including scooting backwards while aiming to go forwards.
All of this activity comes without instructional videos or gym memberships. We are just designed to be active without any encouragement. In fact a lot of time in childhood seems to be spent being told to “sit still.” Of course contemporary sleeping directives designed to reduce infant deaths tell parents to put the baby “back to sleep.” This produces the unpleasant side effect of a flattened back of the head. So then parents are told to do “tummy time,” when they purposefully put the baby on her stomach to even her head out.
Not missing an opportunity to make money from activities that used to be free, corporations have invented Baby Gymnastics classes where you can pay to have your baby learn these things. Since there are no longer hordes of kids everywhere, these classes exist mainly, I think, to end the isolation of mothers with small children. That is a valid reason to exist as long as no one thinks a baby really needs instruction.
At any rate, I never needed to be encouraged to diet or to exercise in those lovely first months of life. And cod liver oil was the only “supplement” I was given.
My first meal was chosen for me since I was obviously too little to get it for myself. I relied on a ready, free, healthy supply from my mother–breast milk. She was bucking a trend toward formula already taking hold in 1947 and may have been rebelling against her mother’s urge to be “modern.” It was a rounded diet, giving me everything I needed to grow and develop and was my only food for a few months. Then, much to my disgust, I encountered Pablum, a recently marketed cereal for babies. Later we would feed Pablum to our litter of puppies. They seemed to enjoy it.
My siblings were also breast fed until they had the treat of rice cereal added to their meals. By then Gerber had the market on that first baby food and promoted it widely. I remember my mother occasionally leaving a bottle, a can of evaporated milk and instructions to prepare it for the baby sitter for my youngest sister. No commercial formula ever entered our house.
Babies were expected to be pudgy. I remember my mother telling me that when she was young in the 1920’s children were praised for being plump. It was considered insurance against succumbing to any of the childhood diseases still prevalent. The main goal for my diet was that it allowed me to gain weight. Those were the days!
Perhaps it is because people who watch the evening national news shows are generally older, the ads are nearly all aimed at various medical conditions. After a quick disclaimer along the lines of “when diet and exercise don’t work,” they tout yet another extremely expensive new drug to control blood sugar or cholesterol. The assumption seems always to be that “diet and exercise” won’t work because the people in the ads gain all their health after they take the drugs.
Having lived 71 years in the United States and watched the general population gain in girth and shrink in stamina, I have been exposed to countless diets and exercise plans. A women’s magazine doesn’t come out without a “quick weight loss” article or a “how to fit exercise into your insane schedule” tip sheet. Billboards advertise “weight loss surgery,” now available on a payment plan to fit your budget. The freeway touts various gym memberships for $10 a month.
I decided to take my readers on a tour of all the approaches to diet and exercise that have surrounded my life. But I begin with two photos highlighting my early total disregard for ads, billboards and magazines. In one I hold the produce from our garden. In the other I demonstrate my incredible hanging skill!