The Weight of It: A Story of Two Sistersby Amy Wilensky
A deeply affecting memoir about the bond between two sisters—and the 150 pounds that nearly separated them
As young girls, a year apart in age, Alison and Amy Wilensky were almost indistinguishable. And they were inseparable: growing up in a comfortable Boston suburb, they were never far from each other’s side, wearing matching dresses,/b>
A deeply affecting memoir about the bond between two sisters—and the 150 pounds that nearly separated them
As young girls, a year apart in age, Alison and Amy Wilensky were almost indistinguishable. And they were inseparable: growing up in a comfortable Boston suburb, they were never far from each other’s side, wearing matching dresses, playing the same games, eating the same food. But Alison began gaining weight in elementary school and by the time she was sixteen was morbidly obese. The sisters remained close, but over the years the daily indignities and affronts endured by Alison took their toll, reshaping her identity indelibly and affecting the sisters’ relationship in unanticipated ways.
In her late twenties, Alison underwent gastric bypass surgery, in the wake of which she lost more than 150 pounds and achieved the shape she’d dreamed of for so much of her life. It wasn’t just her body that was transformed: every significant relationship in her life was profoundly altered.
The Weight of It is a universal story of how we discover what makes us who we are, and how we become the people we want to be. Amy Wilensky is uniquely equipped to write this book, and she does so with fine perception, insight, and compassion.
"Trivialized in movies, ignored in homes, glorified on the Internet, eating disorders often get the best treatment on the page. For proof and inspiration take . . . Wilensky's The Weight of It." —Entertainment Weekly
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The Weight of It
A Story of Two Sisters
By Amy Wilensky
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2004 Amy Wilensky
All rights reserved.
two of us
We grew up in the suburbs, and our pediatrician's office was in Boston, a good half hour's drive from our house. Once a year my mother would take us in for our checkups, an outing I regarded with equanimity, even looking forward to the likely, exhilarating spectacle of a temper tantrum thrown by a younger child in the packed waiting room, the lollipops presented at the end of the appointment, and a possible stop at Downtown Crossing or Fanueil Hall. I remember the ride in: the thrill of heading into the city, even for such a prosaic purpose; the serene little world the three of us made in my mother's small car, passing the looming Children's Hospital, where we knew dying children were sent; and the straight shot up the ancient elevator to a high floor where overburdened nurses and lousy Highlights magazines awaited.
At the doctor's office we had our eyes and ears checked, throats swabbed, knees knocked, temperatures taken, and measurements recorded on a piece of paper Dr. Hubbell kept on a clipboard, which also held similar pieces of paper from previous years. The appointments themselves blend together so seamlessly that I remember only one with any specificity; it was the year I was in fifth grade, and I must have been ten. I was forty-eight inches tall, and I weighed forty-eight pounds, a coincidence that struck me as meaningful, as though I was destined to have a lucky year, some uncanny good fortune. I was a child who appreciated — and found comfort in — symmetry and order. What it actually meant was that I was unusually small for my age, four feet tall and under fifty pounds. Dr. Hubbell showed me the height and weight chart as he explained this to my mother; then, a competitive kid, I was dismayed by how low my percentiles were, naively assuming they were like grades: higher was better. To myself, I pledged to grow, to do stretching exercises and eat more, the initial pleasure in my matching height and weight floating out the window grate and down to the grimy parking garage below. Then I noticed Alison's chart still out, as the doctor and my mother rambled on about strep throat season and ear infections. She had seen the doctor first that day. Her height percentile was down in my range, which made sense, as she was always about two inches shorter than I. Her weight was not. It was much higher than mine, and I noticed this, not impressed or disparaging, but neutral, as I approached the doctor's office itself, simply taking note. Alison wasn't fat, she wasn't thin, she was just Alison. Back in the car, though, as we sucked contemplatively on our lollipops, I decided not to tell Alison about my matching forty-eights, but I wasn't sure why.
* * *
Masking tape down the middle of the car's back seat — does this mean anything to you? If you are an only child, or one of twelve, probably not. I have a hunch, however, that it could serve as a metaphor for the line that divides the lives of siblings other than Alison and me. I'm not certain we ever marked this essential separation with actual tape, but it doesn't really matter. Throughout our childhood — and way too far into adolescence — there may as well have been a laser beam splitting the car, any car, in half, a beam that — if so much as inadvertently elbowed — would shock the body attached to the offending elbow right back into her designated corner. When I think of how many hours and with what emotional fervor I guarded my side — well, let's just say it's a good thing there wasn't a third child around. And I don't even want to get into the particulars of the system devised for those exhilarating occasions when the front seat was free, but I will make a shameful confession: on even-numbered days, I still feel a faint but unmistakable thrill when I sink down next to the driver.
When Alison was born, I was thirteen months old, but in that thirteen months I had managed to stake a firm claim to every square inch of my parents' attention, a claim I have never successfully relinquished. This seems to be universal among older children, who after the initial glory days forever attempt to reclaim their birth status in one way or another. It is no accident, in other words, that Cain, perhaps the world's most notorious oldest sibling, committed fratricide. When Alison was born, I took out my hostility, Cain-like, directly on the source of the shift and have been struggling with the impulse ever since.
Apparently when Alison was just a few months old, I was caught trying to turn her out of her cradle. A picture exists, in fact, of me standing over the cradle, angelic in short-lived curls and a long white nightgown, looking lovingly down on what the image suggests is my new baby sister. I can only imagine that this photograph was snapped under the watchful eye of one of my parents or grandparents, and that moments later, when this justifiably anxious adult turned to answer a telephone or open a window, I made my move — the first of many — to unseat the interloper I hadn't asked for and didn't want.
Of course I have no memory of Alison being born, no recollection of the thoughtful, sensible talks and books parents give first children to prepare them for the upheaval to come, although I'm sure I had both in spades. I do have a vague and fuzzy and probably false memory of being presented with the enormous stuffed dog my aunt bought me as compensation for the indignity my parents had brought home as blithely as one would a bag of groceries or a lamp. This giant dog now sits in a corner of my father's den and may serve him as a warm reminder of this period in his life when his family felt complete. When I look at it, I get a tiny shiver down my spine, as though sensing somehow that the heavy ceiling beams of this part of the house are about to loosen, fall squarely on my head.
Irish twins, I believe, is the politically incorrect term for children born as close together as we were. And in fact, for the first seven or eight years of our lives people usually thought we were twins, identical twins even, although I was always taller, and Alison didn't have freckles. Alison and I liked this extra attention and voluntarily dressed alike, chose matching ribbons for our braids, and cocked our heads to the right in the same stagy way in many of our holiday card pictures. In photographs from these years in which you cannot see our faces, the only way to tell us apart is the length of our hair, my braids or ponytails inching slightly further down my back than hers.
Sometimes I dream that we are seven and eight again in Alison's pink-carpeted closet, wrapped in our favorite cats-in-sneakers sleeping bags and eating penny candy while she indulges me by letting me read aloud to her from the Five Little Peppers, not in my schoolmarmy, show-off reading voice but in my real one, with variations for the characters: high-pitched and girlish for Phronsie, low and growly for the boys. Picture us in that closet: we are tiny, have straight bangs across our foreheads, round cheeks, identically formed hands and feet. Picture Alison falling asleep: first, head bobbing ever so slightly, then eyelids drooping, chin lowering to chest with every audible inhalation, until I flick her sharply on the crown of her head with my forefinger.
"I'm reading," I admonish, "stay awake," and she either nods, so drowsy she doesn't even know what I'm saying, or yells at me to get out of her room right that second and take my stupid sleeping bag with me.
Finally, picture me, woefully unappreciated, a classical Greek orator in my own mind, reading the Five Little Peppers alone under the covers with a flashlight in my own bedroom with its narrow, ordinary closet not big enough for a single sleeping bag, let alone two. I am sulking, wondering how I can get Alison to forgive me and let me come back — with the book — without surrendering my all-important pride. That's the problem with reading out loud: there's really no point if you don't have an audience, and Alison always was — still is — my best one.
* * *
If I'm certain of anything, it is this: your siblings are the only other citizens from a country nobody else will ever visit. Adults like childhood generalized, expanded to a fuzzy, falsely unifying idea made up of equal parts nostalgia and multicolored crayons, but childhood itself is painfully, excruciatingly specific, and few other people can ever come close to understanding your own. Parents are ambassadors from another place entirely; they think they understand the language, the dress code, the culture, but they are always off beat and a few steps back, mocked by the natives whenever they walk out of the room. They hail from their own countries; if you watch them with their own siblings, this realization will make you feel strange and even a little afraid, as though you're walking near a minefield or have ventured into forbidden territory with no idea how to get back home. Occasionally a glimpse of your parents with their siblings will provide insight into your relationship with your own, an insight along these lines: oh my God, it never changes. She'll be like this when she's 110.
My own parents are both oldest children. They were determined to raise their two children fairly, like equals, and perhaps it is typical of oldest children to be wildly naive about fairness and equality. From the very beginning, for example, Alison refused to conform to my ideas of what a younger sister should be; more frustrating still, from the very beginning she refused to conform to any expectations at all. When Alison was a baby and then a toddler, in our first house, she had a tiny bedroom, consumed almost entirely by her crib, a room intended as a pantry or a walk-in closet. Whereas I had always been a stationary sleeper, Alison hated that crib and quickly learned to extricate herself from it, regardless of preventive measures taken after her initial escape. Among my earliest memories are snippets of conversation between my parents regarding Alison's ferocious pursuit of freedom and attendant lack of fear.
Unself-conscious from the start as well, Alison liked to sing to herself, songs of her own devising, during those moments when she wasn't engaged in fleeing her crib. I have a much clearer memory of her voice, faintly audible all the way to my bigger pink room at the other end of the house, as she serenaded her menagerie of stuffed animals with a particular favorite: "Froggies on the Lily Pad." Like many of her compositions, this one was composed solely of the title words belted out in an endless loop in her distinctive, tuneless, joyful style.
Partly because I was certain in my likes and dislikes, all of which had come first by definition, Alison became even more so in hers. And partly because I jumped all over her if I so much as suspected she was copying me, her tastes became more creative and daring than mine. Once when we were coloring together in the intricate design books my mother bought us (now, I suspect, because to finish a single page took hours of intense concentration), I finished a particularly elaborate design that had required the painstaking filling-in of hundreds of tiny triangles and diamonds with the finest-tipped markers we owned. I assessed my work and was proud; my color scheme featured shades of blue, from navy to a sky blue nearly white, and the results were perfect. I had not mis-colored a single shape, and no color bled beyond the spidery lines of the pattern. Ready to receive my admiration due, I cleared my throat and looked over at Alison, turning my design to face her, so she could see — and feel jealous of — my speed and prowess, the utter superiority of my work. She didn't look up, though, and I noticed her tongue was slightly out, wedged in the corner of her mouth, which meant she was completely immersed. Occasionally I did this too, as she had pointed out when I teased her about it, but she did it all the time.
Involuntarily, I pulled my design back toward me, shielding it slightly with my arm. Alison was not coloring in the design the way you were supposed to. She was not filling in each tiny triangle or diamond with one color, and the ones around it with different colors, so that no two shapes of the same color would touch, which I had considered the primary goal of the process. Instead, she had found larger patterns in the small ones, had filled in whorls and stars in a rainbow of colors, lots of shapes together to create them, and had blacked out the little shapes remaining in between with an ordinary black marker, the kind my father brought home from his office for addressing mail. The effect was kaleidoscopic in a way the author of these design books had probably never dreamed a child would discover. It looked as though she'd strewn a handful of gemstones against a nighttime sky, and even her mistakes glinted appealingly against their blackest backdrop.
"What?" she said, finally feeling my eyes not on her work but on her small round face. The tongue retreated. "Oh, you're finished," she said, a little deflated, trying to get a look at my work. "I hope you didn't use up all the blues."
"You're doing it wrong," I said with all the flat affect I could muster, getting up from the table and taking my design with me, although at that moment I wanted nothing more than to scrunch it up and bury it in the trash.
It wasn't just art projects that Alison stamped with her personal touch; it was everything she owned. I'm not sure from whom she inherited her Mae West philosophy, as neither of my parents are prone to grand-scale accumulation, but Alison has always believed that "too much of a good thing is marvelous," or "mahhhvelous," as she herself would say. There was a period back when Robin Leach was still on television when she liked telling people — friends, family, total strangers at the grocery store — that she had "champagne tastes and caviar dreams," which always made me feel like hiding my head in my sweater, but other people seemed to think it was pretty funny coming from a kid in pigtails, and I couldn't deny that it was true. While I organized and reorganized my books by category and made sure my dolls' clothes were spick-and-span, Alison launched the first of her many collections: teddy bears. Lots of kids collect things, and I did, too, but I never encountered anyone else who collected on Alison's scale. Before we moved out of our first house, her bears and their differently specied relations were threatening to force her into the kitchen to sleep. Once she had her own larger room in our new house, the bears multiplied like rabbits, if you will, until there were so many bears, and so much bear-related paraphernalia, that they had to be played with in shifts, for Alison was not the sort of collector who was after sheer quantity — she actually wanted to play with the bears, and she had devotion enough for them all.
There was nothing Alison owned that could not be taken along wherever she went, which was more or less convenient and charming depending on the setting in question. Our Jewish father and Lutheran mother had decided to send us to a Unitarian Sunday school to learn about different religious traditions and to be exposed to a consistent and questioning spiritual influence, along with other children from open-minded families; fortunately the church we attended allowed not just children of mixed marriages but also giant bagfuls of their stuffed animals each week. When I think of Alison and me at church, I think of us under the enormous horse chestnut tree on the front lawn, a tree that has stood in Sudbury Center since before the United States was a country, surrounded by a dozen kids who wanted to see what Alison had in her bags.
What did Alison have in her bags? First, there were the bears, usually the extended family of small ones, the Steiff bears with the gold tags in their ears that stand about three inches high but have arms and legs with joints and are thus afforded a certain dignity other miniature animals are not. Alison's bears were always nicely turned out for excursions, in sweaters my grandmother had knit them or clothes Alison had sewn herself, never as carefully as the outfits I made for my dolls and stuffed animals but always in more fashionable, daring styles. After the bears came the art supplies: colored pencils in a case shaped like a giant pencil itself, with a cap you turned to make the appropriate color fall out; Magic Markers in sets of a hundred, which I organized from lightest to darkest but Alison used so frequently she couldn't be bothered; and notebooks of all shapes and sizes, which could be used for starting a club at a moment's notice or for taking notes on an impromptu spy mission, of which I was often the unwitting subject.
It wasn't just to church that Alison carried her supplies; it was everywhere — to family dinners, to school each morning, and even for a short ride in the car up the street. (I'm not sure if this was a security measure or a practical one, but it has continued to this day. Last year Alison took the bus from Boston to visit me in New York for two days and brought along not just four substantial pieces of luggage but also beef tenderloin for twelve, a quart of blood orange concentrate, two dozen tart shells, and her own squeeze bottles "for plating," because, as she explained, "I knew you wouldn't have the right kind." I didn't tell her I wasn't certain what "plating" meant.) My mother used to drive us to elementary school in her beloved MG convertible, and a couple of teachers and administrators would often emerge from the front offices to watch us pile out of the car — the spectacle would not have been half so exciting if in addition to the two of us, our cellos, and our schoolbags, Alison had not unloaded — at least on occasion — her bear house, electronic Simon game, sticker albums, and a couple of dress-up outfits in a red metal doll trunk.
Excerpted from The Weight of It by Amy Wilensky. Copyright © 2004 Amy Wilensky. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Amy Wilensky is a graduate of Vassar College and Columbia University’s M.F.A. writing program. Her first book, Passing for Normal, was received with critical acclaim and nominated for a National Book Award. A native of suburban Boston, she lives in New York City.
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