Every day I look more like my father with one major exception. He was obsessed with his looks, particularly his weight.
His man at Gucci dressed him in snazzy Italian tweed, buckled loafers and the branded red, green and tan striped garters to hold his cashmere socks in place.
Every time he lost weight he’d preen before the store mirror as the tailor tucked a little in here, a little in there. He delighted in the Gucci salesmen fussing over him like clucking hens admiring their brood. When I accompanied him on these shopping trips, I wished for a fashion shield to surround my rainbow-colored, unstructured and untailored wardrobe. Funds from my part-time receptionist job required me to shop in Marshall Field’s “Last Chance” room.
An avid devotee of the Dr. Atkins’ low-carbohydrate diet, he packed his fifty-seventh-floor fridge with white protein—cottage cheese, plain yogurt, eggs, chicken, tuna salad—plus sugar-free Vernor’s ginger ale. He disdained calorie counting and instead tracked protein grams and carbohydrates.
His favorite topic of conversation was his diet. When I didn’t change the subject fast enough, my food intake brought on unwanted rhetorical questions. “What’s in that bowl?” He’d ask already knowing it was carb-forbidden spaghetti or ice cream.
The Atkins diet was all the rage in Alcoholics Anonymous. My father cornered newcomers and hammered a Dr. Atkins wedge into their soggy brains before jotting down his phone number and saying, “Call me anytime.” Whenever he saw someone at an AA meeting holding a donut, he’d explain that a no-sugar low-carb diet keeps the blood sugar regulated and, in turn, reduces the craving for alcohol. Beginners were known to eat all-protein tuna fish right out of the can, in accordance with his dictates.
The grocery store on the second floor of his building had a deli counter with a superior version of my favorite food, cole slaw. I once purchased a pint. He caught me at his kitchen counter about to take a forkful.
“You’re not going to eat those carbs here, are you?”
His kitchen counter was strewn with the maniacal makings of a high protein drink. Next to the bartender-grade electric mixer stood pricey containers from Sherwyn’s Health Foods: powdered desiccated liver, brewer’s yeast, magnesium, Vitamin C, flax seed, liquid amino acids, sunflower oil, and liquid lecithin, a brown goo that could lubricate a car. My kitchen had potato chips hidden in cabinets and Hershey bars squirreled away in the freezer.
For a few years in the 1980s I spent weekends at the three-acre garden on the third floor of his building, Lake Point Tower. I’d spend time peering through binoculars spotting gulls, hawks and bufflehead ducks at the confluence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. My father, clad only in Gucci swimming trunks, would strike a favorite yoga pose—standing on his head—within sight of all the bathers and sun worshipers around the nearby pool.
As much as he tried, he couldn’t escape hangdog jowls and double chins as he aged.
Nor can I.