To protect me from nut reactions, before allergy labels and anaphylaxis awareness, there was simply my mom.
A lot of people with a food allergy can vividly remember their first brush with anaphylaxis. Like me, they probably were not expecting this day when your food innocence is lost forever.
My first time was a Saturday afternoon in 1971. It was raining. I was a little girl and my mother and I were sitting on a rust-colored sofa. On the coffee table was a bowl filled with what I believe were walnuts. After showing me how to open one, my mother ate the nut and then placed a chunk in my mouth.
As I was playing a game with my mom, my first love, I felt safe and happy Laughing, I looked up at her for the next bite, and she made a face.
It was a face that I knew meant trouble. Drool began running from my mouth. My lips trembled. It felt as though something had grabbed me fiercely by the throat. My mouth felt strangely full and swallowing was hard. My face was hot. I could only respond by flailing my arms about.
“It’s the nuts,” my mother said. “Poor thing,” said my grandmother, who by now was standing over me, too. My eyes were too swollen shut to see her; everything had gone hazy.
By 4 years old, I was consciously aware that I was “allergic to nuts.” Not just walnuts in fact, but all nuts: Brazil nuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans, pralines – and peanuts. “Peanuts!” bellowed one skeptical pediatrician. “But peanuts are legumes!” My doctor was not my only skeptic.
“Isn’t that a white people thing?” asked my African-American day-school teacher when my mother dropped me off for the first time. “I have never heard of a black child who is allergic to nuts,” she said.
“Well she is, and it is not strange at all. I am allergic to shellfish,” my mother replied, almost proudly. My mom and only my mom understood me at that time.
“God gave a food allergy to me because he knew that I would need to see what it is like to understand you,” she would tell me. “We cannot eat everything that is put in front of us without checking or we can get very sick.”
And so it went for us in the 1970s and 1980s. In the time before Whole Foods in our city; before warnings on food package labels. A time when peanuts were widely served on airplanes, and PB&J sandwiches were absolutely everywhere at school. But the worst part was just how insensitive people were:
“So she cannot eat any of the cake at all? Not even the frosting?”
“I do not want to ruin my kid’s party because your kid can’t eat nuts.”
First grade introduced a new life of long hours without my mother as my vigilant protector. But with time, I came to understand my food allergies. A year with only two reactions was considered a success; there was no help from the FDA, a magazine like Allergic Living, or special grocery store sections. Mom’s lessons were all I had. And brazen allergy ignorance lurked around every corner.
One candy store clerk was out of Sugar Babies and so offered me a Snickers bar instead. “I cannot eat those,” I said. “I am allergic to nuts.”
“You’re lying. I never met a kid that could not eat nuts. I will pay you $5 to eat it,” challenged the nasty clerk. “I want to watch what happens to you.”
I was tempted. Five dollars was a lot of money to a child back then. I weighed what would happen if I accepted her challenge: itchy throat, swollen face, belly ache, trouble breathing and perhaps worse. I thought of my mother. Then I exited the store with my health, dignity and a small bag of Brach’s orange slices.
Upon hearing the story, my mother was furious. “What a … heifer,” she screamed. On another day, my mother would confront that same clerk, and I did end up getting my five bucks. Not for eating a Snickers bar – but to keep my mom from kicking her butt.
My mother passed away in 2007, and so much has changed even just since then when it comes to public awareness of food allergies. Still, when I think back to when I was growing up, I’m not sure I would have made it without the teaching and fierce love of my mom, a food allergy advocate who was well ahead of her time.
Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty is an archives and rare book consultant in New York City. She dedicates this column to her mother, Rochelle Weaver, and all the other parents who worked so hard during the food allergy dark ages.
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