I was born at Jacob Hospital in the Bronx, New York to immigrant parents. Talk about an American story. I was the third child born into a very happy and close family.
For the first six years of my life we lived on Harrison Avenue between Burnside and 180th street.
(Mom and my sister in front of the building: we are looking towards 180th street)
I just recently learned that it was called Morris Heights. Sadly the buildings were torn down in the late 80's and replaced with garden style 2 story apartment buildings. During the time that my parents lived there (late 60s to 1980) the block had 5 story apartment buildings and the corner of Burnside and Harrison was where our local bodega was located owned by Melito. I remember being given a dollar to spend between my sister and I. We would stand in his store and calculate how much we had left to spend by doing subtraction in the air. There is now a health center on that same corner.
When my mother talks about all the places she lived in New York her fondest memories is of this two bedroom apartment. I think that it is because it is where we became a family. My parents moved into the neighborhood when my brother was a year old or so. During their time there all the children in the extended family were born, right on that block. We all shared the same primary care physician. That fact has always been fascinating to me for some truly odd reason.
In our building lived many my grandmother, godmother, aunts, uncles and close family friends. In the building diagonally across the street lived my other uncles, aunts and extended family. My father says that during that time if a kid lost one tooth they celebrated it with a huge party. The kids birthday parties weren't really kid-centric as they are these days. It was more of an excuse for our parents to clear out all the living room furniture, put some music on, dance, eat and be merry for hours on end. I grew up being the runt of the litter (sort of - there was a whole second wave of cousins that were born in the 80s) surrounded by lots of cousins, cousins of cousins that weren't my blood cousins but are still my cousins. :) It was a very happy childhood.
We all, the kids in the family, had no idea that we lived in a low income area. Nor would we have cared. We were all well cared for, happy and living a wonderful New York childhood. It included playing in the fire hydrant during hot New York summers, sledding down the hill during snowy winters, shopping at Alexander's on Fordham and visiting the Roberto Clemente park as often as possible. All our fathers were hard working young immigrants. Proud to be in the United States and hard working for their families. Sundays were the day with Dad. Special days. The only one when Mom didn't make a home cooked meal because Dad would treat us all to a restaurant meal.
The cousins on my father's side of the family were born in groups so Richard and I were only one month apart. He and I were also the chunkiest of all the kids. It certainly didn't make me feel bad or odd, it just was it was.
After the Bronx my parents moved to Manhattan, 189th street and Amsterdam Avenue. That was were I first went to school (kinder to second grade). Although our apartment was directly across the street from the elementary school the kindergarten entrance was on the far corner, 188th street. Every morning my brother would walk my sister and I down the street. I felt so proud that I could keep up with him while my older sister always lagged behind. He would walk a few more blocks down to his middle school. I remember that my brother was in the chess club and won a trophy for a tournament. I was so proud of him!
After three years in Manhattan my parents moved us to Hoboken, NJ. My uncle had been living there already for a few years (also having moved from Harrison Avenue) so it wasn't totally alien to us. We lived on the corner of Newark Street and Bloomfield Street. My mother, who is by far the least trusting person I have ever met, felt very comfortable and secure in Hoboken. We lived in a good building and directly across the street from the police department. While my brother stayed registered in his NYC high school, my sister and I were registered for Demarest Elementary School. I remember when my mother walked us to school on the very first day of school how pleased she was that Demarest was located four short blocks from our house on Bloomfield Street. Sis and I were allowed to walk to and from school on our own for the first time.
There isn't any obesity in my extended family. Both my parents always held a healthy weight and were way ahead of their times. My parents believed in a very organic diet and home cleaning cooking (low in salt and oils).
My sister and brother were really thin as kids. I not only have the square jaw line of the three but was chunky as a baby and child. Everyone in the family called me "la gordita" as a term of endearment. I never felt self-conscious of my weight was a little girl and really didn't care that I was called "la gordita". I took it as a sign of love and affection, not insult or demeaning.
I recall always knowing that I was bigger than other girls in school but I had a really health self-image from a young age. I think that was reinforced by my father, brother and teachers when they continually praised my intelligence and personality. The only times when I was awkwardly aware was during "hand me down" time. My sister is significantly more petite than me but as we grew up it was typical for me to wear her better hand me downs.
(my sister and me on Harrison Avenue. This dress was a hand-me-down)
When I was 12 my parents decided to move the family to Dominican Republic. During my 11th and 12th year I had a massive growth spurt. (Those hand me downs were super tight!) I grew to the height I am today (5''5", still short by American standards but darn tall for Dominicans (the land of the short women! :) ). During my first 5 months in Dominican Republic I had a growth spurt and lost all my baby fat. My parents had been away for about three months during this time and were seriously shocked to see the change in me. I remember them sitting me down and asking about how I was feeling, thinking, eating, exercising. I didn't understand their concern but looking back that the pictures I can see how even I would have been concerned!
I can see now that a really bad pattern was starting in my life. During the school months I lived in Dominican Republic. We walked or took public transportation to any place we wanted to go so I was unconsciously active. I wasn't conscious of what I ate and don't ever remember binging while living there. During the summer months we would come back to the New York and like clockwork I would gain 15-20lbs. Within a month of being back in DR I would be at my regular weight. I followed this pattern for the six years I lived there.
After my initial growth spurt I settled into a healthy weight range (125 to 130) during my high school years. I was pretty active and unconcerned with my physical image (beyond my hair!). My cousin was diagnosed with PCOS when we were teenagers and I saw how she struggled with losing weight. I recall watching her struggle thru a cardio class at the local gym. I am ashamed to admit that I thought "what the heck is wrong with her?" because although I worked up a sweat I didn't struggle with the class. A few years later I would so completely understand her. I was diagnosed with PCOS when I was in my early twenties. I am thankful that I didn't have to struggle with it during my teenage years as well.