The Danger Zone

It wasn't easy to be the daughter of an anxious parent, one whose worries were drilled deep into her DNA

Three generations of worry-prone women (from left): the author's mother, Gloria; her daughter, Sasha; and the author.

She was right about toxic shock syndrome.

Also, about the dangers of too many X-rays. Maraschino cherries. Any food made lurid with Red Dye No. 2. About nitrates in hotdogs and preservatives in Twinkies and pretty much everything in a Libbyland TV dinner.

She may have been right about microwave ovens, too—I think the jury's still out.

When I was a child, my mother's strictures fell under the wide umbrella of "health and safety." She didn't harp about bedtime or elbows on the dining room table; she never censored my music or reading choices, even when another 6th grader's mom went berserk over the abortion reference in "My Darling, My Hamburger."

But there were rules: No breakfast cereal that turns the milk blue or pink (which meant I ate Lucky Charms on the down-low at Evie's house). No wiggling my size-three foot into the shoe-fitting fluoroscope at the Buster Brown store, no matter how cool it seemed. No hand-stamps that were invisible until viewed under ultraviolet light.

My mom waged a one-woman resistance when Wawa stopped delivering our weekly half-gallons of skim in thick glass bottles; she believed the wax in the new cartons would leach into the milk. She resisted the lure of Tupperware for the same reason—"I don't put food in plastic," she'd declare, as if it were a religious precept—and instead cached leftovers in cereal bowls napped with tin foil (since Saran, another plastic product, was also a little dodgy).

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I squirmed, as all children do, against their parents' oddness, especially when it was on public display. Other kids might have dreaded dentist visits for the jaw-rattling grind of the drill or fear of the Novocaine needle; I cringed at the inevitable moment when the hygienist would start to take a full set of X-rays and my mother would intervene, arguing that we didn't need semi-annual, radiation-laced pictures of my teeth.

In restaurants, I tried to make myself small and obsequious as my mother grilled wait staff about the provenance of the fruit (canned or fresh?), the ingredients of the iced tea (no carcinogenic artificial sweeteners, please) or the presence of cilantro in the salsa (an aversion, not a health hazard).

When I grew up, I vowed at those moments through gritted, un-X-rayed teeth, I wouldn't be so stringently fearful, so guarded against the world's marvelous bounty. I'd use tampons and eat Captain Crunch with Crunchberries and store my food in a rainbow of adorable plastic containers with perfectly fitting lids.

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My mother's efforts to keep me safe didn't stop when I left home for college or, later, for my own apartment in Washington, D.C. Small envelopes arrived with articles snipped from the New York Times (these were pre-internet days), stories about the risks of estrogen-containing birth control pills or antibiotic-saturated processed meat.

Sometimes the articles were urban myths: All those tales of women whose cars were intentionally bumped in the night by predators bent on carjacking. But, mostly, the research proved my mother right.

That didn't make it easier to be the daughter of an anxious parent, one whose worries, I think, were drilled deep into her DNA, a legacy of our "old country" ancestors and their traumatized lives. Sometimes, the line between health concern and superstition smudged: there were fervent cautions against placing shoes on the bed or accidentally sneezing while talking about the deceased (pulling one's ear was the apparent antidote to that).

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If salt spilled, I was told to toss some over my left shoulder to chase away bad luck; if a stranger complimented me, my mother (or her mother) would spit three times—"pooh, pooh, pooh"—to deflect the Evil Eye. And if a mirror shattered … well, let's just hope that never happened.

Truth: The world is terrifying. Then, and now. Maybe my mother carried that fear in her bones, a visceral unrest that rumbled up from the shtetl and the Cossacks through the Depression, the Holocaust, the war. The beloved uncle who developed melanoma in his 30s; the grandmother who fell and hit her head on a chunk of sidewalk metal. The stillborn infant brother. The trio of deaths—two grandparents and that uncle—in three terrible years.

If we could surround the ones we love in a corona of safety and care, god knows we would. If we could forecast all the possible hazards that might waylay them, we'd banish them with a whoosh of the magical wand. And, of course, the nature of life is that we can't, we can't possibly, because we are not omniscient and the world is haphazardly and blindly cruel.

Once, my people uttered incantations and swung chickens overhead to thwart disaster. Now, science teases us with the possibility of mastery: If we just avoid these particular pitfalls (hormone-laced sour cream, chlorofluorocarbons, trans fats) and gobble these elixirs instead (pomegranate, fish oil, kale), we'll duck the speeding bullet, the marauding toxin. Then or now, it's a losing game.

I vowed I'd be different. But look, Ma: No microwave. A fridge and pantry full of organic yogurt and pesticide-free spinach. An aversion to swallowing anything more potent than an aspirin. I caution my own daughter about keeping the cell phone too close to her body. "Put on sunscreen," I text in all-caps when she's summering in Spain. Never, ever, ever get in a car with a driver who is drunk or high.

Don't run, my mother used to tell me. By which I think she really meant: Don't fall. Don't die. But I do run. And sometimes I tumble, as I did last summer, hopping from a loft bed in the middle of the night and cracking my kneecap on the hardwood below.

And when that happens—the inevitable calamity, the spill or the break—what is there but the ferocious hug and the tear-stained prayer, that look of panic, reprieve and wild, helpless love when you emerge from the near-miss to find that you made it through the surgery, the car accident, the bomb blast just two Boston blocks away, that you are still alive, still sucking air from this blessed and brutal world, still surrounded by the ones who would do anything, anything, to protect you from harm.

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