Renée's funeral was this past Saturday: she had died more than a week before due to cancer, advanced age, and likely quite a few other contributing factors (diabetes?) exacerbated by morbid obesity. With respect to her obesity, my aged and aging parents were likely not the only ones who were surprised that she had lasted so long.
—And therein lies a great deal of what was so unfair in life where Renée was concerned: being fat defined her for a lot of people, and oh, how it served to define and constrain her view of herself.
Renée was the mother of one of my very best friends during high school and college. But I was aware of her far earlier than before my friend and I became such good friends: sometime after I'd been called to be the Junior Primary pianist (Primary being held on Wednesday afternoons before The Divinely-Revealed Sunday Three-Hour Block), I had occasion to go into the chapel (where Senior Primary was held). Renée was at the podium because she was the Primary president. She wore a wig (as she did most Sundays, her own hair being too disproportionately sparse to be considered fit for public appearances). She looked nice — she always had lovely facial features, a beautiful, beautiful alto speaking voice, and an infectious laugh and smile. But she was very large — and it struck me then, even as a pre-teen, that it must have been very hard to be so fat and to have to put oneself forward when one might rather not draw attention to oneself. And indeed, being Primary president was the toughest church calling she'd ever had (and perhaps ever) — I think because some children aren't shy about asking questions or making statements, and the word "fat" was used around Renée — within earshot, sometimes to her face… and her daughter told me that Renée wept after pretty much every Primary session.
I could be wrong (particularly about those years after I'd gotten married and moved away), but I don't think Renée ever served in any other leadership positions. Perhaps the pain of Primary induced her to refuse any such calls. Or perhaps the ingrained prejudice against fat people short-circuited local male leaders' inspiration to call her to any such, but so far as I know, she was never called to be in any Young Women or Relief Society presidencies (or any stake-level positions in which Mormon women are nominally "leaders").
Renée hadn't started out fat. She was never super-de-dooper slender, but had a lovely curvaceous figure according to the norms of the day (in the late 1940s, 1950s). The photos of her and her to-be and then husband were proof that she was far more pretty than her husband was handsome (not bad-looking, just not blessed with classically handsome features). Once the children arrived, however, then on came the weight, never to depart — no matter how many diets and attempts and efforts, some — perhaps all — of which were undercut by what her daughter described as chronic noshing as she cooked. (Renée was a fabulous cook — of Italian especially, and she was the leader of the church congregation's most successful building fundraising activity: making and selling pizzas.)
Her obesity took a psychological toll on her: she was often so depressed that she could not get out of bed. I don't think Renée was naturally shy, but although she was active in the church (as in attended every Sunday, or nearly so), she was less likely to show up at adult-only activities. I don't recall seeing her in any of my parents' collection of photos of various quorum dinners, dances, and so on. Her kitchen was almost always a vivid testament of her internal turmoil: even I, who have been the producer of gargantuan and long-lasting heapin' helpin's of chaos, would be hard-pressed to match the State of Things in their home most times I was over there (and I was over there a fair bit). And while they had a built-in pool (which I took advantage of whenever I could), I do not ever recall seeing Renée in the pool, ever, ever, ever — even on the hottest days. Perhaps there was no swimsuit available to accommodate her? Or perhaps she could not bear to bare so much of herself, even to her family and to close family friends.
I write this while struggling with my own self-image, upper arms a-jiggle and all, having lost a couple of kilos over the past few weeks… but wanting and needing to lose a whole lot more. How much has my roughly decade-old weight gain defined me? Constrained me? Going to the Lac d'Esparron with my younger German Quinsonnais friend Claudia last week, and actually daring to strip down to my swimsuit to get into the (frigid!!) water was pretty hard, but I did it, despite far too much (pale!) dimpled flesh. I am nowhere near as overweight as Renée was during much of her adult life, and I still perceive of myself as capable of losing weight, capable of staying active (ping-pong, Mrs Sporty). I do not think I would cloister myself as Renée so often did — but I digress.
As I have discovered via facebook, most if not all of Renée's family buys into tea-party politics. My friend went and remains much further out than all of them, to the point where she cut off nearly all ties to them (and to me) long, long ago. (I'm not sure I can find a way to gracefully ask if she went to Renée's funeral. One would hope — and yet I just saw photos of the family at the funeral, and she is not among them.) I'm told that Renée came very, very close at the same time to being sucked into the same cult that swallowed up my best friend… "and thus we see" that even intellectually gifted people (my friend and her mom among them) can end up using their intellects to build enormous and elaborate constructions atop one or more very false premises. (Yes, I know that they would say the same of me.) Beyond obesity, the other great sorrow in Renée's life was, in fact, the mind-boggling estrangement of her daughter, my best friend — and she grappled with the guilt of having gone along so far in tandem with her daughter. I don't know how much she blamed herself for my friend's transformation.
I'm glad my parents and I stopped by and saw Renée last year en route to Los Angeles. My dad wasn't interested in making the detour, but as we approached the city where she and pretty much all of her family live (except my old best friend, of course, alas), he had a change of heart and we spent a pleasant hour catching up and renewing acquaintance and all. I would have very much regretted having passed up the chance to see her, since it was pretty clear that she was on a downward trajectory. But she was her same sweet self, same lovely speaking voice (if a bit labored and breathy), same smile despite physical pain and infirmity and underlying heartache for her lost daughter. She was still grossly overweight, but illness had reduced her size a bit.
If there is a hereafter and a bodily resurrection, the teaching that one's body will be "restored to its proper frame" (cf. Alma 40:23) must lend considerable comfort to those who, like Renée, ended up carrying more flesh upon their frames than they desired, and who suffered socially, emotionally, and physically because of it.
Rest in peace, Renée.