Chester, Vt., August 1969. From left: My grandmother, Margaret Fuller Foster; great-grandmother Alma Haseltine Fuller, whom everyone called "Gram"; me; and my mom, Jo Foster Washburn.
When my mom was in her 40s, I remember her saying something like, “Now I understand why my mother was the way she was.” At the time, I (then a young teen) thought she was talking about the challenge of child-rearing and the normal aches and pains of getting older.

Much later, I learned that I have a hereditary condition called lipedema. Among other things, it gets worse at perimenopause, and causes pain and mobility issues. I am reasonably certain my mother had it, and it’s more than likely her mother did too.

And now I’m 48. And I understand more about why my mother was the way she was.

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The thing about our condition is that it’s fairly rare, and if you don’t know what you’re doing it’s easy to mistake it for plain old obesity. I had had it for 30 years before I was diagnosed.

My mom died of a heart attack when I was 15. To the end of her life she believed it was her fault she couldn’t lose weight. Both physically and emotionally, she endured more pain than she needed to. Not knowing there was a medical reason for her pain, she medicated herself with alcohol and cigarettes, which no doubt contributed to her shortened lifespan.

It made her cranky sometimes, and distant sometimes, and got in the way of the intelligent, funny, caring person she really was. This is who she was:

The bookworm who got me my first library card when I was six weeks old.

The reluctant Girl Scout mom whose support  consisted of serving daiquiris to the troop leader after meetings.

The former singer who made up classical-music puns for the NPR station’s bumper-sticker contest.

The poli-sci major who promised her children at an impressionable age that she would return from the grave and haunt us if we ever failed to vote in any election, no matter how minor. (Mom, I’m sorry about the school budget vote last year.)

And that’s why I write about my condition. I don’t really love telling the world I’m fat and disabled and in pain a lot of the time. But if I can help another woman know that there’s a name for what’s wrong with her, if I can keep one more woman from blaming herself and suffering more than she needs to, that’s the one gift I can give my mother.

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