The Mother of All Gadgets

The Mother of All Gadgets

She never met a weight-loss device she wouldn't try

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Like Jack LaLanne, my mother was a fitness pioneer. The “mother of miracle weight-loss gadgets,” she filled our living room with contraptions promising a slimmer her, with no exertion on her part, beyond the purchase.

Take the popular belt vibrator of the late 1960s. My three sisters and I referred to it simply as “the vibrator,” too young to realize the word’s other connotation. It had a standing platform and a long neck with a motor on top, where an extra-wide belt was attached. The belt was placed along any body part in need of reduction and it vibrated the fat away. Or so Mom claimed. She’d strap it around her ample behind, then turn and let it jiggle her stomach before moving it down around her thighs. She even let it work on her upper arm jiggle. Her faith knew no bounds.

My sisters and I would gape, open-mouthed, listening to the vibrato in her voice as the machine inadvertently pulsated her vocal cords, as well as her flesh.

“Oooof ccccourse youuuur frrriends caaan cooome iiiin tooo plaaay,” she’d say as the little girls in our Camp Hill, Pa., neighborhood peered wide-eyed through our front door screen, watching our mom shake, rattle and roll.

The vibrator held a place of honor in our living room. It sat in front of our beautiful stone fireplace, facing the bifold, slatted doors that separated the living room from our parents’ bedroom. With the television on the far bedroom wall, viewing while “exercising” was made easy.

After months of vibrating with no discernable results, Mom decided to double her efforts. Her next purchase was the bun-and-thigh roller. The butt-width, rectangular machine had long, smooth, undulating pieces of wood held in place around a cylindrical metal tube. When you flipped the power switch—the only calorie-burning activity involved—the cylinder rotated and the curved, wooden pieces turned. Then you carefully sat down.

You had to remember to hold the handgrips on the sides, otherwise it catapulted you off. Many a friend who tried it out scoffed at our warnings to “Hold on!” and ended up face-planted onto the yellow and gold shag carpet, with serious rug burns.

Mom liked to have company during her strenuous workouts, so when we weren’t “exercising” with her, we were hanging out in her bedroom, just beyond the bifold doors, snacking on Pennsylvania Dutch sourdough pretzels and drinking red birch beer sodas. Many afternoons we sprawled on the carpet or bed and watched The Merv Griffin Show as Mom quivered away. The bun roller, like the vibrator, distorted Mom’s voice as she commented on the talk show guests.

“Whaaaat dooooo yoooou thhhhink ooof thhhhhat cooomeeeeddiaaan, Riiichaaaard Pryyyyor, giiiirls? Heeeee’s fuuuunnny, iiisn’t heeee?”

The birch beer, fizzing in our mouths, would shoot out through our noses. Who needed Richard Pryor when we had Mom?

Of all the gadgets that my mother bought, though, the oddest was the electric muscle stimulator. None of us would go near that one. It was stored in a hard, black suitcase that contained myriad colored wires, each of which was connected to a four-inch, round rubber pad. A gel was placed on the pads, and each pad was strategically placed on a fat target. Then the machine was plugged in. Jolts of current were sent through the pads and into the body, jerking Mom and sending her into spasms. She insisted those electrical impulses broke down fat, but not that we could see, even after months of this new version of shock therapy.

Throughout this procedure, we kept our distance from her. We didn’t relish our dad coming home from work to find his entire family and the neighborhood girls dead of electrocution.

To be fair, Mom did occasionally engage in true aerobic activities. In fact, she was ahead of her time in doing water aerobics in our backyard pool. She’d squeeze her large bosom through one of those truck tire inner tubes and jump up and down in the shallow end, making tidal waves for the four of us and our friends.

She’d be like a woman possessed as she ferociously pushed the inner tube down with each landing. The waves lapped up, end over end, and leaped over the sides of the pool. Those of us in the shallow end attempted to jump over them, while the brave ones in the deep end were violently tossed about in their own inner tubes. We giggled as water splashed into our mouths. We coughed. We choked.  But we didn’t care, and it didn’t stop Mom.

“More! More!” we screamed as Dad yelled, “Stop emptying all the water out of the pool!” before plunking the hose over the side and turning on its icy stream.

Mom also would play kickball, badminton and Wiffle ball with us in the backyard, bending the rules ever so slightly. Like when she hit the Wiffle ball, ran to first base, leaned over, picked it up, and continued on toward second, yelling all the while, “You can’t tag me out. I’m still ‘on base!’ ” She gave “stealing the bases” new meaning.

Those backyard games were the extent of Mom’s aerobic exercise unless you counted her habit of scooping vanilla ice cream into recipes “for added creaminess.” We never knew just how far she took this practice until years later, when she served an omelet to my blind mother-in-law. Attribute it to the heightened senses of the visually impaired, but that morning my mother-in-law exclaimed, “Georgette, did you put ice cream in this omelet?” Mom ’fessed up. At least it was vanilla.

Oddly, none of my mother’s exercise contraptions seemed bizarre back then. I thought she was clever and ahead of her time. But as I got older, it occurred to me that Mom never lost weight using them.

Like her, I struggle to keep off the extra pounds, but having watched her regimen, I know what doesn’t work. I have a separate room in my house (not the living room) with weights, a treadmill and an elliptical machine. I joined Weight Watchers. And I sometimes walk the four miles to and from my now 84-year-old mother’s apartment.

Recently, she asked me about a new miracle weight-loss infomercial she’d seen. I sighed and suggested we walk together, but she was too tired. Parkinson’s disease causes the shakiness in her voice and body now, but we reminisce about those days in our living room when a switch could turn the tremors on and off.

I may have rejected Mom’s weight-loss methods, but I’ve learned these things from her example: to love spending time with my family; to always open my door to my children’s friends; to laugh at myself; and, of course, to enjoy vanilla ice cream—just not in omelets.

Desirée Magney lives in Chevy Chase and is a freelance writer and attorney with the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project.

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