When I look in the mirror, I see my mother’s face. I knew this would happen. I share a remarkable amount of physical characteristics with her. My hands look so much like hers, I used to joke that when I looked at them, I felt the urge to smack myself for my generally disrespectful tone of voice. I have a mole near my left shoulder that is exactly the same as the one my mom had. And, despite the fact I am taller and paler than she ever was, I look exactly like her. EXACTLY.
My cousin saw me a couple years ago and said, “Jesus, you look exactly like your mother. She was…” And then he shook his head and smiled and told me about how she had this hunk of junk car that was hard to start and yet she used to go through this whole act that if he patted the dashboard and told the car that he loved it, it would start. And she somehow managed to get that crappy car to start for him. My cousin is a hard man, 57, and a vast majority of those years spent in prison. And yet in that moment of remembering her, he smiled, becoming again that little boy who magically helped start the car.
When you are poor, even when you are a little kid, you want to be part of the solution. You want to help these women who keep you and feed you and love you, even though you are a huge drain on them. There was no one who ever made me feel as safe as my mother. She was five foot one, overweight and slow on her feet and yet I knew she would somehow manage to vanquish anyone who dared fuck with me.
When I was in junior high, the toughest girl in school decided I needed to be beaten up after school because I told her to stop threatening girls who did nothing more than walk in the girl’s bathroom. I was scared at first. But when school was over and the girl found me walking to where my mom was parked and reminded me of my appointment to be beaten up, I told her, in all seriousness, “You can’t hit me. My mom won’t let you.”
I was so convinced of this that, after a full minute of just staring at me, the girl walked away and never spoke to me again. I have to let you know that I was the most unthreatening looking person in the entire town. I looked like the human version of a golden retriever. I was painfully blond, golden skinned from a life spent outdoors doing a ridiculous amount of yard work, tall and cornfed healthy. The fact I calmly told this girl who beat people up on a pretty regular basis that she couldn’t hit me because of my mommy and she believed me…well, the mind boggles.
So, about six months ago, I started seeing my mother’s face in the mirror. My mother aged the way she lived, without giving much of a shit about what other people thought. She never bemoaned the wrinkles or the softening jawline, the grey hair…none of it bothered her. My mother was convinced that a woman’s value came from her intelligence, her ability to keep those she loved fed, clothed and housed and her ability to get everyone in the house to quiet down by 8PM so she could watch TV in peace.
And yet, when I look in the mirror, I have been deeply upset at seeing my mother’s face. Why? Remember…think back. What did I tell you about her?
She was overweight. Fat. I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face and one of the main reasons I see her face is not only because I am aging, it is because I am newly fat.
And that has blocked any joy I feel at seeing my mother’s face. She died three and a half years ago. It has been so long since I have seen her smile and laugh. It has been forever since I saw her eyes light up at the mere sight of me. I miss her so much sometimes I feel the same clenching, strangling fear/grief that I felt seconds after I realized she had just died. I remember leaning over as if someone had just hit me really hard, as if the air had been knocked out of me. I was gasping and not thinking anything at all, my mind blank because it had no idea how to process a reality without my mother in it.
Then my sister started sobbing, and my aunt started wailing and my dad was as mute and stunned as me. But in the next minute, I let go of my mother’s hand and left the room. I had to call someone to come get her because that is my role in the family. My psyche was shattered just as much as everyone else’s but I was the one my mom had trained to pull it all in, shove it all down and make the call to the hospice nurse (who I ended up comforting because he had processed three dead women that day and it was only four in the afternoon and he was pretty sure he was in the wrong line of work so I patted his hand and got him a bottle of water because the fuck if I knew what else to do).
But I digress. The point is I am so fucking brainwashed that when I see my face in the mirror, I think, “I am ugly because I am fat,” rather than, “If I look closely I get to see a shadow of my mom. Here in this mirror, she is somehow still here with me. I am so lucky, I get to see her peering back at me and if I smile, I can see her even more clearly. I look like a woman known to those who loved her as a protector. Loyal, loving, brave, funny, frighteningly intelligent and someone you angered at your peril.”
But no. I despair. I sigh. I open the medicine chest mirror and leave it open as I wash my hands, brush my teeth…because I am ashamed of what I see.
The shame is not in what I see but in how I interpret what I see. I’m so sorry, mom. You gave me this face and this weirdly resilient spirit that lives behind it and all I see is what I think society tells me I should be ashamed of.
And here’s the thing that really kills me: if my mom somehow knew what foolishness I was perpetrating, she would tell me not to be so hard on myself. A woman who had life a thousand times harder than I ever did would tell me, “Oh sweetie, it’s okay. You’re beautiful and anyone who doesn’t see that doesn’t deserve you.” And she would believe every single word of it because she would see the daughter she was endlessly and unreasonably proud of.
I miss her so much. All I want is to talk with her. Hear what she has to say and in the very fabric of her voice there would be how much she loved me, no matter how stupid and shallow and simple minded I was being. How did she not say to me, “Toughen up, girlie. You don’t know hard.” She never, ever did. She treated every bullshit problem and complaint I had as if she had had as easy a life as I did.
And how do I thank her? How do I honor the gifts she gave me? By being ashamed of her face because it’s full cheeked and a bit jowly.
I have to do better. If not for me in this moment then for everything she was and did and gave. For everything that was taken from her before she even knew it was possible. For the people who left her, abused her, used her, held her back and underestimated her. Because she was a woman. Because she was poor. Because she was fat. Because she was shrill and bossy and very, very angry.
One of the reasons my marriage ended was my ex-husband was afraid I would turn into my mother. He should have been so fucking lucky.
And I should be so lucky to turn into her. I’m so sorry mom, I promise I’ll do better.