Tuesday, October 4, 2016

My Mother Is Beautiful

This post started out as a comment on Becky Kiser's post:


My father didn't believe in telling daughters outright that they were pretty, or even cute. What he did was adore us, spend time with us, collect photos of us, constantly until we hit puberty and started to look like Mother in her youth--at which time he basically quit speaking to us but--coincidence?--posted old pictures of Mother as a young model all over the house.

There was no escaping the facts that (1) Mother was considered to have been beautiful, not in the most fashionable way, and (2) Mother had since become ill, such that any resemblance or relation to her was at best a mixed blessing anyway. Anyway I'd read enough psychology to know exactly why I'd stopped being Daddy's Girl, and wouldn't be that, again, until Dad went blind.

Growing up, I also recognized the inescapable fact that I had not inherited Mother's English-white-rose complexion or pearly straight teeth, nor yet Dad's height, his Cherokee-copper complexion, or even the black-Irish complexion many of our other relatives got. I was sallow, spotty, skinny, flabby, with crooked teeth, generally the least beautiful member of the family unless we counted disfigured victims of accidents. I also knew it was worth the trouble to go after pretty-face jobs, anyway, and I got enough of them to satisfy my own vanity. 

In a way you may have to be a radical feminist who's read psychology to understand...the real ego-trip was being able to point out one of my sisters as "the pretty one." And admit that "the tough one" is also much, much prettier than I am. And I still got those pretty-face jobs, in my day. I looked less like Elizabeth Taylor than Mother did; for a long time the only movie star I could really be said to resemble was "Jodie Foster's black-haired double, or else, as a distant second, Yvonne DeCarlo," but now there's Penelope Cruz...if you can imagine her being active and healthy at fifty, you might say I look a bit like Penelope Cruz. More than any other movie star anyway.

But when I was not yet a pretty-face, still a baby-face, in college, a school friend asked "Is your mother beautiful?" and didn't want to hear that the answer to that question was complicated; she wanted to share that somebody had told her that the only acceptable answer was that your mother was beautiful--even if some people's mother's characters were in fact hideous.

This is the real answer. My mother was a world-class beauty, a professional model and beauty expert, even for a few years after I was born, but by the time I was born maintaining her physical beauty had become an uphill struggle that she was coming to hate. She was the one who buried those old pictures of her perfect face and figure improving fashionable clothes. She was the one who never really stopped noticing how and whether other people were as beautiful in their way as they might have been, or pointing out how they could improve--her daughters, especially--but, also, assuring us that she didn't really care whether she or we looked our best or not. 

Around the time my brother was born, Mother's hypothyroidism became a disfigurement, a disability, a physical disease. I started to have very mixed feelings about growing up to be like Mother in any way. After my sister was born, Mother was unfit to work and became a "helicopter mother" due to...hypothyroidism is not a mental illness as such, but it was definitely a mental impairment. Being around her was not like being around my original mother, who was smart, tough, and bossy. As a disabled patient Mother was sluggish, obese, slow-witted, lazy-minded, and scatterbrained. I read everything that offered any hope for growing up to be as different from Mother as possible and was not really happy when people said I looked like Mother, although anyone not actually living with Mother would have recognized that as a compliment.

Why publish this story? Because it has a happy ending. Although my own thyroid function was governed by the opposing effects of one gene from each parent, which is why I was a skinny, nervous celiac instead of a fat, sluggish one, I was able to find information that helped Mother make a comeback, go back to work, and start being a really good-looking middle-aged and old lady...and a smart, tough, bossy one, too. 

...and, later...actually I found the information first in the AMA Home Medical Encyclopedia of that day, which is no longer exactly cutting-edge, but there are all kinds of Amazon book links that have helped people who've discovered that they have the celiac gene to go gluten-free...I personally can't endorse this specific volume, but "For Dummies" books are generally pretty good first books on any topic.

Back in the early 1990s, when La Taylor divorced Senator Warner and started publicizing her heavily painted way of being a glamorous middle-aged woman, my mother was able to say "I can do that too" and flaunt her unpainted way of being a good-looking, fit and healthy middle-aged woman. She went to college, finished a degree, and walked teenaged students into the ground. She became a bit of a legend at that college; the last time I was there people asked about her. They remember a sleek little woman, about fifty years old, with a granny-knot of silver-grey hair and a figure that belonged on some sort of poster for "The Fit Fat Woman."

The hair is whiter these days, and thinner and wispier; she's finally broken down and started trimming it. The figure is stooped. (Mother used to be 5'4" like me; now she's barely 5'0" with her boots on, and I carry things on my head and shoulders constantly to maintain my own height; Mother was able to use weight lifting to maintain healthy bone density in her legs and hips.) Eighty isn't fifty. Mother doesn't look quite the way she did as a sassy college girl of fifty-eight. The perfect white-rose skin is drier; close up you might see a few wrinkles.

But those who remember her would still recognize her. The wrinkles are the kind that show dry skin on a healthy face, not that ugly-saggy-baggy look that even young people get when they're not taking care of their health. She still has a healthy face. She still works part-time, wants to work more, and is probably fit to do a full-time job if it didn't require night vision or heavy lifting.

My mother is still a world-class beauty--such that she might stand a chance in a beauty contest for eighty-something White women--and now I can say wholeheartedly that, when I grow up, I want to be just like her.