By Lara Lillibridge
I looked over my shoulder as I was getting in the shower and saw my naked back. I paused for a moment to really look and see what aging is doing to me. The mirror reflected back a younger version of my mother’s bottom.
My body now has that soft doughy consistency that made my mother so pillowy soft to hug. As I lose elasticity, everything is settling lower like a pair of slightly too big sweatpants that I could just shrug off and find my younger body underneath.
I have always thought that I was a prettier version of my mother. Relatives could always pick me out of a crowd as my mother’s daughter, even if we had never met before. When they told me I looked just like her, I always heard their unspoken phrase, “only prettier.”
That was supposed to be how it worked; every generation was an improvement on the previous; daughters were a shade prettier than then their mothers, a hair taller, their teeth improved by fluorinated water. I always felt bad for girls who had mothers who were far more beautiful than they were; it seemed a cruel trick of fate to not be able to live up to your mother’s beauty. I never worried about it myself, because I knew I was prettier, but when I looked in the mirror and saw my mother’s body looking back at me, it occurred to be for the first time that I might be wrong.
It’s unsettling to realize something you have believed to be an absolute truth is wrong, but it is exciting too. I felt like I might be on the cusp of great knowledge, even if that knowledge was that I had lived my whole life as self-centered and arrogant. At least I could come to this revelation before it was too late, as my mother is still alive.
It’s hard to look at someone a generation older than you and appreciate how they looked when they were your age. Bad photography and worse fashion trends mask the natural beauty underneath. I can’t see the lines of my mother’s face in most of the old Polaroids and small three-and-a-half by five-inch snapshots. My mother has the same hourglass figure as I do, but a little more padded. When she was young she had thick straight black hair, which must have been striking and far better than my hair has ever been. It’s hard to sift through evidence of half-remembered photographs; I was always too focused on the once-stylish clothes that now seem atrocious, the cats-eye glasses. I can’t see who she used to be.
If I could see her now how she was then, in modern clothes with non-obtrusive spectacles, whom would I see? Might I see a version of myself more similar than not? When my mother was at my stage of life, she kept her hair short and wore the polyester pantsuits popular for businesswomen in the 1970’s. I can’t remember her wearing dresses more than once a year, and I never saw her with a different hairstyle other than the one she has now. My mother’s hair was salt and pepper almost all of my life, now it is all salt. Although she dyed for a year or two, mostly I think of her as black streaked with white. She always looked older than she was to me, but then anyone over 18 was middle aged in my book. A child can never see an adult as anything but old getting older.
My mother had a bad eye, a swollen red puffy eyelid for all of my childhood. How would she have looked without it? Would I have seen her as a great beauty? I never minded her eye—it had been like that for as long as I could remember. You just looked at the rest of her face and didn’t settle on that one area. It didn’t matter to me, but I know it mattered to her. I know it made her give up on beauty. What if she shaved her legs and had soft, shoulder length hair and wore cute boots? Who would she have been then? Who would I have been, growing up with a mother admired for her looks instead of her brains?
What if I had the mother I thought I wanted when I was a teenager? The kind of mother who cared about clothes and the right hairstyle and taught me how to apply eyeliner properly, instead of the mother I had, who entreated me not cover up my pretty face with shimmery blue eye shadow? Would I have been more popular, prettier, more confident? Or would I have scorned every beauty secret and ran away on my bicycle with unbrushed hair? What if my mother pushed me to sit properly on the sofa instead of reading for hours in the backyard tree, or bought me pretty dresses and yelled at me for getting dirty instead of letting me run barefoot through the grass and hunt frogs in the neighborhood creek? Am I only feminine and pretty because I was allowed to be otherwise, and chose this?
I found an unrecognizable picture of my mother from before I was born. I horde it like the white linen napkins that you only bring out for company; if I take it out too often, other people’s eyes will wear away the image, I fear, with their hungry devouring glares. It is a picture of my parents from before I was born, standing next to my father’s plane. My mother’s hair is dark and shiny, down to her waist. She is wearing contacts and smiling, her figure Monroe curvy in clothes that aren’t mortifying. She is more beautiful than I have ever felt I have been or could be. I don’t recognize her as my mother, but instead as some sort of clone or sister-cousin. Someone I almost know, if I half-close my eyes and picture her with bad hair and big plastic glasses, twenty extra pounds and dated clothing. It is the lurking secret mother I never knew I had, the one that looks like me, only prettier.
Lara Lillibridge is a mother, writer, off-key singer and an occasionally inappropriate dancer.
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