My Mom’s Crooked Smile

After reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, I became completely engrossed in feminist literature.  I became sort of a binge reader, consuming mass quantities of books without fully enjoying their substance.

Some tidbits stuck with me.  I do not recall the author or the book, but I remember a theory about why mothers and teenage daughters have such strained relationships.  The author concluded that women, in general. compete with other women for desirability.  As the bodies of teenage girls begin to blossom, the mothers find themselves in competition with their daughters- a contest the older female usually does not win.  This creates jealousy and causes tension because the mothers do not want to acknowledge these feelings, and even if they did, how do they deal with them?

I found this theory intriguing.  In my own life, I have certainly been known to create unnecessary rivalries with other women.  Of course, this theory was a lot easier to digest when I was a twenty-something hottie.  As a thirty eight year old mother of two, I want to scream “No! That’s ridiculous!”

But I know the truth.  As much as I’d like to believe I am a person of substance, watching my once toned physique give way to sags and wrinkles is not easy.  I live in Arizona.  With the weather often in the triple digits, the girls here are dressed in little more than a few Band Aids.  Meanwhile, I have now taken to wearing those oh-so-attractive knee-length shorts.

I have no idea if mom felt a rivalry with me.   I’ve never asked her.  But looking back, rivalry or not, my attitude as a teenage girl could not have done anything to help her esteem.

I recall an incident where I looked myself over adoringly in a full length mirror, and proclaimed to my mom “If I ever weigh over 140 lbs, just shoot me.”  140 lbs was so beyond my realm of possibility- cattle had to weigh more than 140 lbs, right?  Certainly any positive influence I might impart on the world would be overshadowed by the mere existence of the hideous monstrosity of a body of that staggering magnitude.

I realize now that my mother at the time was most likely over 140 lbs.  Some sitcom mom probably would have sat me down for a special conversation in which I learned a valuable lesson.  Her polar opposite might slap me across the face, followed by a “Bitch! Get over yourself!”  But my mom just looked taken aback and said “oh sure.”  Looking back, I remember the hurt beneath her gaze. (for the record, I have not weighed 140 lbs in at least twenty years, and I think I’ve somehow managed to make an ok life for myself despite the setback).

When I was a senior in high school, my mom was diagnosed with a massive brain tumor.  It had grown to the size of three golf balls and was pressing on her brain stem.  She broke the news to my siblings and me after school.  She was scheduled for surgery the following day.  At the time, doctors gave her a 10% chance of survival.

I spent that night and morning begging God to spare my mom.  I loved her, of course, but beyond that, I did not know how to function without her.  My mother is the definition of the word matriarch.  You could not blink an eye in her house without her knowing.  Perhaps it is just a function of raising six children- if she didn’t keep a tight watch, the whole house might devolve into chaos.  I thanked the heavens when we got the call that she had made it through the surgery.

I would love for this to be a story where I overcame my selfish teenage nature, and took on added responsibility as my mother healed.  This is not how the story ends.

The doctors advised that recovery for my mom would be a long and uncertain course.  I heard those, but I didn’t process what they really meant.  As the eldest daughter in the house, many of my moms’ responsibilities were on my shoulders.  At first, I cooked the meals and cleaned the house.  I was not happy to do it, but I understood the circumstances.  Over the course of months though, my social life began to take priority over my familial duty.

Weakly, my mom stumbled from her room, and asked me to hang up the phone and cook dinner.  After another ten minutes of conversation, I begrudgingly hung up and began to prepare the meal.  Mom came to talk to me, trying to impress upon me how she needed to eat at specific times so she could take her medication.  I am ashamed to admit that I was annoyed at her mild insistence.  I couldn’t wait for her to eat her food and climb back in bed, so I could dial the phone and continue my conversation.

I came home the next night to find my dad microwaving a meal from a can in a metal pot.  Sparks were flying in the microwave.  I belittled him for not knowing that metal and microwaves don’t mix.  I shooed him from the kitchen, and took over.  It would not be long before my mom realized, healing or not, we were unwilling or incapable of doing her job.

The surgery left my strong, normally antagonistic mother weak and disoriented.  It scared me to see her like that.  The effects were not just felt- they were visible.  Half of my mother’s face was paralyzed.  One side of her mouth drooped.  She had to have a weight inserted into her eyelid so it would blink.

I returned home from school one day to find my mother staring at herself in the mirror.  She later told me that she was trying to see if she could get the muscles to respond the way she wanted them to, see if she could force a smile.  She caught me watching her and asked if I would help her wash her hair.  It made me nervous to touch her scar.  I lathered the shampoo and rinsed quickly, anxious to have the job over.  At no point did I think of her, and how uncomfortable she must have felt having to ask for help for a simple task.

The muscles and nerves in my mother’s face have grown stronger.  Her smile is a bit crooked, but it is beautiful just the same.  If you didn’t know about her surgery, you probably wouldn’t even notice it.

I don’t know that I was more selfish or egotistical than the average teenager.  I just had bad timing and an unwillingness to adapt.

I beat myself up for many, many years for letting my mom down.  I talked to friends about it, and they reassured me with the standard “you were just a kid.  It was too much on your shoulders.”  But I knew the reality.  I did not take care of my mom when she needed me most.

As an adult, I began talking to my mom in the way I wish I could have when I was a teenager.  It took years, but our trust was renewed.  I did my best to show her I was a new person, but the past still plagued me.  At one point, I told her how sorry I was and asked her forgiveness.

She responded by saying “There is nothing to forgive, but if you need me to forgive you, I do.  Now forgive yourself.”

You could easily sum up this memory with the cliché “beauty is only skin deep.”  But those words sound trite for such a profound experience.

Tonight, I will have dinner with my mom.  I made our family noodles, from the recipe that has been handed down for five generations.  When I told my husband I was going to cook them, he said “do you really want to serve those to the master?”  He’s right.  Mine will not compare to hers.  But in serving them, I feel like I am paying tribute to her.    Maybe she’ll pass along some wisdom for making them less doughy or more flavorful.  I could compete with her, but instead I choose to learn from her.  She has a lot of knowledge to share.


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