When I was eight years old, my mother bought a pair of high-heeled shoes. They were red, sling-back, closed-toe three-inch heels. I remember them distinctly because even at that age I sensed that they were an unusual purchase for my mother, who never wore high heels, and especially red ones. My mother was a martyr. She gave up caring about herself the day she became a mother. She was beautiful as a teen and young adult. Raised with money, she was well dressed, had perfectly straight white teeth, a cute figure, long blonde ringlets, and sparkling blue eyes that shone against her Arizona tanned skin. But her selfish side, if she ever had one, must have died on the cross of labor and delivery in 1973 when I was born, the first of her nine children. My mother wore sensible, comfortable shoes. Boring shoes and many times no shoes at all. She was literally barefoot and pregnant most of my life at home. She was a short, round mother. Round with child, and round with the remains of carrying the child before. It hurt my feelings when other kids teased me about my mom being fat, because I loved her and felt protective of her feelings.
But secretly, I wished my mother wasn’t so plain. I wished I had a stylish mother with a trendy hair cut, or a savvy mother who went to work every day dressed to the nines. My mother wore homemade one-size-fits-all muumuus made of bland, olive calico. She rarely cut her naturally curly hair, which when brushed through orbited her head in an unruly frizz, and her cosmetic collection consisted of a jar of Cover Girl foundation, a small compact of blush, and a Maybelline Great Lash mascara which she kept on the bookshelf in her room, and only wore on Sunday’s. I was embarrassed of her, and I was torn between those feelings and my feelings of loyalty to her.
I loved it when those red shoes came into the house. She didn’t wear them but for a few times to church, but I remember still how beautiful her feet and legs looked, propped up like a proper woman’s legs and bathed in nude pantyhose. I remember how proud I was to have a mother who had such beautiful shoes. I would often get them from her closet and hide them in mine during the week so I could wear them around my bedroom and pretend I was a grown-up woman. The red shoes didn’t hold her attention long though. They were impractical, and Sunday after Sunday the red shoes didn’t appear.
As I got older, the differences between my mom and my friends’ mothers grew more distinct. I was coming into my own womanhood, and trying desperately to figure out beauty without her example. I exercised to Jane Fonda videotapes, going for "the burn", and I spent hours cementing my hair in place with Aqua Net hair spray and practicing makeup techniques I’d learned from Seventeen magazine. I had a job from a young age and my money went to beautifying my life: satin bedding, shoes that matched each outfit, curling irons, eyeliner pencils, manicure sets, even placenta treatments for my hair. It wasn’t that I was an especially vain girl, but I was conscientious of "breaking the mold".
There were a few other "red shoe" moments in her life, when I thought she was really going to do it. She was really going to start being beautiful and taking care of herself. One of those moments was when she bought some turquoise dangly earrings. Real mothers wear earrings. One was when she bought a skirt and top from the Mall. Another was when she had my dad dye her hair blonde and she had it cut. I would always get so excited and encouraged by these small tokens of normalcy. One year she joined Weight Watchers and she got herself some walking shoes. She walked every day for miles and miles. She would come home with blood soaked through her sneakers from blisters that had formed, popped, and bled, but she just kept on walking, and she walked off nearly one hundred pounds. She was a completely new woman, and she bought jeans. Yes, jeans. And she wore those dangly earrings and bought a beaded necklace too. She was spunky as all-get-out, for a while at least.
Though I focused too often on what I wished she was as I was growing up, it wasn’t lost on me, as I watched her, how I wished I could be like her when I was a mother myself. She was remarkable. My mother is an incredibly talented artist. She painted a gorgeous oil on canvas of me in all my glorious baby chub that hung over my grandmother’s piano. She baked and decorated the most creative birthday and holiday cakes that any of my friends had ever seen. She sewed almost all of our clothes, including matching Easter dresses for the four girls with hand-smocked pinafores every year, and all of our prom and later, wedding dresses. She did pencil and charcoal sketches of my dad and her children, and The Beatles. She loved Paul McCartney. Once, before going to his concert, she actually worked for weeks sewing life-size dolls complete with hair and clothing of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, which she delivered to Paul’s bodyguard. She knitted our Christmas stockings, along with our hats and mittens, and she made us each a personalized Christmas ornament every year. She made cute flannel board stories for us, and finger puppets out of garden gloves, and dolls galore. She was always sewing or crafting or creating something. She would sometimes stay up all night long finishing projects for us, even with fussy babies waiting for her in the morning. She frequently had puffy bags under her eyes.
My mother read to us. Even as teens she believed in bringing us together through stories and books. We would gather in a bedroom and she would read us chapters from classic children’s literature like James and the Giant Peach and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. She was a great storyteller too, and my versions today of "Little Red Riding Hood", "The Three Billy Goats Gruff", and "Jack and the Beanstalk" are really her versions. She sang to us as children, songs about Jesus and songs from Mother Goose Rhymes, and she taught us little finger games. She taught me to clean, sew, knit, cross stitch, take care of a baby, and how to make a meal out of nothing in the kitchen.
My mother saved herself for last in everything. With so little money and so many children, the clothing budget had to be stretched very thin. That’s why with what few dollars she had left she would buy a few yards of calico on sale to sew herself something. That’s probably why she gave up trying to keep up with affording haircuts and makeup for herself. What I focused on as a lack of attention on herself, was in truth a focus on us. She wanted us to have everything. I can picture her standing sleepy-eyed at the stove in her nightgown, cooking pancakes for us. She would pour that batter over and over, serving children who often were coming back for seconds, until there was none left for herself, but she never complained. She took the meat that no one else wanted at the dinner table, and she ate what was left on our plates. She baked cookies galore just to see us smile and share them with the neighbor kids, who didn’t have moms at home baking cookies. That was the biggest distinction I started to see as I got older.
Other moms were stylishly dressed, but always at work. Other moms had marriages drenched in alcoholism and verbal abuse. My friends never had new dresses sewn by their mother, or gorgeous homemade birthday cakes, or darling handmade dolls, or cookies waiting for them when they came home from school. They didn’t know half of the songs and stories that I knew,
and they didn’t have the luxury and security of going to bed at night with parents laughing down the hall, instead of fighting.
My mother became beautiful to me, really beautiful, when I became a mother myself. With the birth of each of my children, I have become more keenly aware of her sacrifice as she reared us. No wonder my father called her our "beautiful angel mother". He could see the beauty that radiated from her soul. Her patient, selfless, fun-loving soul. She truly was the example of beauty that I needed all along.
I am a mother who watches her weight, shaves her legs, and wears makeup even on Tuesday’s. But I don’t consider any of that to be what makes me beautiful. What I am proud of is that every batch of homemade dinner rolls I make is my mother’s recipe. What I haven’t forgotten is that every time I sing "A, you’re Adorable" or "Little Bunny Froo-Froo" to my children, or recite "Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross" to my baby bouncing on my knees my mother was the one who first sung them to me. So much of what I teach my children now, I learned from my mother. I was caught off guard a few years ago when looking through a newly developed roll of film to see a picture of me in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on a birthday cake I’d made. I stared at my hands in the picture. It was shocking. They were her hands. My facial features favor my father’s side, but those were unmistakably my mother’s hands. I am grateful that she gave them to me and taught me how to use them.
As my life as both a woman and a mother has progressed, and I have discovered the deeper chambers of my heart, some filled with a love I could never before have imagined, some filled with pain that to speak of would be unbearable, and others still filled with quiet fear that rumbles low, a more important discovery for me has been that my mother’s heart contains those same depths. I come to know her now in life more as a woman-friend. I feel as though I can more fully see her. We are quite different women, she and I, but I honor her as my mother and very first mentor. She was wise enough to know that red high-heeled sling-backs don’t really bring the confident beauty that she desired for her life. Neither do vanities of makeup or chests of jewels. She settled into the practical shoes and got to work, waiting while I learned that for myself.