The other night I was out to dinner with two women I knew from years ago, and looking at them, I could almost see their mothers, elegant and well-dressed, just as they were when I was in eighth or ninth grade. One woman wore a lovely purple blouse with a scarf and jacket, and the other, a truly stunning woman, wore a white suit and scarf and a gold necklace. My first thought was to go home and change-- except that I don’t have anything particularly nice to change into. My second thought was that I felt about as awkward as I remember my mother looking—so many times, so many years ago.
It made me wonder how much of my feminine identity (or lack thereof) comes directly from the womb.
I keep thinking back, remembering . . .
Like the time in elementary school when my mother came into my classroom, wearing men’s pants and LL Bean boots-- when all the other mothers were already there, dressed in Pappagallo shoes and pastel-colored dresses or pencil skirts. I also remember looking around, as if seeing for the first time how most of the other girls in my class were cutely coiffed in ribbons and Goody barrettes and matching dresses, while I was wearing a giant navy blue jumper with a hem coming out, the loopy, crooked white stitches I had made the night before, barely holding on to thick corduroy material. Back then I always wore either hand-me-downs or clothes that were a size or two or three too big—to allow for growing room. Once, in music class, my friend, Mary W., asked me if I was Appalachian. What do you mean? I asked her. Like white trash, she said. You know, really poor.
I think of my mother’s lack on interest in appearance as an asset and a curse. As she put it, I’d rather be hiking than looking in the mirror. And, for the most part, I couldn’t agree with her more, especially now when I spend as much time as possible hiking, and I am hiking many of the same trails she hiked when she was my age.
But there were certain moments when I might have liked my mother to care just a bit about appearances. Like the time I was picking out glasses in second grade, and I found a pair of silvery-blue cat-eye glasses that looked just like my father’s secretary’s glasses. They were so hideous, I had to try them on. Mom,I said, I look just like Mrs. Haney! She burst into a fit of giggles. And then, somehow, before I knew it, she had bought the glasses. On the way home in the car, I asked her if I could change my mind. Nope! she said. For years I wore those glasses. I think I was in fifth grade when I finally buried them in the sandbox behind our house. I made a little cardboard tombstone and wrote in magic marker, Here lie Ninny’s cat-eye glasses. Then I buried the tombstone as well.