As we dressed, my college roommate Kate stood off to the side, mixing drinks. Shelby, a friend, told me to close my eyes, while she worked an eyeliner pencil along the lids. When it bore into my delicate skin, the needle-fine point splintered. A chill rose on my shoulders, which I left uncovered despite snow drifting outside. Tonight was for skimpy tank tops, open toe sandals, and plunge necklines.
“Open your eyes,” Shelby said. “Wider.”
I obeyed. A tiny wand tickled my lower lashes. Then came the feathery swoop of a blush brush across my cheekbones. On a CD, Jimi Hendrix sang about Mary and the wind, and I sang with him. I knew all the words. My mother raised me on rock-n-roll, the psychedelic anthems of her generation.
“Wow,” Shelby held a mirror to my face. “Smokin!”
The girl I saw was me and not me. She did not wear glasses, as I once preferred. Her eyes elongated at the corners, catlike. Mascara-slick lashes arched in miniature grins. Lips, slick with gloss, made the shape of a kiss.
Still, I wore ripped jeans like I often did, perfect for sitting on the floor of some boy’s apartment and drinking forties around a table with a bong as centerpiece. I tried to ignore the miniskirts that hung in my closet, purchased by my mother. If she were here, she’d likely point to them and say, “If I had legs like yours, I’d show them off.” She’d tsk tsk at my scruffy jeans and the black puffy coat I’d later wear over my bare arms. The starlet makeup, however, would earn her approval. So would the lipstick, the sole cosmetic she believed could transform any woman’s face and, in turn, her life.
How many times had my mother told me to apply “a little blush and lipstick” before leaving for school? How many of my tart glosses were her castaways?
“Here, take this.” Kate handed me a vodka cocktail in a violent shade of purple.
I used to be a person who didn’t drink, afraid the first sip would turn me into my absentee father. When I came to this university, two states away from my mother’s house in Maryland, I set aside my childhood fear for the message I’d been promised about the power of a woman with a drink in her hand. Such women emanated joie de vivre. They controlled their lives and destinies, the way mother had when she’d sat on our back patio and sipped wine coolers at the end of a workday, when she was still capable of working. As the setting sun blazed around her, she glimmered like a goddess. I worshipped her. Back then, I didn’t know this image of control was an illusion, no matter what we used to prop us up.
At the start of my sophomore year, worried I hadn’t found a boyfriend, she told me to wear a short skirt and study in the law school library. I objected for reasons that weren’t entirely clear then but I now suspect had something to do with the lone women’s studies course I took last spring, before I started getting drunk with Kate and Shelby.
The class’s TA, in sweatpants, no makeup, and hair held in an unrepentant ponytail, mesmerized me. In a cozy room, we read Aemilia Lanyer, Margaret Cavendish, Aphra Behn, and Virginia Woolf. Their words instilled me with a new and shaky power. I envied these women who’d achieved immortality through their books, and whose exquisite minds came alive on the page. At twenty, I studied journalism and literature. I was beginning to believe a pen might deliver me to a better life than the one my mother had, with her juvenile diabetes, an experimental organ transplant, disability checks, and a dime in the bank at the end of the month—even though such beliefs felt like sacrilege at the time.
My mother always told me I could be anything I wanted, do anything on my own. She’d always said, “Never depend on a man.”
Her skirt comment felt contradictory to me, and for a moment I wondered if her language was part of a pattern I was noticing. She’d been more distant, calling less, contradicting herself. At the same time, I knew the comment spoke to her own longing for male attention, and her sense that youthful beauty and female security were one and the same. Maybe I was the one who was changing?
The last skirt she bought me—gold, mini, leather—I wore only twice. The last time, one of my male friends pointed at the skirt and asked, “Is that your hooker costume?” I awkward-laughed but felt betrayed by my mother’s purchase. Shouldn’t she know better than to force provocative clothes on me?
When my roommate’s mother visited, she bought overalls and wool sweaters in heavy, warm fabrics. Clothes to comfort and soothe. My mother’s latest purchases were the opposite of comfortable. In them, I felt minimized, discomforted.
And yet, that night, preparing to party, I was snug in my faith in her. I still believed she couldn’t steer me wrong. The clothes she bought were a sign of her love. They empowered and protected me.
“Take a photo of us?” I asked Kate as she dusted her shoulders with vanilla body glitter.
We’d read somewhere that vanilla was the sexiest scent. All of our lotions and perfumes smelled like a bakery. When boys came to study, we tried to arouse them by burning vanilla candles. We made our bodies into offerings and ornaments.
Facing the camera, Shelby and I coiled our mouths into perfect ovals, like the indestructible women we wanted to be, though the pictures argued the opposite. We looked like we were ready to receive. We cast ourselves as the acted upon, not the actors.
The next winter, I moved to DC for an internship that would earn degree credits, along with an online class, an independent study, and a night course I took a few blocks from my apartment near the National Zoo. My new schedule would allow me to graduate as planned the next year. I told others I wanted to experience DC after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I wanted to chronicle this eerie time when part of the Pentagon lay in ruin and Senate offices reopened after anthrax attacks.
The truth is I went to DC because my mother was dying, and her house was a short drive away. And yet, her death seemed impossible, unreal.
One gray afternoon, I shook with sorrow and rage as I rode the Metro to Woodley Park, a drab coat buttoned up to the neck. Tears pooled, but I refused to release them. I didn’t want raccoon eyes. As soon as I reached my apartment, I called my mother. She answered on the first ring.
“I got sent home today.”
“What?” Her voice sounded thin, flat. She was forty miles away, in a hospital room, at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where she’d had an experimental kidney-pancreas transplant at the end of my seventh-grade year.
I imagined an IV pumping clear liquid into her veins. From the outside, the drip looked innocuous. But she was receiving toxic, cancer-causing medication, a last-bid effort to suppress her immune system and save her organs, which her body rejected while I was away being a party girl. By this time, her body had bloated to twice its normal size from the toxins her kidneys could no longer filter from her blood. She could not hide her bruised skin or swollen face with cosmetics, nor could she fit into her size six skirts and dresses, the outfits she’d worn in her wine cooler days.
“What are you talking about?” She asked.
“My boss sent me home. Said my skirt was too short.”
“I don’t understand. Did you wear the gold mini? That’s for parties and clubbing, not work.” When she said “parties” and “clubbing” her voice became soft and dreamy, the way it had years ago as she’d pull me onto a dance floor, back when she could still dance, before she needed a wheelchair and crutches.
“Of course not. I wore the suit you bought me. The one you said I needed.”
I left out the part about visiting the US Supreme Court with my internship program that morning. I didn’t tell her about watching Justice Thomas openly doze and swivel in his chair, or about the moment my boss called me into her office after lunch; she said: You can’t wear that skirt to work. Men were staring at you. I don’t want anything to get in the way of your success. She used a word I’d never heard my mother say. Inappropriate. Then she sent me away.
“Your boss is sexist,” my mother hissed.
Despite the sharpness of this declaration, her voice drifted elsewhere. She said I had to let her go. She needed to rest.
Later I placed a knee-length substitute where the scandalous mini once hung in my closet. A sigh crawled up my throat. I wanted to scream. My boss spoke as if she were doing me a favor, as if there was something I should know but had somehow missed. In that moment, I didn’t understand why she reprimanded me. Men were staring at you. Wasn’t that the point?
A tug in my belly told me my mother should know better. And, she was also right. Weren’t the men with wandering eyes the real problem? Why didn’t anyone reprimand them?
This was 2002. Smash the patriarchy had not yet appeared on Yoga tops or Twitter memes. The phrase slut-shaming didn’t exist in my lexicon. I had only slut, and the slut-shamed cautionary tales of DC interns before me. And so, I could not understand what I was caught inside, the squirmy truth that my body would be my currency until it wasn’t, until I went too far and crossed into slut territory and its realms of dangerous men. Or until, like my mother, I was middle-aged and besought by a body-wrecking illness.
Isn’t this why she wanted me to uncover? Because she wouldn’t recover? Because I embodied all she was not and could not be? In my mother’s world, a woman’s worth was tethered to a young, sexy, able body, the body she believed she lost at thirteen, the moment her pancreas stopped producing insulin. What had it been it like for her to learn she had a disease that killed children thirty years before her birth, to experience blackouts in public, to know she could fall asleep and never awaken?
Years later, after she became a mother, how did it feel when she watched her teenage daughters live with an abandon she hadn’t ever known?
At the time, I resented how she tried to live through me. I wouldn’t understand until much later that the illusory image of a young, vivacious female body obsessed her because, on the inside, she thought she’d never had one. It didn’t matter that this illusion was a lie. She hid her illness behind the mask of a perfectly made-up woman and the bedazzled costumes of her youth. Perhaps she even tricked herself. I know she tricked me.
But when she began to die, neither of us could be fooled. Not even her precious lipstick or blush could hide the ravages of her disease. Yet, I could not separate her experience from mine. Her death felt like my death. And maybe she was bound to me in a similar way, but in reverse. I was more than her legacy. I was the life she did not have the chance to live. The story of who she may have been, had her disease not descended.
Later in my twenties, I developed a fleeting interest in mythology.
I learned Vesta, the Roman goddess of the hearth, was called “mother” by her vestal virgin followers.
Her name, a root of the Old French “vestment,” perpetually linked mothers and clothing. Both were meant to cover us, and to relieve our shame.
This mythology was not unique to the Romans.
In one Hebrew creation myth, Eve––Mother of all Living––brought shame into the world through the act of swallowing forbidden food. Her punishment came through another orifice: pain in childbirth, the covering of nakedness.
Shame was an ancient burden, bound to women’s bodies and our clothing.
And yet, to invest meant to “endow with authority,” as in the ironic gowns worn by priests and kings, whose rules robbed the goddess of her power and made women’s bodies sinful. The opposite of invest, was “divest”––to strip away, to lay waste, to make desolate, to devastate.
The night I phoned my mother, I was devastated. I wanted her to invest in my intellectual authority, and to divest me of her body worship, its cult of perpetual objectification. I wanted her to remind me I was okay and good, without makeup or blown-dry hair, worthy no matter what I wore or did not wear. I wanted her to admit she’d been wrong about the black skirt, the gold skirt. I wanted her to see the origins of her own sexism, to know what my boss knew about capitulation and survival. I wanted her to guide me, as a parent should, to apologize for making me vulnerable to voyeurism and rebuke.
Perhaps this was too much to expect of a mortally ill woman, but I was trapped. It felt just as shameful to be humiliated by the wardrobe she chose for me as it felt to rebel against her choices.
In DC, I sometimes cried in bed while my roommate slept. Once, my whimpers woke her up, and she asked what was wrong, and I told her everything. I told few others—not Kate, nor Shelby, nor my boss. Only my closest friends from home knew my mother could not withstand another transplant.
I didn’t know why I hid her illness, although I should have understood: shame demanded a cover.
My mother perceived her autoimmune disease as a failure, and she taught me to see sickness through her eyes. I hid for her because anything else felt like betrayal. My youthful body, the body she had generated, testified to her vanished health. My sister and I were, as she said, “the one thing I did right.” We were her perfect decoys.
Each time we were together, my mother begged me not to say a word to my sister—away at school in Boston—about the latest hospitalization. Years before, she’d forbidden me from telling my own father about her transplant, worried he might twist her illness into a weapon against her and try to take my sister and me.
Secrecy stitched us a fraudulent reality. Denial masqueraded as hope.
If I pretended my mother was well, maybe her illness would go away. If I wore the outfits she chose for me, the shiny cosmetics and hairstyles she preferred, no one who looked at me would know our secrets. In the last months of her life, I was wholly my mother’s daughter. I worshipped fantasy and illusion. Until her death shattered these false idols.
Three months after the Supreme Court skirt debacle, the black miniskirt zipper hissed a warning as I cinched fabric at my waist and snapped a button in place. Next, I pulled on a lavender blouse. Lavender was my mother’s favorite color but I flinched at the verb––was. I could not yet cast her into the past tense. I buttoned a black blazer, then walked to the bathroom.
On the way, I passed her rumpled bed, where last night I lay beside my sister, unable to sleep. All night I felt like I was free-falling, naked, from a rotten height. The ground slipped further away. Nothing could catch me. Nothing would ever be soft or solid again.
In front of the bathroom mirror, not yet covered for shiva, I applied red lipstick. No mascara, or other makeup.
It was April. A too-bright morning. Red-breasted robins strutted down sidewalks. Perky daffodils bounced in the breeze. Everywhere, nature appeared overdressed. I drew the curtains shut.
I remembered the afternoon my mother bought the miniskirt and blazer I now wore. She wanted me to have a black suit, but I’d objected. I preferred knee-length dresses with dizzying patterns, bold prints I believed poets wore.
“You just need it,” my mother had said, about the suit. Her voice slid toward me through clenched teeth. It was the same tight tone she used when she insisted that I blow-dry my hair and apply “a little blush and lipstick,” as if they carried mystical powers of protection.
“Trust me,” she said in those moments. “I know what I’m talking about.”
And I did. I accepted her opinions because she was my mother, always right, my first god. What could I possibly know without her there to instruct me? What faith could I have?
At her funeral, I wanted to run. I did not want to be on display, to be stared at, to disappoint my mother with my grim face and lank hair. Yet the black suit would please her, and so I’d chosen to wear it. I still craved her approval. I didn’t yet understand how the loss of her might liberate me.
My sister gave the first eulogy. She joked about our mother in heaven, disco dancing in a miniskirt and knee boots. Was I the only one in the room who did not laugh?
When I stood to speak, I pulled the black miniskirt down, suddenly regretful. At the podium, I opened my well-worn Leaves of Grass.
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.
I was anything but bold, not ready to be an orphan, or to say goodbye. But Whitman buoyed me through this awful morning, consoling with solidarity. Others had borne this bone-splitting ache in my chest. I was not alone. To love, to lose, was what it meant to live.
I did not know then that the book in my hand was forged from Whitman’s own sorrow, and the time he spent nursing the Civil War wounded, putting their last words to letters. Still, his poetry offered a refuge in this new, motherless world where all security had disappeared. I took shelter in his lines.
Grief, from the Old French grever, meant “to burden.” And yet, grief utterly unburdened me. This eulogy relieved me of the need to pretend, to people please, to seek approval. I went through the motions of what was expected, but I was, for the first time, completely myself: raw and unmasked.
Two years later, I crossed the Mississippi River in a used Toyota. I interviewed for my first job as a religion reporter and began to earn a living with my pen. The faith of other people preoccupied me, both clue and key to my survival.
The day of my job interview, I wore a knee-length skirt in a rollicking floral pattern. On top, I buttoned up the funeral blazer, my outfit an investment in myself and a divestment of my mother’s worldview.
To forget her ways was to kill her a second time. To remember was to kill the person I wanted to be.
Rumpus original art by L.T. Horowitz.