She entered the world four weeks earlier than I was prepared for. With cocoa brown skin, long lashes and lips like a porcelain doll – she was painted perfection. I had steeled myself for sleepless nights and days filled with tears – hers and mine. Instead, she slept through the night at one month, refusing to sleep anywhere but her own bed – lights off, no noise. At five, she remains my easy companion, beginning each day by crawling into my bed, her doe eyes still heavy-lidded with sleep, fingers in her mouth. When she isn’t looking, I watch her and marvel. She is in all ways beautiful.
Standing in line at the grocery store my daughter’s eyes twinkle as she lifts her head to peer at the elderly woman behind our cart. The gesture is familiar. “She’s gorgeous,” the woman says with a smile, reaching out to touch the twin ponytails my daughter insisted on wearing today. I smile and thank her, lowering my eyes in practiced grace and humility. Pride, in these moments, would be understandable – the mark of a good mother. In truth, what I feel most is relief.
I was born into a family of women who were the definition of beauty to me. Their brown frames smelled of Dixie Peach and Virginia Slims when I melted into their plump arms – feeling strong hearts beating beneath soft bellies and heavy breasts. They loved me fiercely. “‘You’re such a pretty girl’” they’d say, but I knew the truth: I was awkward and plain; a towing anomaly – all limbs and angles. I was desperate to look like them, to be them. ‘You will,’ my mother would say ‘but you won’t be happy about it’. As a child, I didn’t hear the warning in her words. To me, they were golden promises. At night I prayed that she’d be right; that one day I’d wake to find myself in a body of fullness, comfort, and beauty.
At thirteen, overnight, my prayers were answered. I went to sleep long-limbed and awkward with a body that seemed to defiantly resist puberty and woke to breasts and hips that belonged on a grown woman. This was not the beauty I prayed for. These new curves were an unwanted and unwelcome nightmare I could not seem to wake from. I cursed my five-year-old self for her prayers. At night, in the dim light of my room, I prayed new prayers. Through frustrated tears, I bargained with God. I’d do my chores without prompting and never talk back to my mother. I’d read my bible and grow up to feed starving babies in Ethiopia – anything if He’d take back this body I’d begged for; this body that had betrayed me.
When God didn’t help me I tried to help myself. I turned thirteen in August and spent the remainder of the summer trying to find a way to undo what I felt must have been a biological mistake. I’d eat nothing but popcorn for breakfast and lunch, playing with my food at dinner until my mother left the table, then dumping it in the garbage. She didn’t acknowledge the changes in my body- or my eating, at least not to me. But sometimes at night, I’d hear her on the phone with my aunts, asking them what she should do, saying I was growing up too fast. She sounded scared; I wanted to tell her that I was too.
My mother was my best friend. She was younger than my friends’ mothers – they thought she was cool. While they complained of mothers who didn’t understand them, didn’t spend time with them, and embarrassed them at every turn, I felt lucky to have my mom. Boys my own age would stop and stare when she picked me up from school. We’d spend the weekend night curled up under the same blanket, laughing and telling secrets. We shared everything, until that year.
The beginning of a new school year brought with it a ritual we waited all year for – buying a new wardrobe. My mother, the eternal shopper, planned out our day with the tactical agility of a military strike. Breakfast, shopping, lunch, and more shopping, ending the day at home where we’d lay out our treasures and determine the perfect ‘first day of school’ outfit. The year I turned thirteen would be different.
I was silent at breakfast, pushing the food around my plate while my mother laid out our shopping plan. I trudged behind her into the store – our favorite store- dread turning my stomach into knots. She smiled at the sales lady, turning down her offer to help, immediately beginning to load her arms with jeans, shirts, skirts, and dresses. Normally we’d walk the store together, giggling like co-conspiring school girls. Our ritual was to try on as many things as possible and then divide them on the racks outside the door. One rack was for things we loved, the other for what didn’t fit, didn’t look good, or didn’t meet our standards. The rack of things we wanted was always bigger than we could afford but sifting through them was half the fun.
My mother walked in front of me into the dressing room, laughing over her shoulder at a joke that I was too nervous to hear. I shuffled along behind her – feeling a mixture of dread and hope. At first, she laughed and chatted, adjusting the clothes on my body. As the discard rack grew she grew more and more silent. The sales lady knocked on our door, asking if we needed any help. “We’re fine” my mother snapped, her usual friendliness gone. She quit talking altogether when the fifth pair of size seven jeans she gave me refused to go over my new hips. I kept my eyes on the ground as she handed me things without a sound. Finally, she left the dressing room – going to do what we’d never had to do; find a larger size.
When she returned I pushed the door to let her in, she pushed it back softly – staying outside. For the next thirty minutes she handed me clothes over the door, the only words she’d say were “does it fit”. Sweat collected over my lip, my face reddened and hot with embarrassment and shame. I wished I could tell her I wanted to quit, give up, wear sweatpants to school all year or, better yet, not go at all. Instead, my answer was to hand clothes over the door, whispering “no” and flinching at her sigh that followed.
After an hour that lasted an eternity, amazingly, we’d found enough clothes for her to deem our trip successful. All of them were a size 9; two sizes bigger than last year. The cashier rang up the clothes my mother put in front of her.
“Well aren’t you cutie. How old are you?” she said to me
“Thirteen”, I answered, head down, willing this day to be over.
“I’d have killed for a body like that at her age” she said to my mother.
My mother looked from the cashier to me and nodded softly, but said nothing. She took her change and receipt and walked out of the store ahead of me.
We drove past the diner where we usually had lunch after shopping, but she didn’t stop. We drove in silence, each stealing looks at the other when we thought the other wouldn’t notice. When we pulled into our driveway my mother took the keys from the ignition, put them in her lap and sat still.
“If you go up one more size” she said “you’ll have to start buying your own clothes”.
She looked at me to see if I understood. I couldn’t look at her, but I understood. My body had failed me, and I had failed her. Hot tears burned behind my eyes and I blinked them back. She reached her hand over the space on the seat between us, stopping short of holding my hand. I didn’t move. We sat that way for a long while, close enough to touch but each alone in our own world.
That was a long time ago. My mother is still my best friend, but in all these years we’ve never discussed that day. I am a mother now to a small person who looks like perfection to me. I relish the encounters when strangers get a glimpse of the beauty I see in her. I glow with pride at the compliments, but under that pride is a shameful relief that she is not like me, and a lingering fear that one day her body will betray her; and so will I.
About the Author:
Written By: D.C. Miles
D.C. Miles fell in love with words the first time her big sister read ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’ to her. Since then her taste in literature has matured (slightly), but her love of words has stayed constant. She is a lover of books, cupcakes, pajamas, and anything on the Investigation Discovery Channel. She has spent years as a ghostwriter, editor, and consultant to other writers. Her first novel ‘Benediction’ is set for release in 2019 along with ‘Lost and Found’, a collection of short stories. A self-proclaimed hermit and recovering cheer mom, she currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area with her 13-year-old daughter.