My mother never bought herself pretty dresses or wore lipstick like everyone else’s mother. I didn’t think to ask her why back then though I was almost shamefully aware of her absences. You know, those things that make a woman look like a woman, and, presumably feel like one too.
On the television commercials, they showed the woman checking on dinner in the oven, tossing off her apron and dashing to the nearest mirror to fix her hair and apply an extra coat of ruby red lipstick. Then she somehow magically arrived at the door just as her husband climbed that last step of their front stoop, looking like he had been to war and back. After kissing him, a gleeful smile on her lips – she was so very pleased to witness his safe return home from the office, I suppose? – the woman would loosen his tie, lift his feet onto the ottoman, provided him with the daily newspaper and a refreshing cold glass of something or other.
My mother was not that woman, not by a long shot! There were no greetings at the door and a home-made meal was not always on the menu. When my father arrived from the university were he taught biology, he often greeted my mother in the kitchen or wherever else she might have been keeping herself. More often than not, she was helping my brother and me with our homework, papers strewn about the dining room table. She seemed pleased enough to see him, but her hair was usually pretty mussed up and x-nay on the ruby red lips.
When I was in grade school, I hated that she wasn’t like that woman on television. And I felt so embarrassed when bumping into my father’s fellow professors during our weekly excursion to the supermarket, which mom would ask me help her with. Worse than these important men (so I thought them to be then), were their wives, all smiles and wearing that healthy glow of makeup, not a hair out of place. I knew nothing about the wonders of hairspray yet. I wanted to say, “Gosh, mom...that was the university dean, dad’s boss! Couldn’t you...?”
But I didn’t. I kept my resentment to myself, out of respect – my parents had taught me well about respect. Besides, I didn’t want to come off as just another goof-ball in this strange family of mine, so I remained quiet. Except for this one time...
It was my first school dance. Grade seven. Now that I was in middle school, we were allowed to have chaperoned dances. There was this boy, Walter, that I really liked and I was hoping he’d find out that night, during girl’s choice.
It didn’t really bother me that my mother had been asked to chaperone, not at first anyway. When I saw Walter walking towards me, my heart stopped and I couldn’t feel my legs. I mean, I could have sworn they’d been cut off at the hips when I wasn’t paying attention. And that was when I saw mother walking towards me. She reached me before Walter did, her face damp with sweat in the over-heated gymnasium, her hair all out of sorts, and, wearing pants. She smiled and said, “Are you having fun, Ruth?”
She knew it was shame that had me run out of that gym just as Walter’s lips opened to say something to me. She never said anything but I knew that she knew. I never apologized either. Why should I? I really truly was embarrassed and wondered how this woman could possibly be my mother. How did father stand it?
She looked sad for days after that dance. Even so, she smiled as we passed each other and said how nice that Walter boy seemed and had I spoken to him at school that day. I didn’t tell her that Walter and I had in fact talked and had hardly stopped speaking since the day after the dance. I wanted to hurt her, I suppose. I wanted her to know without actually telling her that she was an embarrassment to me, and most likely to dad too.
That was eleven years ago, just a silly thirteen year old girl with so much to learn about life. I do not have the same life now, mostly thanks to what my mother taught me. It turns out I was wrong about those women on television, and about how things are rarely what they seem to be. I was wrong about how dad saw her too, and came to realize over the years just how beautiful she is in his eyes.
Everything changed for me two weeks after the school dance. I overheard a conversation between my mother and her long ago friend I had never met nor heard of until that night. Barbara - That was her name. She had stopped over in Mississauga on her way to some important meeting with some important people. She had apparently chosen to remain single and commit her life to being in charge of this organization. I can’t remember which one now. I had heard of women like her but I’d never met one before that day.
“Do you ever regret, Jean?”
“Of course not,” my mother replied. What was there to regret, I wondered.
“Jean...It’s me, Babs. The two of us were like sisters back then. You can tell me...what is marriage like?”
“Oh you know...It isn’t perfect, and...well, there are times I feel a bit boxed in. But Peter has been a good husband and I’ve never stopped loving him.”
My mother hesitated before going on, “And sometimes I am jealous of the research work Peter took over when I left the biology department. I miss feeling I am making a difference that affects mankind instead of trying so hard and never knowing whether what I do in this house makes any difference at all.”
She stood then, no longer looking like the woman I knew only as my mother until that night. “I do so love Peter, Barbara, and I’m so fortunate to be a mother.” Seeing her friend’s face wrinkle up, she turned and looked at her. “Babs! I’m not just saying this for your sake. It’s a good life, Barbara, really it is. "
“My only hope is that I’ll raise my children right and that someday my daughter will live in a world that allows her to do any of the things her heart desires, and that she won’t have to choose between a career and marriage and motherhood.”
Leaning against the other side of that living room wall, eavesdropping on what I knew my mother never meant for me to hear, I felt my hair stand on end at knowing what my mother had given up for me.
That was the day I discovered the beauty that is my mother.