I’m two and a half years older than my sister, Nat, which can mean a good eight-inch height gap when you’re both in the single digits. Add to that my olive skin and bone straight, stringy hair to her luscious deep red curls and dusting of freckles. Our mother always sewed us matching outfits for our long summer trips, visiting our family in the South. “Going clothes,” she called them. Strangers would stare.
“Are y’all twins?” they asked.
Well, yes, but I came out first.
Most of the time we glance too quickly, grouping and categorizing each other by only the flashiest of clues. The saddest part is that we often do it to ourselves as well, and no holiday makes that more evident than Mother’s Day. Take a look at the women in your life and see if you can spot the effects of those towering ideals of womanhood laid down by the mighty sages of the, uh, greeting card industry. Just mentioning Mother’s Day leaves some women feeling left out, others hoping against hope their children will remember, and still others cowering in fear because they haven’t yet measured up to last year’s Mother’s Day card. I’ve felt all these things, but it’s time to take heart.
I’d like you to meet some mothers and daughters in my own family, different generations, no matching outfits, all women hurdling through various stages, yet somehow not that different.
Let’s start with my sister, Nat. It was an ordinary trip to Costco, walking her giant Costco cart to her car, loaded to the gills with provisions for her four children, including two or three watermelons. Ploop! She wrenched the first huge, heavy melon from the cart’s child seat, AND THE CART TOOK FLIGHT, speeding for a shiny SUV. Nat streaked off, still clutching the watermelon, red hair streaming, breaking the Olympic tape as she lunged nearly parallel to the blacktop, snatching the cart an inch from a very expensive paint job. Grace was not involved.
Busy parking lot, not what you’d call a private moment. The only reason it isn’t on YouTube is because her sixteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, was in the front seat, laughing too hard to get out her phone. This is the same Sarah who says “Las Vegas smells like pizza and kidnapping,” and will sniff at herself in the mirror. “I’m looking like the opposite of a homeowner today.” Sarah hasn’t yet realized how pretty she is, and yesterday when a couple of teenage boys were wolf-calling, they lost all kinds of points. “Really, you’re yelling at two girls in a minivan?”
She’s also a certified lifeguard, and last year she had a moment that gave her a blackbelt in embarrassment. During lifeguard training, students pair into teams, taking turns saving each other from the bottom of an enormous thirteen foot-deep pool. Apparently, there was a cute boy in Sarah’s class, the kind it’s best to admire from afar, lest she open her mouth and actually say something. Don’t worry, he wasn’t her partner. Her partner actually dropped her.
They were into their third or fourth hour of diving and saving, and it was Sarah’s turn to be fished from the bottom, but partway through something went awry. Suddenly Sarah was tangled with something she couldn’t see. Trapped and running out of air, legs pushing and pushing, her face crammed against something unyielding! Knocking forward, knocking forward! Need to breathe, need to breathe!
Her face in cute boy’s crotch.
She lived, but only just.
Everybody saw. The instructor stood blinking, dumbfounded. “Take five,” she finally croaked. Sarah kept it together all the way out, but she and her friends freely admitted to some hollering once they hit the bathroom. By the time they emerged for a drink a few minutes later, an older gentleman she had never seen appeared from the depths of the rec center. “He must have been a really Cute Boy,” he said with a knowing grin. Stories travel fast.
Luck, being a remarkably consistent creature, dictated that in the midst of the unfortunate moment, another girl had scraped her leg, which stuck Sarah working with Cute Boy for the next twenty minutes. Oddly enough, Cute Boy’s first job happened to be with my son, Chase, who is also a lifeguard. “Sarah’s your cousin?” Cute Boy said. They never discussed the incident, but they did share a Look which carried the weight of all that had gone before.
I think it made Sarah feel a shade better to hear about what happened to my sister, Shara, during her junior year of high school. Shara was playing the lead role in the school play, Once Upon a Mattress, a musical theater version of The Princess and the Pea. Naturally, there were many mattresses stacked on top of one another, with a ladder to get up and down. Shara was up on top of the pile, dressed in red and white striped union suit pajamas with a trap door in the back, and in the front a long row of shiny slick buttons from her neck to her nethers. The costume was made of very stretchy knit, and having been sewn by our mother, wasn’t what you’d call sexy, until she started rolling around on the mattresses, trying to get comfortable, as you do as a pea-feeling princess.
Stretchy knit and buttonholes, so unreliable. She was a good six or seven lines into a long monologue before she realized why she was so cold. Ever had that dream where you’re naked at school, and nobody will give you a towel? There she was, exposing the whole enchilada, knowing she couldn’t leave the stage because the queen was still backstage being sewn into her costume, and there had been enough nudity for one performance.
In the orchestra pit the embarrassed musicians had long since dived under their instruments as Shara wadded her pajama front together with both hands and stalled as long as she could, finally declaring, “I’ve got to get out of here!” and climbing down the ladder with the few fingers she could spare. To her credit, she never broke character. Backstage her clueless castmates looked at her face.
“I had a wardrobe malfunction, and I don’t want to talk about it.”
She didn’t need to say a word. The next night the entire front sections were filled with teenage boys, but our mom was ahead of them. She’d sewn those buttons completely closed and installed a hidden zipper. For the rest of the run, the Princess and the Pea wiggled into her pajamas from the side.
Much time has passed, and Shara now has four lovely daughters, including a seventeen-year-old named Rachel, who has a boyfriend we’ll call Robert, because that’s his name and he gave me permission to use it. I only knew two things about Robert. First, I learned he has had one rather unphotogenic year, I assume in junior high, because that’s a low point for nearly everyone. After that I learned about the pig, a pet pig, adopted from a shelter for pets that are the opposite of homeowners. Robert told his mother he ate it.
Rachel and Robert are part of the same friend group, and teen friend groups in general are famous for creating all sorts of love spiderwebs and missed chances. At school a fair number of students and at least one teacher knew Robert and Rachel were deep in Like, but thus far the beans had remained unspilled to the two principle participants. Last year at Halloween, after a bout of reckless teenage antics, such as making scones and chatting, Rachel decided to obscure her increasingly obvious feelings by announcing to the whole group, “Eww gross! Why would I ever kiss Robert?”
The words were out, she knew they were wrong. Everyone stared. Robert was silently crushed.
A month later, on December 1st, Rachel was still carrying the awful moment like an anvil in her pocket. “I have a ham in the freezer,” her friend said, helpfully. I mean there was a history of pig.
“We could put it in his car,” Rachel said, which later struck my son, Porter, as rather similar to a horse head in his bed. Luckily, the ham was needed for some dinner or other, but the girls were galvanized, and seemed to have a pig by the tail. Naturally, that led to sliced ham at Walmart. Off they went, happily cruising the grocery aisles, until they realized it was December, and pig frozen to a car might not make the course of love run smooth.
“Tortillas, $2 for two hundred. What a steal!”
Armed with two markers and four hundred tortillas, the girls raced off to cover and fill Robert’s car with semi-edible messages. He responded in kind, the impossible chasm traversed at last, leaving behind an eau de Mexican food still wafting in both their cars five months later. I don’t know the ham situation in sixteenth-century Italy, but I do wonder if Romeo and Juliet might have ended differently if Verona and Mantua had discovered the full glory of the burrito.
There are various teenage boys swirling around Shara’s girls, and to find Robert we had to ask a few, “Are you the kid who ate the pig?”
When we got to the right one, he solved the mystery. “My brother and I sold it,” he said with a grin, his unphotogenic year most definitely in the past. I’m guessing his mother forgave him.
Two mothers, two daughters, different generations, but some twinning too. “Mother” is such a monumental word, encompassing so many titles. Parent, sister, daughter, aunt, friend, mentor, teacher, so many ages and stages, and there is not one of us who hasn’t eaten the pig at one time or another. To all the women out there running with watermelons, I want to wish you a Happy Mother’s Day! Just own it. For the rest of the year, stand up wherever you are, and be proud.