We all say that about our mothers, it must be some evolutionary impulse I suppose, and we hope that by saying so we reap the genetic benefits that follow. But in this instance it takes no amount of exaggeration for me to say that my mother was quite beautiful, and that I have always paled in comparison.
When I was young it seemed as if all my friends had mothers straight out of Happy Days or The Waltons or All in The Family (seriously) and mine seemed like nothing less than a young Lauren Bacall, which both intimidated the hell out of me and made me alarmingly proud at the very same time. How she managed to look lovely regardless of how little money we had (and how less and less it became after my father was struck with cancer) I will never know. But how she felt about beauty is something I will always remember: it mattered only a little, and in comparison with generosity and grace, kindness and humility, intelligence and tolerance, it mattered not a whit at all. Her aim in my life - in the life of all three of her children - was to raise the best adults, the best human beings, she possibly could. What we looked like, and what we achieved with those looks, meant absolutely nothing to her.
What mattered was the number of novels we devoured and the grades we brought home, those words teachers scrawled on report cards as to whether we were a pleasure in class or utter hell, the friends we coveted, the loves we reciprocated, whether we knew enough to do something brilliant in this world, whether we had the grace to fail and get back up. She told me a hundred times that looks were temporary - a blessing when acne sprung upon me with Wagnerian ferocity; when pizza and chocolate became my Prozac of choice and thus poundage did apply - and that to judge ourselves either too harshly or too lovingly was a trap. A joke. A lie.
I think she watched her wrinkles come and her red hair turn dark and was glad she had Updike and Cather and McCarthy and Dinesen to keep her company, but I also know that growing older pained her. Not in the expected ways, because she believed Bette Davis when she said 'Old age is no place for sissies.' What pained her was the invisibility. The gradual fading away while younger, newer takes over. How she went from having all doors opened to just a few. How years became a slight cross to bear, although she bore them so regally, and how inside she still felt 32 and could not understand how no one saw that. The way that years should add up to something, not detract. She despised my admission that at 42 I felt 'too old' to begin a real writing career. For if I felt 'old' at 40 what did that say about her at 70? Was I negating her still being on this earth? Could I not see she was just as viable if not more so?
And of course that's not what I was saying at all.
It had nothing to do with numbers or wrinkles or chronological gravity: it had to do with fear of a blank page and a new start and it was personal, all mine, just me. If she were still here I would tell her that. If she were here, my beautiful brilliant mother I would take her hand and tell her that nothing ever diminished her. Nothing cut her down. Nothing made her less. But she is gone and I am left with a blank page again. At 49, I do not know how old I feel. Sometimes I'm happy to merely feel anything at all.