I moved across the country to be with my mom last summer, after my dad died. She lives in Montreal, and after a few months I actually managed to find a job, despite my lack of French, so I guess I’ll stick around a while. Mom is happy to have me here, and I’m happy to be here for her. We have family dinner every night when I come home from work. We go grocery shopping at the market, try new restaurants, stroll around the Museum of Fine Arts on Sunday mornings.
Occasionally I invite friends over for dinner with us, and everyone has a great time. Inevitably, whenever I see my friends again after they’ve met my mom, they say, “I love your mom. She is so cool. She’s so beautiful.”
Yep. I know my mom is beautiful. I’ve always known. My dad loved telling the story of how he fell for my mom like a ton of bricks, after she simply smiled at him one day in the university corridor, and said hello. Looking at my mom, it isn’t hard to believe that’s all it took—a smile and a word. I used to watch her put on her make-up and get dressed to go out—a ritual that never failed to fascinate. When she was ready, she’d squirt on some perfume, pick up her handbag, and my dad would whisk her away to some mysterious and grown-up destination. I couldn’t wait to grow up myself, so I could do all those things and be like her—even if I also knew that I looked nothing like my mom, who is tall (for a Filipino), slender, and white-skinned. I, on the other hand, was short and round as a dumpling (still am), with skin deeply brown from playing outside in the tropical sun.
Mom’s favourite book and movie of all time is Gone With the Wind. I was nine years old when I read the book, and even younger when I first watched the movie. In my mind, Mom and Vivien Leigh/Scarlett O’Hara became intertwined, like Scarlett’s idea of her mother Ellen and the Virgin Mary. Both Mom and Vivien/Scarlett were beautiful, but somehow unapproachable. You could love them, admire them, even revere them, but you could never get too close.
Scarlett’s mother Ellen was a benign and gentle presence, but my mom was a force to be reckoned with. She didn’t hesitate to pour alcohol on my scraped knees, made me eat whatever was put on the table, and spanked me when not even a certain look in her eye could stop me from misbehaving. I had a curfew well into my teens, and when I didn’t do well at school, she would demand to know the reason why. Very often, especially when I was a teenager, she exasperated me, infuriated me, drove me to tears. I remember once telling her, “You make me feel ugly.” I was sixteen years old, that time in any girl’s life when looks matter the most. It’s also the time when you are fully convinced that you are in fact ugly, and even if it’s likely all in your head, it isn’t any less painful. So making me feel ugly was the worst accusation I could hurl at her, and I chose it and aimed it with deadly purpose. I meant it to hit home and to hurt. I believe it did.
I’m not sure exactly when I stopped holding my mother apart in fearful awe and started glimpsing other sides to her I’d never known were there: her shyness, her sensitivity, her quirky sense of humour. Maybe it was when I stopped wishing, with one half of me, that I was more like her, and vowing, with the other half, never to become like her. I stopped pitting myself against her and started putting myself in her shoes. What was it like, I started to wonder, to be married and pregnant with your first child at nineteen years old? What was it like to have your parents and sisters move half a world away? What was it like to uproot yourself and your family and start over in another country when most of your friends have settled down and started enjoying the fruits of their prosperity? Would I have made different choices, or done any of the same things any better?
I think I’ve gotten to know my mom a little better this first year without my dad. We’ve spent a great deal of time together, just the two of us, and I’ve had the chance to ask some of the questions I’ve always wanted to ask her. We laugh a lot, and when we need comfort we can do that for each other too. Mostly I think she’s doing alright, except for those moments when she suddenly becomes profoundly conscious that she is alone. Her sorrow is our sorrow, too, and we all miss my dad terribly, but only she has lost the love of her life. Of all the kinds of pain, that must be the loneliest.
Once she talked about feeling the double weight of the family on her shoulders. It’s a new and different dimension of loss: not only was my dad the love of her life, he was also her partner and helpmate. Now, the responsibility as head of the family rests on her alone.
But I think she’s stronger than she thinks she is. I listened to her, two days a widow, giving consolation over the phone to my dad’s sister who couldn’t come to the funeral. I’ve watched her this whole past year step up gamely to do things she’s never had to do before, like take the car for tune-ups and tire changes, deal with accountants and bank officers, pay the bills. I’ve seen her deal with people and problems with more compassion, serenity and optimism than I could ever muster.
I’ve always known my mom was beautiful. But now I’m finding that there are other kinds of beauty, and that the most important kind isn’t always the most obvious. I suppose I’ve also become more comfortable in my own skin. There are times when I still find myself feeling ugly, but I know that nobody is to blame for that (except maybe my hormones). I know I didn’t get my mom’s looks, and that’s ok. I sincerely hope I got some of the other stuff, the stuff that counts: her big heart, her inner strength, her faithful love. But only time will tell. In the meantime, I still have a lot to learn. That’s ok too, because Mom can teach me.