More Than Skin Deep

Ramona White

The first time my mother said she was proud of me was the day I delivered my daughter. I was more than a little depressed, and I was also lonely now that the baby was out, so her words carried just the right rosy glow into my quickly darkening corner. Shortly after, though, I decided that 22 hours of hunger and increasing pain was too much work to gain someone's approval and I resigned myself to never hearing those words again.

I had waited all through my growing up years to hear my mother say she was proud of me. Just as I had waited for her to acknowledge that I was pretty. That may sound shallow but I grew up in a time when being pretty was worth more than being smart especially since my younger by three years sister had already been labeled "the cute one".

It's not as if I didn't give my mother every opportunity to identify me as a beauty. I asked her after my shampoo and when I was all dressed up for church.

"Aren't I pretty, Mama?"

"You look very nice," she said.

"But am I pretty?" I would ask again, striking my best Vogue magazine pose.

"Pretty is as pretty does," she'd reply like clockwork and I would walk away, head down, trying to deduce what it would take to make me pretty.

"My sister is pretty," I'd think. "Of course she's also tidy and punctual and responsible and uncreative." I didn't want to be any of those things, especially the last one, I just wanted to be pretty. So I worked hard in school - for quite a while anyway - learned to play the violin, tutored younger children in reading, helped clean the house, collected funds for the poor. And each time I bit my tongue to hold in some well-deserved meanness or deprioritized my desires so I could put someone else first, I would ask myself if this was the pellet that would tip the balance over to the "pretty" side.

Of course I had been pretty all along, as all girls are, and when I had wasted a lot of years with a virtual paper bag on my head, I realized that "pretty is as pretty does" can be a very effective tool for manipulation. What my mother should have answered was "Yes". Just "Yes."

I did ask her when I was all grown up why she never told me in all those years, including my wedding day, that I was pretty and had, it seemed to me, tried to dissuade me from thinking of myself that way.

"We did tell you," she began, "back when you were a little tiny girl we used to tell you all the time. We just never thought about it. And then one day you and I were shopping. You slipped out of my sight for just a second and when you came back you had another girl by the hand. You walked up to me with the biggest smile on your face and you said, "Look, Mama. This little girl is almost as pretty as I am.' Well of course the little girl's mother was really upset about it and I was embarrassed beyond belief so after that we decided maybe we shouldn't say that anymore since you already had such a big head. So we started telling you that you were smart instead."

"But you never said you loved me. You never said you were proud of me."

"We didn't want you to think you were already doing your best," she said. "If we said we were proud of you as you were then where would the incentive be to keep working and trying? Besides," she paused, "You don't have to tell children you're proud of them or you love them or think they're wonderful. They just naturally know."

My mother has gotten a bit better at saying she loves me over the years or, at least, she is less uncomfortable when I say it to her. I usually wait until after we've shared a box of tissues while watching "Steel Magnolias" or "The Joy Luck Club". That way she isn't obligated to take it personally and, if she wants to, she can put it down to watching a female bonding movie and she doesn't even have to answer back. I wish she felt as free to say it to me as she does to my still punctual, responsible and uncreative sister, but I guess different people have different relationships and I can't make my mother fit my mold any more than she can cram me into hers. She has lived her life according to the lights she has chosen and if I am unhappy with the results then I am free to choose a path which leads in another direction towards, hopefully, happier ones.

On the day my daughter was born, I looked down into her ruddy little face and told her how wonderful she already was. Beautiful and intelligent and strong and kind. I decided that she would hear every day that I was proud of her for all of those things and because she is my daughter -which is not always an easy job.

Now my daughter is nine. She has laughing brown eyes and dimples that dance at the corners of her mouth. She is ahead of her grade level in every subject and was reading by kindergarten. She has a will of iron and will not back down when she feels she's right. She also brings water to dogs on hot days and asks to check on the old man across the street when he's ill. And, of course, she's still my daughter.

Every day I am seeing changes take place as she moves from the girl she has become to the woman she will eventually grow up to be. Did I keep the promise I made all those years ago? If you ask her if she knows how wonderful and special she is, the answer comes without hesitation.

"Of course I am," she says. And that makes me the proudest of all.

© Ramona White

Ramona White's fiction and nonfiction, which has appeared in local and national publications such as Loving More magazine and the Columbia River Reader, explores modern relationships, religion, and community.

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