“That looks absolutely horrific—take it off.”
“What have you done with your hair?”
“You’ve got to lay off the sweets, you’re getting fat.”
“That boyfriend of yours … he’s a real loser.”
“That was a really stupid thing to do.”
“What are you, a moron? Who puts a pool table in the living room?”
That was my mother. Never one to mince words. Never an ounce of tact. And from the time I was a little girl, to the time I was a grown woman with adult children of my own, my mother never changed an iota.
A few years ago, when I was in my mid-fifties, my teenage niece and I went to visit my mother at the end of a hot summer day. We sat in her backyard, in the shade, by the pool. I was sipping on a glass of white wine, my niece on an iced tea. My mother was drinking water—the “unfiltered” kind (of course). I didn’t know it then, but my mom would be dead within six months.
“If I were to be honest with you today, Ronna, what do you think I would tell you?” my mother asked me. I took a gulp of Chardonnay.
“Uh oh,” I thought, “it’s about my hair.”
I sighed and braced myself. I had just blown my hair dry that morning. I thought it looked pretty good. “It’s got to be about my hair, Mom.”
“How’d you know that?”
“Because it’s always about my hair.” But actually, I only knew this because I hadn’t gained weight.
She took a small breath, as if this were a little hard to get out.
“Well, yes … it is about your hair. To be perfectly honest,” she said, without a moment of hesitation, as if this were the most common of criticisms, “you look like a bleached out old whore.”
My niece spit her iced tea all over the grass.
I simply took another sip of Chardonnay and braced myself for the fuller explanation, because I knew my mother was just warming up.
She went on: it wasn’t just the color; it was the style—it was too young for me. Stringy. Long. Brash.
Sometimes I wonder if another daughter, similarly situated, would have concluded that she had been emotionally abused. Sometimes I wonder if another daughter, similarly situated, would have broken all ties with a mother with no filter. Sometimes I wonder if a therapist would have told me to get the hell out of Dodge and never look back.
But the fact is, I would have just has soon have cut off an arm than have broken even the smallest tie with my mother.
Because while it often hurt, I knew with every bone of my body that my mother loved me with every bone of her body, that her harsh, often brutal, criticism came from a place of only wanting the best for me. It was my mother’s failing, not mine, that she had no tact; she had learned her social skills from her gruff, Russian immigrant father.
And in time, I realized that her criticism was not fact—it was simply her opinion; I could choose to listen to it, or I could choose to ignore it. And, for better or for worse, her opinion, at least when it came to me, was usually spot on.
And so, as an adult, I learned to deal with her criticism with humor and grace.
“Really, Mom? A ‘bleached out old whore’? That’s kind of harsh, don’t you think?”
“I’m not being harsh. I’m just being honest. You can always count on me to be honest.”
I gave her an exasperated look. She was so very proud of her honesty, even when it was simply mean.
“Mom, did you consider that ‘bleached out old whore’ is the look I’m going for? It’s very sexy.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “Great. Well, you’ve nailed it.”
And then she began to tell my niece what she thought of her nose piercing. If anything, my mother was predictable.
But somehow, perhaps because my niece has a great deal of confidence, perhaps because my niece was not her daughter, perhaps because she is a generation removed, my niece simply smiled, completely ignored her grandmother’s criticism, and moved on. She still has that nose piercing and is quite happy with it.
Me, not so much. A few days later, I picked up the phone and made an appointment with my hair stylist. After all, bleached out old whore was really not the look I was going for. I believed my mother. If she told me I looked like a bleached out old whore, she was probably right.
My mother has been gone for a year and a half now. It is a rare day that I don’t find myself wondering, “What would my mother think of that … ” I look in the mirror, at my short, salt and pepper silver hair, just growing in after chemo treatments. What would my mother say now about my hair? I am very far from bleached out old whore these days.
And then I simply know. She would tell me I look beautiful, that the natural look suits me, that she likes it short.
And I would know she meant every word of it, because that woman never lied.
This piece is Ronna’s essay from At My Pace: Lessons From Our Mothers, a collection of essays edited by one of our fabulous contributors –Jill Ebstein. This brand new book is available for purchase on Amazon.com.