Thursday, September 30, 2010

You Have to Suffer to be Beautiful

My mother's words. Sometimes said in annoyance through tight lips holding a bobby pin between her teeth, sometimes in jest. I'm also quite sure that she was repeating her own mother's words. Mostly she said them as she attached tight little circles of hair close to my scalp while I yelped from the scraping of my head if she grabbed a pin without the rubber tips. God that hurt.

The year is 1953 and I am  four years old. It's Saturday night and we are preparing for church tomorrow morning at Christ the King Catholic Church in Auburndale, Massachusetts. Early on Sunday morning my mother brushes out my sunbleached  blond hair into bouncy curls that surround my head. Standing over me, my mother pulls my starched and ironed pale yellow dress over my head and  my petticoats.

The petticoats make a swishing noise when I purposefully wiggle my hips. I slip on my black patent leather Mary Janes over white socks. My shoes make a delicious sound when I skip around  in circles on the hard wood floors. I had shined them the day before by wiping Vaseline over them with a soft white cloth.

My stomach is empty and growling, but we aren't allowed to eat breakfast before church. My mother and older sisters have to fast before Holy Communion and even though I am too young to go up, I still wasn't offered food and I wouldn't have asked.

My sisters, also curled and ironed and swishing, follow my mother into a pew then kneel down to say our prayers before Mass begins. The priest enters, swinging a censure, with Frankincense and Myrrh on fire, smoke swirling up to the ceiling, sending our prayers directly up  to heaven. Tinkling bells ring and my stomach continues to growl. We stand up, kneel down. I copy the big people, taking my right fist beating my heart three times. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Suffering is good. It makes us beautiful.

Last night I was brushing Rebecca's hair after I washed and put creme rinse it. She is my oldest granddaughter and at 5 1/2, has blond hair that is very thick and luxurious, but really a pain to comb out. I try to be gentle and still I end up hurting her trying to get the tangles out. It's become a battle between us. Turning to my daughter, I said, half jokingly say, "Shall I tell her Grandma's saying?"   She shook her head. I don't want to put those words in Rebecca's consciousness either. I did tell my daughter the saying, but I really hope she knows I was kidding, but still language matters.

The truth is my sisters and I would have been beautiful without all that suffering. Pictures of us as kids bear it out. We were strong, blond, cute, tanned girls with bright blue eyes, big white straight teeth. We were all beautiful already. My oldest sister, Sandy caught polio when she was 12. Every family picture of her after that, right before it was taken, my mother would quietly slip in taking Sandy's crutches away. There aren't any photos of her with crutches as a girl or young adult. 

In our family, the woman have spent a lot of time, money, dieting, shaving, plucking, and surgery trying to be beautiful. It's funny how words stick, sayings permeate thought, and how language really does have the power to move us in ways we don't always examine. Even now after most of my estrogen is gone, sometimes I look in the rear view mirror at a stop light, feeling good about myself, then I see it. In the bright sunlight, a couple of long gray hairs on my chin. Geesh.

I once heard someone say that he hoped God was a  big smiling Italian grandmother, tomato sauce splashed on her flowered apron, arms outstretched, saying, "Mangia! Mangia!"  I'm hoping for a God who looks at all of us like I look at my granddaughter. Realistic, but also with total love and acceptance, seeing our inner and outer beauty and goodness, and rooting for us to see it, too.

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