Mama was sick my entire memory of her but I can still see that time she was draped in an amethyst gown, and through the mystery and magic of a fall, her hair was transformed into that of a Greek goddess. She was the most exquisite creature I’d ever seen. I remember petting her side and her caution not to get her dress dirty.
When beauty is that close you can’t help but want to touch it.
It was ritual to sit next on the floor next to her bed, spellbound and legs outstretched, listening to Mama’s future predictions: In 1982 you’ll be crowned Miss America …. My sister would earn the title a year or two before me. It was easy to believe because all little girls want to be a princess and I had seen Mama dressed like one that time.
Sometimes I wonder if it was Mama who seeded my belief that every girl needs a Princess Dress. More than anything though, her insistence that beauty grew from the inside out shaped my perspective. When I was six or seven years old, Mama was already beginning to wire how one day I would parent my own children.
I doubt Mama realized how far her words and actions would reach into my future. Did she have any idea that sometimes what you say or do sticks forever and can even seep into generations not yet born?
No matter how many people try to prepare you, what you really don’t understand before having children – simply c.a.n.n.o.t. understand – is how hard motherhood is.
I glance in my rear view mirror and see the Things I Wish I Had Done right next to the Things I Wish I Hadn’t Done. If I’m not careful, I’ll melt quickly into a puddle of regret and doubt.
Then I consider my children – now 20, 18 and 16. They’re becoming who we prayed they’d become before they were born. Lovies, when you’re bone-weary and wondering, I promise your intention, diligence and training in the way they should go is worth it.
Every once in a while I’ll receive a paycheck from one of my kids, compensation that doesn’t translate to dollars in my checking account. Instead, b e t t e r, a treasure of incalculable value. It usually starts like this:
“Mom, I’m so glad you…”
and they’ll tell me something about they way we parent or a decision we made or something different from the parenting style of their friends’ parents. It doesn’t mean we’re better parents, but in whatever the particular case, what we did made a difference for our child.
One of these things I got right for my daughter but I missed for my son: the redemption of a perceived physical imperfection.
Like my own mother, I’ve taught my children “pretty is as pretty does” and beauty goes deeper than skin and though people may judge others by what they look like, [the Lord] judges people by what is in their hearts (a paraphrase of 1 Samuel 16:7). That’s all well and good - it’s even true! – but we’re bound by our skin suits and we can be awfully harsh critics of ourselves or self conscious about the ways we’re different from others.
When I was little, a mole developed on the side of my nose and I thought it was a pimple. I squished and poked that thing until it was a bloody mess, doing my best to get rid of it. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t going anywhere but I always felt like it was a flashing neon sign. (Decades later it’s still right where it was, but thankfully I rarely notice anymore.)
When my daughter was barely in grade school, I noticed a small freckle on the side of her nose. Haunted by the memory of my own experience, I was concerned one day she would notice her freckle and feel ugly. Like mine, it was right in the middle of her face.
I took a different approach, telling her from a young age how much I loved her beauty mark. Less conspicuous was a birthmark on her thigh, and I would often touch it and reiterate how much I liked her special marks. As she got older, I told her she would know her husband was “the one” when a special fella declared her nose freckle was one of his favorite things about her.
I often told her how pretty she was but praised her more so when she behaved beautifully–when she defended someone being picked on, befriended the friendless, babysat for friends with younger children so we could have adult time when they came over.
She gave me a paycheck recently when she told me she was so glad I had framed the way she looked at her beauty mark–that we called it a beauty mark in the first place!–and that she thought she would have seen it differently (negatively) had I never mentioned it.
It’s equally crucial to call out and affirm things about our boys, too. They want to be viewed as handsome and strong — think about how little boys ask you to feel their (non-existent) muscles! — and if they don’t receive that kind of encouragement at home, like our daughters, they’ll seek it elsewhere.
But even though I got this right with my daughter, I missed “redeeming” a perceived imperfection of my son. Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t go into the details; there are simply some things he doesn’t like about his physical appearance. Because to me it doesn’t detract from him, it never occurred to me to frame how he viewed those physical characteristics.
There’s no way of knowing if I could have altered his negative perception but I sure wish I had tried.
No matter how much we downplay physical beauty, there’s something in us that longs to be seen as beautiful, as handsome.
If you’re a mother, do you understand your power?
Mama, her frail body withered by cancer, dared to dream out loud with her little girls, imagining Princess Tales so we would feel beautiful. She told stories about our future that we could cling to long after she was gone and as long as we needed to.
She framed the way we viewed ourselves, outside and in. She made sure we knew which one counted the most while not insulting us by claiming the other one didn’t exist or matter.
A mother’s influence survives her own life and touches the future through her impact in her children’s lives.
The way a mother sees her children can change the way they see themselves.
A mother heals with her touch, a boo-boo kiss, her soothing voice.
Heroic superpowers worthy of a cape and a tiara…but a mom is thrilled with – even prefers – a potted marigold decorated in thumbprint art and a hand-made card.
True beauty is unmistakable.
* * * * *
To the precious many who grew up never hearing this message–I’ve written a special addendum just for you but in response to a personal reader email. I hope you’ll take time to read Beauty Marks, An Addendum: When You DON’T Hear The Words Your Heart Longs For and that it encourages you.
By Robin Dance who might need a hug–her second baby and first-born son is graduating next week!