Easter Sunday does not so much conjure memories of Easter egg hunts, chocolate bunnies and pastel-colored peeps as it does going to mass dressed exactly like my sister, Jess. Easter, for me as a kid, meant a frilly dress, fold-down socks and terribly uncomfortable patent leather shoes.
I’ve always hated patent leather and I’ve never liked peeps. You can only imagine how happy I was to dress up exactly like my kid sister.
One of those years in the infamously unfashionable 80s, our Easter dresses were red and white striped and came with the excellent accessory of a white straw hat. Mom was so excited about this. She brought our outfits home and showed us, with great enthusiasm, what we would be wearing when the Easter bunny came. When we tried them on we must have looked like matching midgets who worked in a barbershop in the 1920s. All that was missing was a cane. Had I been articulate and worldly enough to say, “Hey Mom, we’re not wearing this because we look like something out of Willy Wonka,” believe me, I would have. But at the age of five or six, all I could do was frown and fold my arms across my chest in disapproval. One glance in the mirror at us in our identical outfits and I felt a surge of rebellion rise up like bile in my being.
I didn’t have to act on my rebellion because Jess did that for me. I sat back like wimp while, like a pro, she challenged our mother, taking a sharp pin to the the balloon of her enthusiasm. (I found, and still find, her defiance remarkable for such a young whipper-snapper.) She told my mother she most certainly would not be wearing that outfit and, if I recall correctly, daringly vetoed a few other unrelated things while she was at it. She was relentlessly making herself a target of my mother’s building rage and I was stricken at the thought of what would become of her. Stewing in a strange brew of jealously and awe for my sister, I watched her act out what I only wished I had the courage to do. I don’t know if I’d ever loved her more than I did in that moment. If she wasn’t going to wear that outfit, neither would I. I was sure she would see to this for the both of us.
When she was finished with her tantrum, we both awaited my mother’s wrath. But to our surprise, my mother let the whole thing blow over. Without a word, she took our outfits and put them in her closet, off limits. I crossed my fingers. With any luck, she’d forget about them and we wouldn’t have to wear them.
But Jess was cunning. Even back in 1986.
To this day I wonder if her plan was premeditated–if after bedtime, down at her headquarters of the bottom bunk she thought up ways to get my mother’s goose–or if it was a misdemeanor carried out in a moment of passionate fury and spite.
I don’t remember what I was doing the day of the hat ordeal. I just remember sensing a clamor from the other end of the house–the unmistakeable shift in energy of when my mother was happily doing something to when she was abruptly interrupted by something unanticipated. In a matter of moments, the frequency in our house went from smooth, easy listening to ear-cringing static. When I ran out into the living room to see what the matter was, Mom was speechless, frozen in her tracks, glaring at Jess who was sitting on the brick hearth of our fireplace.
At first I didn’t get it. Jess was beaming, ear to ear, despite the invisible daggers coming from my mother’s eyes. Then I saw. Jess was sitting on her Easter hat.
The hat was damaged and so were my mother’s feelings. I don’t think my sister could have induced that kind of reaction from our mother had she gone up to her and bitch-slapped her.
Unfortunately, I don’t remember the end of this story or what happened when Easter Sunday actually rolled around. If my sister had to wear her crumpled hat to church or not. I’m sure there’s a picture that tells the rest of this story’s details.
Because I’m so far away–hanging here on the edge of the earth (aka New Zealand)–and because it’s been nearly a year, the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing my family, I think about all the holidays we shared. Despite the unfamiliarity of a new place, the occasion to travel down memory lane still presents itself, unlikely as it may seem. Most people probably would think that vast geographical distances would cause memories to lessen, but I can assure you the opposite is true. They become magnified and exaggerated. Every time you turn around you’re peering through a gigantic magnifying glass.
I like looking through this magnifying glass. It lends an interesting perspective. Watching myself and my family from this great distance is curious–we all seem so small and vulnerable. Even when we are dressed up like midget barbers. Anne Lamott, one of my all-time favorite writers talks about how her mother is not at all who she would have picked for herself at the “Neiman-Marcus Mommy Salon.” I feel lucky because I think I probably would have picked exactly my mother, if this fantastical “Mommy Salon” did exist. As far as mothers go, I probably won the lottery. But I wouldn’t have said that when I was twelve or twenty or even when I was thirty. It took me every last inch of thirty-three to form that opinion. (I hope I can remember that if ever I should have female descendants of my own someday who sit on their Easter hats to spite me.)
This Easter weekend my sister Jess was at my Mom’s. When I skyped them, I got to see through the magnifying glass in real-time. Jess was helping my mother in the yard–doing some odd thing that had to do with a hammer and dirt. I cracked a joke over how far we’ve all come from the hat ordeal. I greatly admire those two. There is a generosity that pours forth in my sister when it has anything to do with my mother, a loyalty I’ve rarely witnessed anywhere else on Earth. Nowadays if my mother presented Jess with a white straw hat to wear to mass, she’d probably don it without blinking twice. That’s the extent of her allegiance.
If family were all one big experiment, I would conclude in this particular portion of the experiment that probably takes about a good thirty years to get to that place of reciprocal allegiance. There’s a precise recipe that must be followed and one of the steps is most definitely making your daughters dress up like midget barbers on Easter. At the same time, a daughter has to bring her mother back down to this planet, over and over, coming up with new creative ways to accomplish this each time.
One occasion comes to mind when I was particularly nasty to my mother. My mother was visiting me in Italy and the two of us had just been to lunch. I was driving and not really able to pay attention to what she was up to in the passenger’s seat. All I knew was one minute she was normal-looking and by the next time we pulled up to a stop light I looked over at her and she had bright orange lips. I gasped. “Mom! Give me that lipstick,” I demanded. In good faith, she gladly handed me her shiny gold tube of Estee Lauder, probably thinking I was going to borrow some to paint my own lips. But I promptly put the lipstick in my car’s ash tray and snapped the lid shut. Without employing the filter that guards my words as they exit my mouth I said, “I’ll give that back to you next time Halloween rolls around.”
Shocked, my mother nearly choked. To be honest, I have no idea what possessed me to say that. I would never have spoken like that to anyone, ever. Except my mother. After a moment, she was able to recover her pride and I heard her chuckling a little. She flipped the visor down to look at herself in the mirror and asked me if I thought it was really too bright. I looked at her. In a matter of minutes she’d gone from my mother who I’d just had lunch with to a lady who possibly still had a few flecks of food in her teeth (like me) to a lady wearing too bright a shade of coral lipstick. Now she was a lady who’s confidence had been reduced to a pulp by another lady twenty-something years younger. I started to laugh but it wasn’t funny because she looked genuinely hurt. I apologized immediately. Still, I wasn’t going to give her the lipstick back.
The thing was, though, now that I think about it, my mother liked that color lipstick. It was me, I was the one who didn’t like it. I was the one who felt insecure looking at my mother wearing that shade of lipstick. And because of my own stupid little insecurities I told my mother she couldn’t wear it. What she probably should have done was taken my adult face between her thumb and middle finger and pressed my cheeks together the way she did when I was a toddler and she wanted me to look at her. She should have wrestled me down and applied that lipstick to me and made me wear it for the rest of the day. Just because she’s my mother.
But she didn’t.
Because she’s my mother.
I find that fascinating. How somewhere along the way, roles swap. Maybe that’s why, as daughters grow up, there’s so much resentment sloshing back and forth. It’s as if, on some deeper level, we look at each other and sense that eventually we will switch places. I’ve watched this happen through my magnifying glass, at this great distance, with Jess and my mother. Suddenly my mother is the one who needs tending to while my sisters and I are the ‘authorities.’ Certainly this is not because Mom’s incapable. But rather because…well, I don’t know why. It’s unfathomable how this could have happened but at the same time, it was clearly inevitable.
Mom did not come to this swap very voluntarily. None of us did, in fact. My mother raised hell right along side us before relinquishing to the reality that we are now adults in charge of our own decisions and lives. It has only been in the last few years that she has slowly accepted this. It was as if we were all growing along together so that we could come apart, mold into our individual selves then come back together to be separate and more solid together than ever. Now that we’re all here, finally, it’s kinda fun. We agree on most things but lipstick colors continue to be a point of contention. Honestly, though, I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone more.
I’m even tempted to dress myself up like a barber from the 1920s wearing a smooshed straw hat and show up at my Mom’s with an Easter basket full of those nasty peeps.
Happy belated Easter, y’all!