It was my next-to-the-last day of my weeklong vacation and I went out to dinner with a bunch of my high school girlfriends. Before I met them I had made sure I looked cute. I wore great clothes, had clean hair full of product, great make up, fabulous jewelry. We all hugged and squealed as always. Then someone took our photograph on her phone. When it got passed around all I could see was a fat woman with fat arms and fat everything. I was appalled.
The next afternoon I was in Berkeley for one last good-by to my 22-year-old and her boyfriend. It was the boyfriend’s 24th birthday and weeks before she had made plans for the two of them to go out to a romantic dinner. Since I had extended my stay by one day I insisted they keep their original plans. No need to politely drag Mommy along.
By eight o’clock it still must have been 99 degrees in her cute little upstairs apartment. The San Francisco Bay Area population expects - no, counts on - the morning fog and the evening sea breeze to keep the fresh air perfect in the summer. And since they always rely on the natural air conditioning, there was not so much as a hand fan in sight. Everything was dripping. I made a mental note to pick them up a big oscillating one.
I waved them good-bye and climbed into a cold shower with my clothes on.
Their kitchen is sort of a one-person operation, and their refrigerator makes a loud, groaning noise so they keep the door to the tiny hot box closed. I crossed the threshold and was greeted by a furnace of air and a sink full of dirty morning dishes. I poured cold tap water over one of the dishtowels, wrapped it around my neck, snapped open a bottle of beer and went to work. I had the option of putting on music but it was sort of pleasant to do my chores in silence. I thought of Elizabeth Gilbert scrubbing the monastery floor for months in the pray part of Eat, Pray, Love.
Where was that San Francisco breeze?
I scoured for quite a while. The relief of rinsing everything with cool water was so satisfying I decided I was happy for the large mess. The eggs stuck on the cast iron pan were a little troublesome - then I remembered that this pan came from my mom's house. She was recently taken from us with a massive stroke. The one blessing was that it happened while she was asleep. Mom had used that cast iron pan for at least 50 years. It helped her treat me to the best zucchini, mushroom and potato frittata you’d ever want to taste. In her later years, whenever I would use her special ironware to fry up her favorite egg sandwich, she would remind me again and again how I should clean it with very little soap. “There's a perfect film that builds in a cast ion pan, Marilyn. Don't ruin what took so long to create.” So there I was, cleaning the eggs my littlest one had made for her man that morning ... and I swear I felt Mom watching me clean it. I broke the silence by promising her aloud that I would NOT put too much liquid soap directly into that precious tool of hers and further assured her that I would remind her granddaughter (again) how to care for it.
The offensive sun was finally down. My reflection in the part of the window that wouldn't open revealed an old scullery maid. There I was, no make up, flat hair clipped up against hot, glistening skin and a dishrag around my neck. I stared at my 60-year-old self for a long minute.
I liked what I saw.
I saw a mom who misses her own mother and adores her daughter. I saw a generous woman who loves her friends and family in a great big way. I saw someone who sees art in the shadows and who can make people laugh at the most politically incorrect thing. I ignored my fat arms and instead remembered all the children, friends and good men they have held in the past years. I was joyous with gratitude for the life in which I was partaking and told the critic to take a break in the sweltering kitchen.
So, there at the sink with the reflection of a loving mom/sorrowful daughter staring back at me, I decided I AM NOT MY PHOTOGRAPH.