The first time I saw my mother naked I didn’t think she was beautiful. If I remember correctly I was terrified. Which is crazy because she was just leaning over to dry her calf. She was in the blue bathroom in her parents’ house and the door had been left ajar. Not even ajar. Just a sliver that I walked past and turned my head and my eye went into. She was leaning over like anyone else. She was looking at her leg. Her eyes, well I couldn’t see her eyes but I could see the way her eyelids were sort of heavy and how dark her eyebrows were. Her head was turned down a bit and her hair was wrapped in a towel, which is something I’d try to do after that. I don’t remember much about her being effortless but this was effortless, she was leaning down sort of like you do when you’re shaving your legs. Her foot may have been resting on the edge of the tub. I’m not sure anymore and I was just seeing her through the sliver of the door. The tile was light blue, I think. I saw her breasts, which were really large. I saw the folds of her skin. She was really overweight by then. It was probably the medication. I got so scared somehow. She was not looking at me. I could say she wasn’t thinking of me but I don’t know if that’s true. I remember she looked peaceful and also sad.
Maybe I just wanted her to be sad. I wanted all sorts of things from her. I wanted her to be heartbroken and ashamed that she wasn’t well enough for me to live with her. Then she’d say, “I’m heartbroken” and I’d look at the floor and turn around and walk outside to throw a ball against the garage door. She was leaning over and looking at something. I don’t think she meant for the door to be open. Her skin was olive where mine was stark white. Her hair was black, though it was nestled under the towel on her head. I couldn’t see the front of her, just her breast hanging like any ordinary woman’s breast would hang if they were bent over like that. Of all the things I can’t remember about my mother I remember that. Can you imagine how long I must have stood there to take it all in and get scared and add her weight to my list of ways she’d failed me.
If I look at her body now, like this, building the door in my mind and turning my head and seeing her it’s clear she’s not really so heavy at all. Or. She is no heavier than I am now, which is about twelve pounds heavier than I’d like to be. I don’t have the excuse of medication. For me it’s pleasure: biscuits, good wine, teaching a lot and not walking the pasture enough. I’ve been here before. Five months before I fell apart all those years ago I was just this same weight. I may actually be a bit bigger now. At the outer range of my comfort zone. At the limit of my waistband’s compassion. I went to the doctor and said, “I’m overweight” and she said, “You look fine” and then she looked at the number the nurse had written on the chart and said, “Wow. You carry that well.” I went home and joined Weight Watchers, I walked a few miles a day up and down the Berkeley hills. The weight came off, along with my defenses. That’s another story. The months of meetings with the most marvelous people: new mothers, elderly couples, old friends, the group of flight attendants who’d come over on their way to Oakland airport. Another piece of luck in my lucky life. Another reason I got to get thin, fall apart, and make it through.
In terms of weight, what I know looking at my mother through the door I’ve made in my memory, is that she carries it much better than me. If she looks up at me I’ll see her violet eyes rimmed by dark eyelashes that make her always look dressed up whether naked or in a towel, in jeans and a man’s button up with chopsticks pulling her hair back, in a beige tracksuit at her stepfather’s funeral so overmedicated that my father’s mother shook her head and talked about it all the way home, “She never would have chosen to wear something like that. Never. Her mother put her in that to embarrass her.” If she stands upright and faces me, if she pulls the towel off her head her dark brown almost black hair will tumble down below her shoulders and I’ll think as I always do that I wish I had hair like that. If she stands and looks at me looking at her I’ll see all of her and if I ask she’ll hold me. I’m sure now that she will.
I didn’t ask, though. I made her monstrous instead. That body just minding its business, not doing anything out of the ordinary. Even then I knew she was beautiful. How could someone that beautiful not want me? How could someone that beautiful want me? Getting older is knowing neither of those questions were the ones to ask myself as I walked out the door. What I’d do now is walk into her bedroom and wait for her to come in. I’d do the thing I see in the movies about mothers and daughters, I’d sit on the bed and watch her go over to the table where her brushes lived. I’d watch her brush her hair. I’d look at her face in the mirror and marvel how she looks like Elizabeth Taylor. Not Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Elizabeth Taylor but older, fuller, differently sexy Elizabeth Taylor. Cleopatra. Studio 54. “Mom, you look like Elizabeth Taylor.” She’d meet my eyes in the mirror, doing that thing where she’d look steadily at you and not blink. She’d know it was true. It wouldn’t change anything. It’s not that kind of memory or movie. I wish I’d stayed in the room, though. So I’d have something to hold onto after she was gone.