One of my main obsessions in my writing is the relationship between and among women: for me, and maybe for many other women, I am most obsessed with the relationship between mother and daughter. Between my mother and me as her daughter. Between my mother and me.
My mother was my first teacher in womanhood. Though we were outnumbered in our home by only one, a male sensibility permeated our home. My father, a loud and often domineering presence, set the tone: loud talking, rough housing, and general mayhem that didn't agree with my own preference for quiet book reading, coloring and playing with dolls.
My mother was the first woman I knew. She was the best. What could I tell you about my mother? At age seven, I might have said: She is tall. (Really, she measures about five feet in heels.) Not nearly as tall as Pop but tall. She has the straightest teeth. She has the best smile. One time she didn't eat anything but vitamins and water for 21 days so she could be skinny. And then she was. It didn't make her any more beautiful. But that's what my dad said. At seven, I would have told you: my mom is the beautiful-est, smartest woman in the whole wide world. I want to be just like her. Exclamation point! (I remember being fond of exclamation points and it seems I really meant everything I said then. I was seven and I still believed in my voice and in me.)
Oh, and she is white. My mother is white.
Well, actually, no at seven, I wouldn't have said that. I didn't know what white was. What I knew was my mother.
It was 1976: a year for the bicentennial, for bell bottoms and for big hair. And my mother wanted big hair. Her hair was naturally blonde and stick-straight, and long along her back like a long horse-tail or whip. I followed along with her to the beauty salon the day she decided to cut off her hair despite my father's objection. She wanted that style that Barbra Streisand had on her new album cover. The Afro style. She wanted to be able to pik her hair out and free. I sat and watched as the hairdresser cut and snipped, snipped and cut, and rolled my mother's hair onto thread spool-sized rollers. Then the hairdresser lathered my mother's hair with what must have been a magic potion with a strange, sharp chemical smelling liquid she squeezed out of something that looked like a white mustard bottle.
When my mother's hair dried, she smiled wide seeing her reflection in the mirror. She had big curls that stood straight up. She had a bright, blonde halo of hair on her head. "I love it," she said.
And I do believe she said it with an exclamation point! And I said: "I want to look like that too!" Exclamation point! Exclamation point!
I climbed into the chair in which my mother's transformation had taken place. The hairdresser draped me with the plastic shawl, undid the elastic that held each of my two long braids I wore (with a middle part), and cut and snipped, and snipped and cut. And voila. My brown hair became a halo of curls too. "But what about the magic potion?" I wanted to know. Why is my hair doing this all on its own? Why can't I be just like my mother? Question mark. Exclamation point!
Now the hairdresser didn't say, and I can't recall what it was that made me realize that there was something about these brown arms, and brown legs. There was something about my brown skin that would make things different for me than for my mother.
I have brown arms, and brown legs and brown skin. I am brown. My mother is white. It was something that went on the list of known things that day. As I grew up there were more.
I don't like to talk about race because it separates me from my mother who is also a woman but not black.
I don't like to talk about culture because it separates me from my mother who is also a woman, but not American.