It happened when I was twelve or thirteen years old.
I was a gangly, shy and clumsy kid. My hair was too straight, my eyebrows too thick and my lips too thin. I had a pug-nose. I was flat-chested. Short. My feet were too wide. I was pigeon-toed. The Catholic school skirt length accentuated my skinny legs. My knee socks pooled around my ankles. Pimples were erupting on my chin.
A last look in the round vanity mirror before heading for the bus-stop was a new nightmare every day.
Finally, I’d had enough.
I rushed down the stairs, fueled by the indignity of the image in the mirror and all the angst of a melodramatic almost-teen-ager. I confronted my mother in the kitchen.
“I CAN”T go to school!”, I wailed, “I’m TOO UGLY!!!”
My mother glanced around the table at the babies to feed and bathe and the small children to dress and get ready for school. She probably thought of the one hundred other chores and obligations waiting to fill her day. She looked at the clock, which told her my school bus would be arriving at the bus stop across the road in less than five minutes.
She said, “Well, you can’t stay home FOREVER, you’d better just get out there.”
Well! I huffed and rolled my eyes and slammed out the door and went to school.
At the time, and probably for about twenty years afterward, I thought of this as a perfect example of the absolute height of bad parenting.
Where was the encouragement? Where was the support? Could she not have thrown me a bone? A little compliment? A hug?
I never forgot it.
Eventually, I started noticing how much I used it.
When a really bad, unrepairable hair-do made me want to drape all the mirrors and never go out.
When I embarrassed myself with a stupid action or remark, causing me to want to hide from the world.
When a relationship’s end left me feeling unlikeable.
Whenever I felt intimidated by a situation, the words going through my head were my mother’s words.
Last year, getting ready to give the eulogy at Mom’s funeral, I glanced in the mirror. My face was puffy and red from crying; my eyes were slits. Sleep deprived, sad, preparing to speak in public in borrowed clothes and too-tight shoes, I worried about how many ways I could mess up this one opportunity to honor my mother.
I heard her voice.
“Well, you can’t stay home FOREVER, you’d better just get out there!”
I laughed out loud.
In anticipation of my sixtieth birthday, I compiled a list of the 60 most influential women in my life. My mother made the top of the list for a thousand good reasons. This is only one of them.
This year, I left a job I’d felt pretty comfortable in for the last ten years, and went back to working as a server in restaurants. It had been a few years since I’d worked as a waitress, and I felt pretty rusty. I was a good thirty years older than most of my co-workers.
My first day, I stood in front of the mirror. My thinning, gray hair was already coming loose – in a not attractive way – from the twist I’d pulled it into. My face wrinkled when I practiced a smile. My pot belly sent the little waitress apron out in an odd direction.
With all the angst of a melodramatic almost-sixty-year-old, I thought, “I CAN”T go!”
And there were Mom’s wise words, still influencing my life.
So, I got out there.