“Close your eyes,” my mom said from around the corner as I covered my face with my hands. “On the count of three…one…two…THREE!”
It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Long, emerald colored velvet with a nipped in waist. Soft, supple sleeves which ended in pin-tucks and the most delicate lace. A matching peter pan collar. Shiny gold buttons in a line down the front, and a gorgeous, flowing sash.
“Oh Mom! It’s beeeeeautiful!” I gasped, fingering the hem with my 8-year old hands.
“Guess what else?” she said with a smirk, reaching around the corner to pull something from the closet.
In her hand was an exact replica of my dress, only larger. Right down to the delicate lace collar and pin-tucked sleeves. Perfectly her size. My eyes widened. Matching dresses! It was a dream come true. We would be the most beautiful girls at the Nutcracker Ballet and I couldn’t wait. We spent what felt like hours getting ready. My mom curled my hair and spritzed me with perfume. We were scrubbed and starched, pinned and pressed, and despite being squeezed into a pair of the itchiest tights in all the land, I felt like an absolute princess.
I remember holding her hand as we walked up the steps of the Spokane Opera House, all dressed in our green velvet finest. I remember walking through the winter night, surrounded by snow, and twinkly lights and the glow from the opera house windows. I remember hearing Christmas music playing over the loudspeakers as we approached, and rushing into the lobby to get out of the cold, only to be greeted by the most massive display of gingerbread houses I’d ever laid eyes on.
As we walked through the labyrinth of cookie castles and frosting scaffolding, picking our favorites and savoring the details, we talked about what it might be like to live in those magical little dwellings. Would you be tempted to eat your walls? What about your roof? The bell chimed over the loudspeaker and it was time to take our seats. We reached our spots, took off our coats and settled in, waiting for the show to begin. As the lights dimmed and the orchestra music swelled into the first act, my heart was in throat and I squeezed my mom’s hand.
It’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to realize the many gifts my mother has given me. As a child, she’d send me on long trips inside my own head and praise my attempts to harness the things I saw into words, pictures or paintings. We’d do elaborate crafts, she sewed a trunk load of costumes and we directed plays and concerts for hours. She brought an air of magic to the simplest of tasks and showed me the most ordinary things can become fantastical with a little imagination. At the end of nearly every day, she told me that I could be and do anything I wanted. The world was my oyster.
I think it took me so long to fully appreciate what my mom has given me because the most wonderful, terrible, confusing thing about my mom is she somehow fostered in me all the things she hasn’t quite been able to do for herself. She instilled me with a confidence and sense of peace she’s never been able to conquer. She set me free from feeling tied to the conventions and limitations she’s carried in her life. She told me time after time I was exactly who I was supposed to be, and never let me question my self-worth, not even once. She pushed me through the door to beauty and freedom that she’s never fully been able to pass.
In my early twenties, when I found out my strong, beautiful, creative mother had endured an eating disorder that nearly took her life, I was absolutely shocked.
I felt wracked with guilt for being such a bratty teenager and so selfish that I’d never taken the time to ask her what her life had been like before me.
But mostly, I felt dumbfounded at the fact that I never once noticed her have any issue with food or her appearance. She spent years making agonizing daily choices to be healthy and fight for herself, and had managed to raise a daughter who didn’t give looking in the mirror a second thought.
She’d never told me, feeling I’m sure that the truth would ruin my carefully constructed picture of her as a mother.
But instead I felt relived. Suddenly free to see her as a flawed, cracked human with struggles and faults. Free to move into a new place where we could speak truth and vulnerability was welcomed.
While I’m sure she wishes she were perfect, and that every memory I have of her was just as clean and shiny as those gold buttons on our matching velvet dresses, I can’t tell you how much I’ve treasured our relationship over the last few years. Because now, right alongside all those moments of magic and imagination, are memories of truth and beauty, apologies and imperfections, grace and love. And a picture of motherhood that I can’t help but aspire to.
Happy Mother’s Day, mom! Thanks for being you.
Writer, photographer and chef
Kali Ramey Martin lives in the Pratum area.
Visit her blog at birdisthewordpdx.com.