[Madonna and Child: Ink on Paper, 8 ½” x 11”]

May 10, 2020

I wrote this a couple of years ago for an autobiographical writing course and never got around to sharing it, so here we are. My mom has since gotten rid of the gray pajama pants with the moth holes in them, but still looks graceful even when she isn’t trying.* Happy Mother’s Day, Momma.

You look just like your mother.

Like many women, I get this line all the time. It never ceases to amaze me how fascinated people are with the simple biological fact that I share half of my DNA with my mother. I’ve never minded hearing it, though. My mom is beautiful. Her eyes are green, with thick brown flecks around her pupils (except for that five year period in her late twenties when she wore sapphire-blue contacts every single day, including her wedding day, just because she liked the color). She has thick, dark eyebrows with a strong natural arch, and she’s never once had them shaped or waxed or threaded because a hairdresser told her thirty years ago that they were perfect, and that she should never let anyone touch them. Even at the age of fifty-four, her hair falls well past her shoulders, like mine. And, like mine, her hair is light brown (except for that one year — was it 2002? 2003? — when the Baton Rouge Serial Killer was targeting forty-year-old women with brown hair; that year, she dyed her hair blonde). Her skin is golden, sprinkled with freckles and sunspots everywhere except for her face. She says she spent too much time in the sun when she was my age, and she’ll always point out the constellations of freckles on her forearms and shoulders as a kind of sermon in the hopes that I’ll use sunscreen. Her fingernails and toenails are almost always painted, and she manages to look graceful even when she’s sitting on the couch in a t-shirt and those gray pajama pants with the moth holes in them, although she would argue otherwise. I almost never have my nails painted, and I don’t have many freckles or sunspots on my arms (yet), but aside from these features we are almost carbon copies of one another: two identical women separated by thirty-four years.

I resemble my mother in some ways, but not all. She’s more laid-back and less analytical than I am, and she spends more time looking up at the world (i.e., less time looking down at books) than I do. I study classic literature, Shakespeare and Milton and Dante; the only author she’ll read is Nicholas Sparks. I like independent films; she prefers to watch Hallmark movies that she’s already seen fifteen times, which, by the way, doesn’t stop her from crying all over again at the sappy, predictable endings upon each successive viewing. Moreover, I find that in my never-ending search for purpose and meaning and beauty, I have to pick everything apart: the final stanza of that poem, the brushstrokes in this painting, the discordant note in that song, et cetera. My mother, on the other hand, simply gazes upon the world and is awestruck with what she sees. I sometimes think that my mother’s interpretation of the world, in comparison with my own, is much more profound in its simplicity. I ask What does it all mean? because I have to. She stays silent because, on some level, she already knows.

One of those times when our differing philosophies of life came into sharp contrast was two winters ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — I was, at this time, clinically depressed and desperately unhappy; my mom spontaneously planned a trip to New York and we went, just she and I, to get away from it all. As we weaved through the thousands upon thousands of white marble sculptures, I found myself lingering in front of any given statue for minutes at a time, carefully scrutinizing every detail, every crevice. I tried to tell my mother the story behind many of these statues, rambling on about their literary and/or historical contexts. Super annoying, I know.

Me: This one’s Ugolino, from Dante’s Inferno [note: Ugolino and His Sons; Saint-Béat marble, 4955 lb]. He was imprisoned and starved to death for being a political traitor. His sons, who had been imprisoned with him, die before he does, and he eventually eats their flesh to fight off starvation for just a little longer. But his sons are still alive here, and clinging to him for life. His facial expression looks so pained — his muscles are so tense! because he already knows death is hanging over them, and he’s already contemplating whether or not to go through with the act of cannibalism if / when his sons die first. Actually, I’d say that in this moment he knows he’s going to do it, and he’s feeling the fullness of his damnation. It’s a scene of pure agony.

My mom’s response: He ate his children? Weird.

But even though my mom didn’t recognize Ugolino or Dionysos or Cleopatra, she loved those statues in the Met as much as I did, and was happy enough just to look at the veins of the marble and wonder how anyone could make something so beautiful. I know this because she spent the rest of the night talking about those statues. Can you believe someone actually made those? Besides, there was one recurring artistic subject that she always recognized instantly: the Madonna and Child. In typical Catholic fashion, she was drawn to these religious images more than any others. She spent the longest amount of time standing in front of a little sixteenth-century pietà, a mourning Virgin Mary with the lifeless body of her crucified son draped in her arms [note: Pietà; Alabaster, with traces of original polychromy; 39 x 59 in]. My memory from that evening at the Met isn’t perfect, but I’m willing to bet her eyes were watering as she contemplated that statue. Can you believe, Ashley, someone made this?

In a way, my mom resembles those Madonnas in the Met more than she will ever know because of the sheer profundity of her love. My mom’s father, my grandfather, was an Ob/Gyn, and she asked him to deliver both of her children. It weirds some people out that she didn’t mind her dad being the one to pull myself and my brother out of her body and into the world, but I think it’s one of the greatest testaments to who she is. Her love is unpolluted, unadulterated, and absolutely steeped in the Marian qualities of innocence, purity, and utter selflessness. My grandfather, by the way, always used to say that delivering his own grandchildren was the highlight of his career, and one of the greatest moments of his life.

My mother brought me into this world in an extraordinary show of love, and has continued to do the extraordinary every day since then. In my childhood she filled my world with magic — artificial magic, but magic nonetheless. She used to bury shiny pennies and dimes in the sand before my brother and I took our metal detectors to the neighborhood park. On beach trips, she would walk a few paces ahead of us to drop store-bought sand dollars and starfish at the ocean’s edge when we went “seashell hunting” — only as an adult did I learn that Orange Beach, Alabama was not the seashell haven I believed it to be as a child. She once placed a ripe tomato under the plant I attempted to grow in my backyard after it wouldn’t yield any fruit. The list of such (wo)man-made miracles from my childhood goes on and on and on.

Later, when I was in high school, she would wake up at six a.m., turn on all of the lights, and sit in the kitchen just to see me for a minute or two before I headed out the door. In my sophomore year of college after I was broken up with days before I was to make my ten hour pilgrimage home for Christmas break, she flew in just to sit in the passenger seat of my car with me while I cried. In my junior year of college I learned that she set a lamp that is visible in my upstairs bedroom window on a timer, and that this timer would cause that lamp light up at certain times of the day to make it look as if I still lived at home. All these actions of quiet, steadfast love combined — This is my mom, the woman who, to me, so greatly resembles that Madonna cradling the Christ child in her arms. She isn’t perfect, but she’s pretty damn close (and I’m certainly a lot harder to love than Jesus ever was).

Today, my mom is still the first person I call to say I got an A on my paper! or he finally kissed me! She is also the first person I call on the days when I’m sitting in my car crying and I don’t even know why and I feel so incredibly lonely. She rejoices with me in my good seasons and cries with me in the bad ones, and if that isn’t love I’m not sure what is. Her love is tangible, physical, kinetic; it is an action verb. My mother herself is an action verb. When I picture her in my mind she is always moving. I see her dancing in the kitchen before sunrise as she makes scrambled eggs, swaying, singing out of tune and filling in the lyrics she doesn’t know with her own. Or perhaps she is at the dining room table, leaning over a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, talking aloud to herself as she works and naming the pieces based on their shapes.

My brother is in his last few months of high school now, and my mother continues to do the same for him as she did for me, waking up at six a.m. every day just to see him, to say good morning and goodbye before he’s out the door. I sometimes wonder if she will still wake up at six o’clock in the morning after both of her children have left the house empty. Somehow, I can’t imagine her sleeping in. She will be up, dancing, and cooking eggs.

*Editor’s Note: In the years since this article was written, my mom has also put down Nicholas Sparks and picked up a few of my recommendations for her in his place. As of today, she has read her way through a lovely assortment of novels from some of my favorite female authors, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was working on C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, but I think the weird names like ‘Orual’ and ‘Ungit’ threw her off. In addition to broadening her literary scope, she has also yielded to my pleas that she watch something other than sappy Hallmark movies. Last month I even got her to watch Parasite, and she. loved. it. Lastly, my parents are, of course, empty nesters now, and even in the absence of the six a.m. alarms I still can’t imagine my mother sleeping in.

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