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Beauty and My Beast

A Beautiful Mother, an Insecure Daughter, a Lifetime of Doubt

August 01, 2004|Allison Johnson | Novelist Allison Johnson lives in Aliso Viejo.

One of my favorite childhood photos is a black-and-white shot of myself and my sister playing dress-up in the backyard of my grandmother's Westwood home. I'm 6 and wearing my aunt's strapless '50s college formal. My fingers grip handfuls of netting that flows from a bodice too large for my frame. Blond hair falls over one eye; my grin is pure joy. I imagine my mother, with her glossy dark hair and brown eyes, smiling back at me from the other side of the camera.

Something changed for me over the next decade, slowly, subtly, like a receding tide: I became aware of my mother's awesome beauty. She was the prettiest mom on the block. When they were old enough to notice, kids said, "That's your mother?" Friends asked whether she was a model. Fast forward to when my future father-in-law met my mom. He later took me aside and joked, "You sure she's not your sister?"

It's not easy growing up in the shadow of a beautiful woman. Not just beautiful of face, but a mother with a perfect figure--tall, slender, shapely, cover-girl legs. A tennis player and golfer, she'd also been a professional water-skier in her youth. As the eldest of her four daughters, I was the tallest, bigger-boned than my mother, and so blond I had no visible eyebrows until I was in third grade. I felt like the negative of her photo.

I remember rummaging through my mother's closet in our Tarzana home. I'd run my fingers over her clothes--the soft capris, wool skirts and tailored suits in gold and navy blue. I'd open the drawers to her dresser to inhale the fragrance of her lingerie scented by silk bags of powdery sachet. Handling my mother's things, I would try to imagine what it must feel like to be Venus, the perfect woman.

From time to time, when my mother was busy with my younger brother and sisters, I'd slip into her bedroom and try on her clothes. When I hit high school, though, they no longer fit. I sat on her bed, clutching a discarded dress, hating myself for outsizing my idol. My father, a screenwriter and television producer, liked his women thin, bordering on downright skinny. One evening, after a few martinis, he took me aside and put his arm around me. "You know," he said, "men don't like fat women." My father's remarks may have come from his days working alongside ever-thin actresses, or perhaps because he had mixed feelings about his own mother, who was heavyset. Even though I wasn't fat, I took his comment as gospel--I was a blimp, a behemoth. How could I compete with a goddess, his wife?

Since those days, perhaps because of those days and the critical comments, I've struggled with weight issues--up 10 pounds, down 20, trying to achieve perfection. For me, the f-word had a different meaning. The bottom line: I didn't measure up.

I never lacked for boyfriends. I've been called pretty, striking, a Valkyrie. My husband, William, says his first thought when we met was, "Wow." It's funny, though, how the bad stuff sticks, like mud on your tires. Over the years the beast of insecurity raged through me like an unstoppable fire. I strayed in and out of relationships, or avoided them altogether, unable to see myself as men said they saw me.

My mother's beauty seemed even greater because she was never vain or narcissistic. Her loveliness radiated from within. She was my biggest fan, encouraging me to attend college and follow my dreams, which seemed to change with each year. Once, when I was 18, I planned to sleep over at a friend's house. I remember sitting at my friend's kitchen table drinking a soda when a feeling crept over me, as if I were drowning. I didn't recognize the signs of my first panic attack, but ran home, shaking, and roused my mother from bed. She grabbed a blanket and slept beside me on our living room couch, her comforting arm around me. When her four daughters became mothers, including one with twins and another triplets, my mother packed her bag and parked herself on our couches, walking babies, sometimes two at a time, in the middle of the night.

My mother died nine months ago, at 70, of cancer. She spent her last days in the hospital. Lying in her bed, sedated, she looked as radiant as ever; her skin retained its pink color, her eyes clear and bright. Throughout the course of my mother's illness, people didn't know she was sick unless she told them. One morning while I was sitting with my mother, an aide came in to bathe her. When he asked if I wanted to help, I took the moistened cloth, unfastened my mother's gown and gently massaged it over her skin. His offer was a gift, a last look at her still-beautiful body, the arms and breasts that had been my comfort.

Recently I attended a writers conference in San Diego. During a luncheon I noticed a woman in her 50s, with salt-and-pepper hair, staring at me across the table. A few hours later, on my way out of a session, the woman approached me, saying, "You might have noticed I was looking at you." I waited for her answer, not sure what to expect.

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