My Mother's Body, When I Was Young
My mother has a beautiful body, and strong.
When I was a child she worked as a lifeguard in the summers. Her limbs were long and powerful and brown, and her curves made her buoyant, and she could swim like a fish. A confident, muscular fish.
Twice in my clear memory, I saw her pull drowning people from the water and bring them back to life. A tiny girl named Sherry got in too deep, lost her air, sank to the bottom of the swimming pool. Mom dove to the bottom, pulled her out, pushed the water from her lungs, held her while she coughed and sputtered. Sherry’s mother cried and cried; I thought she was weak. I thought how lucky I was that my mother was my mother. Nothing could happen to me; she would save me.
Another time a high school boy, a full-grown kid, horsed around on the diving board, jumping up high and banging the board with the back of his head. He was unconscious before he hit the water. Mom dove from the lifeguard stand and hauled that young man up from the deep end, pulled his dead weight out of the water, gave him mouth-to-mouth till he came back. His name was Ben. He looked so weak on the hot cement, panting and vomiting. My mother looked so strong, kneeling over him in her sensible bathing suit with the wide straps. I thought how stupid boys could be, and how smart my mother was. How tan, how competent, how beautiful.
But on Sundays. Oh, mercy, on Sundays my mother’s body was punished for its size and power and beauty.
On Sundays Mom got up earlier than anybody else and started Sunday lunch. Bread that would rise twice before church. A roast, seared and slow-cooking with root vegetables. Kids dressed and groomed. The table set for family and guests who would come for lunch. All of this, she did in her housecoat alone – a loose cotton garment that let her move and breathe with grace and efficiency in the kitchen, just as she did in the water.
In the last minutes before we had to leave for Sunday school, she would hustle to her room and squeeze into the elastic garments that held her flesh together: the girdle, the bra, the control-top pantyhose. These were barbaric raiments with hooks and snaps and straps. They squeezed and pulled and smoothed and constricted. The shoes were equally torturous; narrow pumps into which her toes were crammed and over which her ankles swelled. Even her earlobes suffered; the clip-on earrings pinched painfully and she didn’t put them on till very last. Her modesty required all of it; it would not do to let her body loose in church.
Thusly poured into her Sunday best, Mom sat erect in the passenger seat of the car and equally upright in the pew. I don’t think she could comfortably slouch if she wanted to. She poked at us kids to get us to sit up straight, too, but without all the elastic we didn’t stand a chance.
After church she served lunch, still cinched tight. Mom is a generous host who also very much enjoys the food she makes. When everyone else’s plates were filled on the Sundays of my childhood, I would look up from my peppery, gravy-covered plate to catch her spooning small portions on to her own dish. She would take a bite of ambrosia salad, her favorite, and she would smile a little smile of private satisfaction. And I thought how amazing it was that she had produced the wonder of that table, and about how soon I could ask for seconds.
After the guests had gone and the dishes were done, Mom would pick up her shoes and earrings (which had usually not lasted through the entire meal) and head for her bedroom. I accompanied her there to watch the getting-dressed procedure in reverse. The earrings would go back in the special box, and then the peeling of layers would begin. The dress, and then the various elastic modules until, at last, she was free. The housecoat would go back on.
And then, I swear to goodness, my mom would do something she hadn’t done since early that morning. She would close her eyes and take a deep, full breath. She would draw in air all the way to the bottom of her lungs, as if God’s own Self were giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As if she had been drowning, her breathing constricted as it was by all the wrapping. She would exhale just as fully, emptying herself of all the poisonous carbon dioxide she couldn’t quite get rid of while she was bound. On Sunday afternoons, when church was all the way done, my mom could finally breathe again. My mom came back to life.
Someone asked me today why I am a feminist. Because of my mother’s body, when I was young.