Mirror Image

Dark, glossy waves of hair fall over my daughter’s shoulders. I smooth her bangs, working a drop of aloe vera gel into the stubborn cowlick I’ve inadvertently bestowed upon her, tugging out my genetic influence with a straightening iron. She stares at me in the mirror, an uneasy question in her eyes. I smile. “What’s the matter, honey?”

She drops her gaze. “Will my cheeks get red, too?” Her voice is bruised with guilt. I glance at my early morning face; makeup-free, its surface is marred with angry strikes of red. I kiss Abbey’s temple and whisper, “No, honey, no. You won’t get Rosacea.”

I understand. I want her to embrace her beauty. Because I know I wasted mine.

Side by side, our mirrored faces reflect a stark difference. Of course they do; I’m a stone’s throw away from forty, she’s just rounded the corner of double digits. People often tell her, “You look just like your mother!” — a declaration that once brightened her with pride, but one, lately, she appears ambivalent about. If her response — shuffling feet, murmured replies, and uncomfortable glances in my direction — is any indication, Abbey is beginning to question whether looking like me is a compliment.

I understand. Growing up, I was deeply offended at the constant assertion that I looked just like my mother. No, I didn’t. She was old, I was young. Her hair is black, and dang it, mine’s brown. She has precisely cut, delicate features: a pert nose, a small forehead. I have a wide forehead, a big nose. My imperfections seemed to be mine alone; I seized on them, determined to look nothing like her, wanting to distance myself from this complicated woman who was so often angry and unapproachable.

The easiest way to do that, I thought, was to deny that we were anything alike. She had perfect posture, so I slouched. She was concerned with her body, so I was never concerned with mine. She wore pretty clothes, so I didn’t, filling my wardrobe with jeans, baggy t-shirts, and scuffed boots. Yet despite my efforts, people insisted, “You look so much like your mom!”

“Actually, I look more like my dad,” I’d say, remembering photographs I’d studied, my nose practically glued to the picture. “We have the same eyes.” Whether this could be gleaned from an old Polaroid didn’t matter; his physical presence wasn’t around to contradict my claims. And the more I craved an identity apart from my mother’s, the more convenient it became to carve that identity from my father’s image, whether I was squinting at a photo album or my own vague memories of him.

“Elizabeth, quit frowning!” my mother would say. “You’re going to get wrinkles!”

I didn’t care. I never pinned my hair up, never painted my nails. I couldn’t understand my friends who spent hours in front of the mirror, playing with eye shadow and lip liner. They read Seventeen magazine; I read Stephen King. I refused to place any value on the face in the mirror that so resembled the woman I didn’t want to become.

Now, two decades and two children later, my cheeks flare with Rosacea. There’s a deep wrinkle carved between my eyebrows, right where my mother said it would be. And it matters, especially during those moments when I catch my daughter watching me, her dark eyes indecipherable. She is the same age I was when I decided I didn’t want to be like my mother. Does Abbey feel the same way?

How can I protect our relationship from drifting apart like mine did with my own mom? How can I make my daughter proud of our shared genes? Wanting to look pretty, I carefully apply cream to my face, rub Vaseline into my crow’s feet, powder my cheeks and gloss my lips. I try to remember not to wrinkle my forehead. I don’t want Abbey to be afraid to look like me.

And, more important, I want her to embrace her beauty. Because I know I wasted mine. For twenty years, I could have worn anything. I flip through photo albums and see myself, that tight, smooth body hidden beneath flannel shirts and faded jeans. Now my closet holds slender skirts, form-fitting shirts and sweaters, all purchased in my late twenties. I came to them after Abbey was born. Suddenly aware of the passing time, I gave myself permission to be beautiful. I only had a few years left to wear them, before middle age began throwing me the kind of curves not fit for tight clothes.

When Abbey has friends over, invariably they end up in my closet, sometimes dragging her little brother with them. They parade through the house in glittery dresses and red lips (except for my son, Gabriel, who tolerated the dresses for a while but now stomps around in his dad’s cowboy boots.) I feel both pride and the sting of envy a mother feels when her daughter begins to overtake her. She is lovely, and I hope she allows herself to see it. I start by making sure her mirror is free from streaks and positioned right where she can see herself best when she dances in the center of her room. And I hope that, as a mother, I can embody the qualities she most wants to see reflected in that mirror, so she never turns away feeling afraid.

Abbey’s gaze has lifted, and I realize she’s staring at me again. I stop frowning. “Sorry, honey, I’m just making sure I got that cowlick out.”

She smiles a soft and knowing smile. “It’s okay, Mommy. I don’t mind so much.” Her hand drifts up toward her face, touches that stubborn curve at her hairline, and her voice is almost shy when she says, “It looks just like yours.”

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