My Mother was beautiful. She was a New York model way back in the 30’s. My grandmother used to take her to work so no man would tempt her away. My grandmother always talked about how beautiful my Mother was. “When she walked into a room” she would say, “everyone would turn around to look at her.” She was really beautiful. There was a photograph of her in a long dress, the clinging kind, sleeveless and with a v-neck, not a crease or wave, it clung to her body like a swim suit, her head is slightly turned, one knee just barely bent, she is looking at something off in the distance, perhaps just above the horizon, I can see the photograph in my mind as if I had it in front of me today. My Mother was beautiful. My Father said it too. He would look at her as she came towards him across the room; he didn’t have to say it. His eyes, his face said it over and over: your Mother is beautiful. My friends would say it: your Mother is really beautiful, the boys, they would say it. Fifty years later, someone I knew then said to me: your Mother was really beautiful: he remembered, fifty years later. She was that beautiful. I remember her back in the 50’ies when wide circular skirts were in, putting on a dress with a circular skirt. “Twirl for me, Mommy”, and she would spin around, the skirt flying out in a perfect circle around her, showing me her long, slim legs and the silk white panties that were worn then, up to the waist and with little legs that went down a couple of inches. She was beautiful.
In the living room, she would dance with my Father. Round and round, floating in his arms, perfectly in tune with each step, her head slightly thrown back, tilting from side to side as she followed his perfect rhythm. Beautiful. I used to brush her hair. I used to watch her put on her makeup. I never tired of looking at her. There seemed to be no one else in the world; the whole space was taken up by my Mother’s beauty. There was none left for me.
I was not beautiful. I was intelligent. My Grandmother said I was intelligent. She had said that about my aunt too, my Mother’s sister: my Mother was beautiful, my Aunt was intelligent. My Grandmother did things like that: she labeled people, situations, happenings. Opinionated. My Grandmother was opinionated and her opinion was that my Mother was beautiful and my Aunt was intelligent. I discovered later that my Mother was also intelligent. My Aunt was screwed-up, her life was shitty, she was not intelligent or beautiful. Her daughter was not the favorite granddaughter, I was the favorite maybe because my Mother was beautiful and my Grandmother couldn’t stop looking at her either. It seems that no one could.
I was not beautiful, and that would not have been a problem if I hadn’t wanted to be beautiful. However, I not only wanted to be beautiful, I wanted to be more beautiful than my Mother, but I pretended that being intelligent was more important because from very early on I realized that there was no way in God’s world that I would ever be even half as beautiful as my Mother. So on the outside I poo-poohed physical beauty and sang the glories of intelligence, but when I looked in the mirror, I would have given every iota of intelligence to look like my Mother or better.
My Mother was also thin. She looked to me as if she had the perfect figure. My Father drooled. He said there were Breast-Men and Butt-Men and he was a Breast-Man. My Mother had big breasts and a tiny waist that showed them off. I had a big butt and no breasts and, until I was about twenty, no waist of which to speak. I was so ashamed of my “bee-stings” as my Grandmother called them, that when “sex raised its ugly head” (which was what she attributed adolescent evils to) I was quicker to take off my panties than to unbutton my blouse. There was no way I could be beautiful, not with my Mother around and there was no getting rid of her. It wouldn’t have done any good anyway; she was installed in my head from very, very early on. I had to be intelligent so I worked at it very hard. My Mother, when I was an adolescent, informed me that “Men prefer dumb women”, that was not encouraging, but I had no choice: I couldn’t be the beautiful one. To make things worse, I didn’t even like my Aunt, who was supposed to be the one who had gotten the brains (and all I could see was that she had gotten the neuroses) so I had to find another model to be intelligent like. I might have chosen my Grandmother, who was almost my favorite person on Earth after my Father, but my Father insisted that she was common: “I could never understand how such a lady like your Mother could come from someone so common” he would say. That didn’t leave many people to choose from, so I ended up wanting to be like my Father: intelligent, and, of course, a man. I don’t have to explain the problems I faced on that front; most girls from my times wanted to be their Fathers. Even my Grandmother, who thought my Mother was the most beautiful thing alive, considered that she did not “deserve” a man as Good as my Father. “Women are devious” she stated without a shadow of a doubt in her voice: “Boys are much better than girls, more up front” and considering that I was her favorite, it was hard to figure out.
Anyway, as anyone can guess by now, at the age of 15 I was one hell of a mess inside while trying desperately to keep up external appearances so no one would catch on. It was around that time that, one evening at home I suggested we order Pizza Pie for dinner.
“Don’t be stupid” my Father said, fulminating me with one of his you-are-the-lowest-form-of-life looks; “ ‘Pizza’, in Italian, means ‘Pie’ so Pizza Pie is redundant” and he launched into an explanation of the origins of pizza, or something like it. When he finished, I assumed a smart-aleck look on my face and, with a wink at my Mother, asked: “Can we at least order the pizza-pie now?”
I thought he was going to go into melt-down under the heat of the rage that invaded him: “You… YOU have the sensitivity of a rhinoceros” he growled and left the room.
I was fixed. That was it. Not intelligent, not beautiful, not a man, not a figure worth commenting on (no bust, all butt): a rhinoceros. Straight and simple: the rest of the ride was downhill until about the age of 50.
By that time, I had forgotten about the problem of not being beautiful, or at least moved it into the darkest corner of the subconscious, and had taken up trying to look at least decent and clean with the wrinkles that had begun to appear on my face and the slight hang that the skin under my chin insisted on having. I had given up on becoming a man all together when I married and had two children, not because I liked the role, but because it was inevitable: it is hard to be the man when you have married one and installed yourself in a house with him and are confronted every morning with the fact of who has the “hardware”.
Life had not gotten any easier given all the “nots” (and you can spell that with a “k” if you like) that had accumulated: not beautiful, not thin, not intelligent, not a man, not a good mother, not a good housewife, not a successful writer… not, not, not. It’s a wonder I could even live with myself, as if I had had a choice.
Surprisingly enough, after years of psychotherapy and alternative systems that taught you how to hate your father out loud and how to feel superior to your mother then aged 75, at 60 I believed I had undone most if not all the knots and was living a pretty decent and peaceful (if not gloriously happy) life.
Then Chus came along. Chus is short for María Jesús, and María Jesús was only 30 to my 60, had long wavy black hair to my eternally straight, thin blond stuff, and seemed much surer of herself than I had ever felt in my entire life. Chus and I had what I term “our little encounter” when we were thrown together to staff a weekend workshop of the most recent therapy on the market. There I found a plus that gave me an unexpected status: I was a good organizer. Chus had everything else, but she was just about the most disorganized, flighty, unstable person I have ever met and she was supposedly in charge of the event (even though she kept telling everyone that she wasn’t and disappearing to prove it). I was flooded with a sense of my own superiority and set about showing it with how-can-you-be-so-incompetent looks in her direction at every chance, until finally I just took over the whole shebang and set about organizing so that we could pull the event off.
Everything went smoothly in the end, mostly because there was a marvelous team and there wasn’t much to organize as long as someone was willing to coordinate the energy and creativity of the rest. Chus and I did not fight, and ended up hugging and giving each other a big kiss and congratulating each other on the success. It was therefore a surprise when she phoned me about a week later and said: “I have done a worksheet on you and I want to read it to you”. In this therapy, when there is a conflict or resentment, we write our judgments about the other person, question the veracity of the thoughts and judgments and then turn them all around to ourselves; it is very effective. We made a date for the following day and met at the park bench we had agreed upon. Chus read her page. Her judgments about my controlling nature, my power struggles, my unpleasant looks were right on and I could only nod in agreement thankful that we had already solved those issues on our last meeting. On question five, however, one is supposed to list the “disagreeable” things that one thinks about the other person, and I was in for the surprise of my life. Chus was a little uncertain about reading her list, but decided to go ahead and do it just as it was written on her sheet:
“You are controlling, demanding, bossy, old and UGLY” she said turning slightly red on pronouncing the last words. I had no problem with the first four, there was no doubt in my mind that I was all those things, and many more as my ex husband had delighted in confirming during our rather painful divorce (is there any other kind?). But no one in my whole life, not even me, had ever used the word UGLY to describe me. Even “rhinoceros” was not UGLY. And now, there it was.
For a moment it hung there, suspended in the air between us; it echoed in my ears and everything stood still. Then suddenly it burst forth, broke out and entered my chest as if it were an enormous, beautiful, free bird opening everything inside of me for the first time.
“Oh my god!” I gasped. “I’m free.” I felt the wings, I felt the beating of those enormous wings, ugly-ugly-ugly-ugly, taking off inside of me as if my heart would burst with love and joy and freedom. I looked at Chus who was still gasping at how she had dared say such a terrible thing to me, and cried: “Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I finally heard it, that most feared word. What a gift, thank you, thank you…” and I was crying and laughing and hugging her.
“I’m sorry…” she began to stammer, but I stopped her.
“You just gave me the greatest gift I have ever received” I said, knowing that there was no way I could explain or she could understand. But I understood, finally, after 60 years of trying to be more beautiful than I was, of trying to always see myself in the mirror as beautiful, of fearing that someone would find me not-beautiful, of struggling in an ever losing battle, with the frustration and impossibility of being what one is not, I understood: it was so clear, as crystal clear as the tears of joy streaming down my cheeks: She had said I was Ugly, and nothing had changed in or on me; she could have said I was Beautiful and nothing would have changed: I just WAS. What she saw or didn’t see had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. What I saw in the mirror or didn’t see had NOTHING TO DO WITH ME. I was what I was what I was and someone at times would see me as beautiful, and others at other times would see me as ugly and others wouldn’t even see me, and NOT ONE CELL IN MY BODY, NOT ONE BREATH IN MY EXISTENCE WOULD CHANGE, EVER. I was just me, and in the moment I heard the word “ugly” that knowledge became an experience that expanded like the wings of the UGLY bird that nested in my chest forever. That, whatever it was, was Being Beautiful. Yes Man!!!