Still mesmerized by this routine even though you have it memorized, you too could open the drawers and jewelry boxes when she’s gone and apply color and scent in all the right places, and sometimes you do. But tonight is the first night that you really notice your mother standing there in her white cotton underwear, a modest line of lace scalloping her breasts. You are young enough not to study her body with fear, assessing your inheritance. You are even young enough to still believe that your mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. When she asks you which dress she should wear, this choice matters more to you than what you will wear yourself. You look at your mother in her white cotton underwear and want to dress her like a superhero. “The Red,” you say, liking the way the fabric falls over her hips and shimmies when she dances. Kingdoms have been given away for less. But mostly you like this dress because it means your mother will wear her highest heels. You have listened to her clicking down the stairs many nights as you lay in bed, your babysitter stumbling through a story. You have been insane with jealousy over those heels taking your mother away and now you want her to put them on and wear them just for you. You want perfume on her throat, chandeliers in her ears, her hair fresh out of curlers. When she turns to attack your tangles, you grit your teeth without complaint, knowing that this is what’s important: each of you designing the other, making yourselves into something strong enough to answer for the absence of a man.
The gymnasium is decorated in pink and your mother in her red dress clashes, but this is not why all the men look up and stare. You think: No man will ever look at me that way. When the men turn back to their daughters, you think: No man will ever look at me that way either. This time it is true. Ten years from now, you will graduate with your mother and her boyfriend watching, and after the ceremony, the boyfriend will yell at you for eating an ice cream meant for his dog. Nearly a decade later, you will walk down an aisle in a white dress with your tall brother leading you forward, but it will not be the same as what rises before you now: a sea of girls growing out of mushroom-colored jumpers, with men who love them all the more for sharing such an awkward rite of passage. Only then do you see your mother for what she is: a thin, white woman, slightly tired, wearing one fantastic costume. But she is brave, and will be braver still, for you. And men or no men, you will be your mother’s daughter. You will grab her hand, lead her to the middle of the floor, and dance.
© Nicole Melanson
* This piece first appeared in Global City Review