My mother’s teenage mind has yet to catch up with her senior citizen body. On warm afternoons, she dances solo in the living room with ABBA cranked too loud for the neighbors. She wants to travel across the world, read every book and still thinks she may acquire a second (or third) language one of these days. Mostly, she is obsessed with how she looks.
In many ways, my nearly 80-year-old mother is very much still a teenager. Yet her body says otherwise. I wonder, sometimes, how our bodies age. I look at my husband’s mother, not that much younger than my own, and consider how sharp her brain is and how she carries on conversations about politics, sports and local history. A friend’s mother works full-time in her senior years, taking road trips and cruises like she’s on the hunt to discover herself any day now. My mother, though, has a short attention span. She loses things: keys, money, jewelry, her car. Sometimes she loses her address.
What she remembers is her ideal weight. Not a phone call goes by where she doesn’t mention how she’s on a diet now, eager to lose a few pounds, and had a small slice of cheese or lettuce for lunch.
For as long as I can remember—decades, to be sure—my mother has been on a diet. She may lose two pounds, or maybe five, and then she remembers how much she likes pie and cake and bread and butter and will say, “To hell with it. I’m too old for this,” as she serves up seconds. The next day, predictably, she will be back on the proverbial wagon. The next time we talk she will remind me how smart she is eating and how much she likes dancing and biking, even though she routinely falls off the bike and bruises herself to the point of purple that lasts a month.
I live too many thousands of miles away for regular visits, but with our intermittent reunions, I know to expect an assessment when we first exchange glances after a time apart. “You look so good,” she’ll say on a good day, but more often I hear, “Oh, you’re dressed so sloppy,” to which my father will interject how I am on a road trip and should be comfortable.
She doesn’t remember—doesn’t know—that she speaks to me like this. On the phone, she whimpers how much she misses me, how fun it is to spend time together. It can be. It can also be disheartening. I can’t avoid feeling concern for how my mother imagines she is meant to have a Marilyn Monroe figure, even at—despite—her age. At what point do women say, “To hell with it” and actually mean it? As I near my mid-40s, I wonder for myself.
I wonder when I will stop measuring myself in clothing sizes. I wonder when I will forget that my younger self weighed less. I wonder if I am simply falling into my mother’s pattern of behavior. Will I always want to lose those few extra pounds—but never really try?
Weight is a weighty subject, and yet it means nothing. Not really. I don’t want to be remembered by others for how much I weighed or if my teenage weight was less than my elderly weight. I feel like this matters immensely to my mother, and I don’t know how to feel about that. Some days I offer encouragement, saying “You can do it, Mom,” and other days I want to yell into the phone, “Who gives a shit! Eat what you want. You earned it.”
She did. My mother worked her whole life, through sickness, breakdowns, family disputes, all while raising three noncompliant children. She paid bills, bailed us out when necessary, drove “old folks” to the grocery store and to church even when she didn’t have cash to pay for gas. She deserves a goddamn piece of cake. With extra frosting. She deserves to think better of herself.
Like a teenager, no amount of telling her this will make a difference. She won’t hear those words. But I do. I hear the words I would tell my mother if she would listen. And I pay attention. I tell myself that a piece of cake won’t devalue who I am. I tell myself it doesn’t matter what the dress label says, because my life’s size isn’t measured in inches. It’s measured in memories—the ones from the past and those I continue to make today. Life is about experiencing. It’s about dancing solo to music too loud for the neighbors.