but you'll always be the smartest."
With those words, my mother laid the cornerstone on the foundation of my personality. It has been both exceptionally sturdy and also very weak. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I was standing in the downstairs bathroom, the one with the little statue of W.C. Fields. I was probably seven. I was observing a ritual that had been repeated thousands of times already in my short life: standing next to the sink, watching Mom put on her eyeliner. We were late for church, and I knew that we would go in the side door on 10th Street and go through the library and slip into the back pew.
I had asked Mom a question that was so seemingly benign and innocuous. It was one that I have imagined every little girl asks at some point. "Mom, do you think I'm pretty?"
In the last six years I have spent a lot of time drinking in the beauty of my own two children. I know how you stare at the curve of her cheek or admire his gait. I know how every mother sees her child as the most gorgeous thing imaginable, and how you think to yourself, "If they resemble me at all, in appearance or personality, then I am more beautiful than I thought." So now, I know what my mom was thinking. But standing at the sink, she contemplated the question for so long that I thought she probably hadn't heard me. I was about to ask again when she simultaneously deflated me and fed my arrogance with her straightforward statement.
And thus my course was set. I removed myself from the "prettiest girl in the room" competition and set my sights on "smartest." By anyone's estimation, I did very well. National Merit Scholar Finalist. Ivy League (where I also found out that I wasn't, actually, the smartest girl in the room). Turner Scholar. Lewis Fellow. Free Doctor of Ministry. Perfect verbal score on the GRE.
But no matter how well I do in the "smartest" category, that seven-year-old is still in there asking if I'm pretty. She is so persistent that in every serious relationship I've had, once I trusted him completely, I had to sheepishly ask my partner if he thought I was pretty. Usually he has said yes. Sometimes he has even told me how beautiful I am, unprovoked. But there's a silent understanding that it's not my strong suit, and that if you really like me, it's probably for reasons other than appearance.
I have wondered often, over the years, what caused my mom to make that pointed remark. Mom has been gone for almost thirteen years now, so I can't ask her. But with my own daughter now six, I think I know. She wanted me to estimate myself far beyond whatever value society might place on my beauty. She wanted me to invest in myself in ways that would not necessarily be physically apparent. But in doing so, she also created a little quagmire that sucks in bottomless amounts of attention and reassurance.
So last night, as little Vicki wanted to snuggle on my lap, I held my lips against the side of her forehead and whispered, "You're so beautiful." Tomorrow, it might be, "My God, you're brilliant." And the next day, "You cannot control anyone but yourself." They are all true, and however she chooses to define herself - whatever competition she decides to throw her hat into - I want her to know that she has the internal resources to win at being her best self. Always.