My Mother Wanted to be Betty Boop

Betty Boop was independent. Betty Boop was sexy. Betty Boop really had her shit together, you know? She vacuumed a lot. She always had earrings on and lipstick.

What is this thing between mothers and daughters, this primitive compulsion to make totems of each other so that we can appear before each other’s eyes as the larger-than-life-caricature of everything we hate and fear? Pendulous breasts, jutting buttocks, lidless eyes, the teeth of the devouring monster spitting blood through lips that close over the helpless prey. Hi, mom. Hi honey. That you? Yeah, it’s me, is that you? Then we kill the creature, and we’re done with it. Until the next time, when it can rise up and be killed again. —Mary Gordon

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My mother wanted to be a dancer. In the living room when I was a kid we danced to “Stop In The Name Of Love” by The Supremes and she had a glass of red wine in her hand and she spun me round and round.

My mother wanted me to be an artist so for years she put a purple beret on my head and bought me art supplies.

My mother wanted to be Betty Boop. Betty Boop was independent. Betty Boop was sexy. Betty Boop really had her shit together, you know? She vacuumed a lot. She always had earrings on and lipstick.

My mother wanted her daughter to be sexually free, since she was not. I guess that’s why she’d leave The Joy of Sex and The Karma Sutra out for my male friends and me in High School to look at. And that is what we did. We ate grapes and studied vaginas on Friday and Saturday nights. I guess that’s why she’d give us condoms with happy faces on them and condom lollipops when she would pick us up from the ice cream shop. I guess that’s why my mother was the mother that told my friends they could talk to her about sex if they could not talk to their own mothers. And they did. The last time I saw her she told me I was too sexually free.

My mother wanted a daughter that looked like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. My mother expected a daughter that looked like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. That is who she and her sisters had looked like. She thought she’d have her own little Scout. That is what she knew and loved. But my mother got me. A mess. A mob. I popped out early and happy and loud with a maelstrom of thick curly blond hair. Green eyes instead of brown. Thick hair instead of thin. Voluptuous instead of skinny. No chicken legs. Not one straight hair. Never a pixie cut. Breasts by the time I was thirteen. Everyone was always asking how I got that blond hair and my parents always said the postman, a joke I did not understand for a very long time.

My mother wanted her hair to be curly. She told me that having me was like having a kid with an Afro. That it was like having a black kid. That she was expecting a little Scout and that she got a blonde bombshell. Her words not mine. My mom and her four sisters all had straight brown haired pixie cuts. Their mother cut their hair with bowls over their heads in the basement. My mom had never dealt with my kind of hair and she did not know how to handle my hair as a child. I was never the girl to show up with cute French braids or neatly done pigtails. It didn’t braid easily. It was too thick for ponytails. The most she would do was one barrette or a headband. Also, I just couldn’t be bothered to sit still too long. Finally she just let it go free. But my mom loves my hair. She always asks me to try to make her hair curly. It never works.

My mother wanted dimples and would try to indent her cheek with her finger. For hours.

My mother wanted to be Bob Dylan and in the car when “Mr. Jones” by the Counting Crows came on the radio she turned it up and she threw her hand in the air and yelled along with the lyric: “I want to be Bob Dylan!” My mother wanted to be Lucinda Williams. My mother wanted to be Michelle Shocked.

My mother wanted to be a Buddhist and sat on a pillow upstairs in her bedroom to mediate. My mother often took naps on the couch after work saying, “I’m not sleeping, I’m resting my eyes.”

My mother says that if she wrote a book she would quote Leonard Cohen in the beginning:

“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

My mother told me that when she was little she thought that babies were conceived when you lied down horizontally next to a boy. But then her sister informed her that no, no, she was wrong. French kissing was what made babies.

My mother told me that if you are falling in love with someone then they are probably falling in love with you. I think my mother was wrong.

My mother told me I was “high as a kite” one day after school, while I stood at the kitchen counter babbling about High School and eating Stoned Wheat Thins, and she asked me to “please not get so stoned afterschool.”

My mother wanted to be a mother and every morning while she drove to the preschool she worked at in her red Toyota she pretended she had a child with her. She would reach out and touch the leg of the invisible child and say: “Watcha want to do today, honey?”

My mother going to yoga class. My mother going to therapy. My mother going to figure drawing class.

My mother’s books next to the toilet in the downstairs bathroom: Uncertainty. Anger. When Things Fall Apart. My mother’s books on the coffee table: Van Gough. Bonnard. My mother’s books in the upstairs bathroom: Feminism and Philosophy of Men. Motherhood: A Gift Of Love. She’s Come Undone. Sometimes there were caterpillars on the toilet paper and there are always cobwebs in the shower. The spiders in the shower were her friends and she says to leave them because it is bad karma to kill them.

My mother: Doing downward dog on the floor. My mother in cat pose. My mother in spinal twist. My mother being a tree. My mother: Taking off her bra underneath her shirt when she came home from work, and saying that it was the best part of the day. My mother: Standing at the counter reading the newspaper and eating pretzel rods. My mother: Crouched in a rectangle of sun from the skylight painting her toenails mauve.

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Chloe Caldwell is a non-fiction writer living in upstate New York. Her collection of essays, Legs Get Led Astray, will be published by Future Tense Books in April 2012. Read more at www.chloecaldwell.com

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