I have my mother’s eyes.
The thought reached me in an epiphany one day as I stared into the mirror, wishing for what seemed like the millionth time that my lower eyelashes weren’t blonde.
It’s only the lower ones—my upper lashes have always been just short of brown, but dark enough at least to be noticeable. Both sets of lashes are thin, sparse and short, so much so that even with the best mascara, nothing short of fake lashes could ever make me a Cover Girl.
Even so, it wasn't until I made the connection between us that I realized my mother’s eyes were the reason I’d considered myself ugly for so long. It wasn't my skyscraper forehead. It wasn't my huge front teeth, big enough for billboard advertisement, and it wasn't the giant overbite for which I wore a headgear at night for years on end.
It wasn't the dark circles under my eyes, or my translucent skin, pale and thin enough that my veins stretch like a blue highway map beneath the surface. It wasn't the stretch marks—the new angry red ones or the old silvery white (gifts of an out-of-control growth spurt in puberty when I was eleven). It wasn't the white scar beneath my lower lip, or the thin, half straight half wavy hair I've never been able to tame.
It was the eyes, the eyes of a woman I’m proud to say I’m nothing like.
Yet, ironically perhaps, my eyes have always been my most complimented feature.
“They’re so blue!”
I hear it all the time. Not necessarily that they’re beautiful, though I've heard that often enough. No, what people find so striking about my eyes is, for some reason, their blueness.
I’ve never been particularly impressed with the color myself. I knew a girl in high school whose eyes were an amazing turquoise blue, a shade riding the line just between blue and green, like a tropical lagoon. Those are pretty eyes. Mine are just a pale grey blue, darkening to grey around the edges. They hardly work—I haven’t been able to see more than six inches past my face since about the third grade. They've gotten so bad I have to wear contacts rather than glasses. Glasses thick enough to correct my vision are too expensive—they have to use a special material for the lens, because glass lenses would be too thick to fit in a frame. But it’s not their failure to perform correctly; it’s not the bland color I hate. It’s the blonde eyelashes.
My mom started doing drugs when she was about fourteen years old; she’s fifty-six now, and thirty-two years of smoking and drug abuse have not been kind to her body. Her skin hangs loosely from her bones, like a suit three sizes too big. But it isn’t soft, like my grandmother’s, which feels almost like silk; it’s tough, not thick but hard, covered in brown age spots so thick she looks tanned, though her skin used to be as fair as my own.
She’s lost so much weight she looks almost skeletal, her skull especially prominent beneath the thin, lined skin of her face, and when she speaks, she has a bit of a lisp because the last of her teeth, yellowed and rotten black at the root long ago, have finally all fallen out, and she cannot afford dentures. When she laughs, now, she covers her mouth with her hand, and when she speaks she draws in her lips to cover the naked rotten gums.
What’s left of her hair has become brittle and stiff, the once fiery orange-red faded to a light blonde, the color of dead grass in winter. She no longer has eyebrows, her drawn face in a constant expression of surprise, and her eyelashes, too, deserted their post long ago or turned as light and brittle as her hair.
My mom was in jail for a large portion of my childhood, so I never had a chance to develop any of her personality traits, and according to other members of my family, I get the majority of my looks from my grandfather (on her side) and my personality from my grandmother (on my father’s side).
But when I look in the mirror, I can’t help but see my mother’s eyes.
It wasn’t until I began wearing mascara my sophomore year of high-school, sneaking it out of my step-mom’s bathroom in the morning to apply it on the bus, washing it off before my parents got home from work because I wasn’t supposed to wear it, that I began to feel beautiful. I know now, of course, that I have many fine traits; many girls would kill for my nails, which grow naturally strong, unbendable, and look like a French manicure without any help from me. I’ve always had some generous curves; and though my hair may be obnoxious, it’s soft and shiny as any Garnier model’s, without the expensive product. I’ve always thought there was something regal about my high, fine cheekbones, and my fair skin, though almost transparent, is almost as soft as a baby’s, and until I got pregnant, was nearly as flawless as any model’s after airbrushing.
But back then, boys never flirted with me—the ultimate, completely accurate judge of true beauty. So I assumed I was ugly, and I just knew my eyes were to blame. Those horrid yellow eyelashes, which have always seemed to emphasize the dark circles beneath my eyes, made me look tired and worn, adding more years to my age than I can claim. Without those lower lashes, my face seemed to me stern, empty, expressionless. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized there was something more, that the biggest reason for all those years of self-esteem issues stemmed from a dislike for my mother and what she represented; the childhood I’d lost, the loneliness and embarrassment I’d buried deep in my heart and forgotten in all but the unconscious portion of my mind.
The other day I found myself looking into my daughter’s eyes and hoping that when they change from that deep, dark blue most babies are born with, they will lighten to a beautiful hazel like her father’s, with his long, thick dark lashes, so I’ll never have to see my mother in her.
And then I realized—I can’t do anything about that. I can’t change myself. I can’t affect what she looks like as she ages, I can't change any of her features. All I can do is ensure that she has no reason to dislike anything about herself because of something she sees reflected in me.