It’s easy to understand why my father married my mother.
Back then, he was a thirty-something bachelor still living at home with his father, as they both tried to ignore the ghost of my grandmother. Mary Lou died relatively young; she hadn’t hit 40 before she lost her life to lung cancer. My grandmother had been a small god hovering above them, Mother Theresa and Florence Nightingale rolled into one divine creation.
I didn’t really learn how my parents met until after I’d gone to college, perhaps right before she filed the divorce papers. When I was younger, they were both vague about their meeting and I could never stitch together the full story. My father had supplied threadbare details, which were delivered with crisp authority. “Your mother and I met through a correspondence program. We wrote each other letters.”
I didn’t question my father or press for more. When I was that age, my father was not to be questioned; his place in our family came equipped with unwavering power. I was left to dream up my own innocent scenarios, enhanced by a newfound appreciation for black-and-white movies. In one of my mother’s wedding portraits, she looks unsure of her decision, yet radiant in her white dress. Round cheeks stained with pink blush. Dark Elizabeth Taylor eyebrows. Button nose. Vulnerability.
I suppose I should have figured out the truth on my own. My mother was born into poverty in the Philippines in a small township just outside the country’s capital, Manila. The town didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing. The houses were nothing more than wooden shacks, the slits in the floorboards wide enough for lizards to dart up and onto the walls at night.
She had a total of 10 siblings. They are all scattered across the world now, floating pieces of tight-lipped history.
It’s deceptively easy to imagine my mother as a teenager. She was a pretty girl, a delicate-looking, almond-eyed doll who had the guts to climb out her bedroom window and run into the velvet night, eager to meet the latest paramour to capture her affections.
She was always pretty, but after puberty hit she seemed to have blossomed into some saintly wonder. Everyone noticed. The childhood bully that had yanked her ponytail and called her names suddenly begged to go on a date with her. (“Of course I said no, Vanessa. He apologized to me for being so mean, too. But I still said no.”)
When she was older, there was a blue-eyed British med student that proposed after weeks of knowing her. Essentially, my African-American father was no different than the romances of her girlhood past, another hypnotized man with love-struck promises.
Were they in love? Maybe. But they had both been tricked by the myth of beauty, of what it can bring.
I wish I could say I was being humble, but it’s the truth: I was one ugly kid.
My seventh grade picture is flinchingly awkward: crooked teeth, metal braces. Bushy eyebrows, frizzy hair. My (white) third grade teacher pointed out how frizzy it was, how fluffy — like the poof of cotton on top of a Q-Tip, she announced to my entire class. My classmates laughed along with my teacher.
I was one of the few minorities in my school, if not the only biracial student. People made sure I didn’t forget this, treating me like some lowly animal they were poking at with a sharp stick through the bars of its cage.
People asked if my hair was real. People asked to feel my hair. Some didn’t even ask. When my mother decided to stop trimming my hair, she took me to a salon down the street from our house. The hairdresser was an older lady with a long face, maybe in her mid-forties at the time. She looked like she’d taken her styling tips from Steel Magnolias; her purposefully twirled ringlets were locked in place with a stiff shield of AquaNet.
I sat down in the chair and she toyed with my hair. She examined the texture and studied the curls with wonder. I began to get anxious. I met her gaze in the mirror. She said, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know what to do. I’ve never worked with this kind of hair before.” My mother whisked me out of the salon and we never went back.
Meanwhile, I grew up knowing that my mother, by anyone’s status, was naturally beautiful.
In high school, she just could not believe that no one was asking me out on dates. When there was a school dance, she got excited for the both of us. Like a giddy schoolgirl, she insisted that she do my makeup and wear her heels. Some girls would’ve loved to have a mom like this, my childhood best friend included. But what’s the benefit in having a beautiful mother when it only confirms the monstrosity you think that you see in the mirror?
Journal entries from this time period are filled with blind self-hate. Sometimes this torrential anger was too much to control, and so I etched the pain into existence with a sharp tool. Even now, after graduating college and taking the first steps into adulthood, I still remember all those moments and the snippets of conversations that illuminate the battlefield of adolescence.
The worst I can think of: One morning, on the bus ride to school, a boy in my class had turned around and said that my skin color was the same color as shit. We were in the fifth grade. I can honestly say that I’ve never wished that I’d been born a different race. It was only the illusive magic of beauty I wanted, beauty like my mother proudly possessed, the kind of physical aesthetic that transcended and bewitched.
My mother always told me that I was pretty, but I never believed her. How could I? This was a woman, some “exotic beauty,” who didn’t look a day over 25 and could easily fit into my jeans. Men hit on her despite the wedding ring. She couldn’t understand why I was so offended when she said, “I think you look more like your father.”
Sometimes, I don’t even believe my boyfriend when he calls me beautiful. My instincts sway toward pity; it’s a compliment out of charity. I don’t blame my mother for my screwed-up thought process or the demons roaming free in my head. Despite her vanity, she never criticized me. My mother believed in my beauty from the very beginning.
She entered me in beauty pageants before I could walk. She took me shopping for trendy clothes and makeup. In a way, she still carried the naïve wonder of a 16-year-old girl who took all her beauty tips from Cosmo. She not only looked young, she acted young. She could not imagine the repercussions for failing to uphold the standard ideals of beauty. She assumed that beauty was something to be passed on like an Olympic torch.
Instead, it became a wall that would not come down until I had grown up.