A photo of my mother as a young woman popped up on facebook a few days ago. The photo was posted by a friend of my aunt, intended to show Beirut in the 60’s, my mother just happened to be in it (scroll down to view). The digital age can be weird this way. The original poster having no idea anyone in the photo would be recognized.
My mother immediately stood out. She had a distinctive look made all the more pronounced by the Arab culture she grew up in. The photo was taken on a location shoot of the French movie “La Grande Sauterelle” with Hardy Krueger, who is having his shoes shined. Most likely my mother was an extra. It’s an interesting photo unto itself, a beautiful woman examining a store window with no one in the frame looking at her. She is in a Suk in Beirut, where she grew up, and I was born.
My mother’s beauty is a subject that has loomed large in her life and mine, outsized to its actual importance. Unlike myself, she was gifted with it early on in life and grew up surrounded by people who reinforced it at every turn. She had attention and suitors galore. Like most people privileged with winning the genetic lottery, it became a fact of who she was and how she navigated the world.
Beauty comes with an implicit promise of happiness, especially for women. It’s a terrible lie. It’s true that it affords more opportunity, but I question the idea that leads to life satisfaction. Sometimes it’s just more to sift through, and a cruel promise of things that don’t manifest.
Rosemarie Jerjian spoke five languages, had impeccable taste (it’s hard to overstate this one, she was on par with the women of Paris), was graceful, athletic, educated and charming. I have often thought she would have been an ideal mate for a man from a wealthy and cultured Lebanese family. Her talents suited to showing well in the upper echelons of society. Perhaps that would have preserved a cocoon of safety? It’s hard to say, difficulty has a way of creeping in. By the time she met my father she had watched too many American movies to be satisfied with whatever life Beirut could provide.
So she met and married a handsome, American diplomat, and was off to the world. Later came the lessons that marriage was hard, children were draining, being away from home would feel isolating, that she would carry the persistent feeling of never belonging to the culture she was in all the rest of her life, and that getting older would strip her of her most valued asset.
For her, beauty and desirability were relevance.
I hit adolescence about the time my mother divorced my father. Getting older in American culture is often a path to invisibility. Being single forced her to face that ugly reality right about the time I was turning into a young woman. The combination was toxic and lasting.
Before I had time to wonder, it was made clear to me I was not as pretty. Before I ever had a weight problem I was given separate food from the rest of the family. It was a highly effective way to transfer anxiety to me. I was now on the losing end of a competition with my mother.
Her voice played in my head for many years, sabotaging my chance to feel good in my skin. Ironically, once I began to unravel the negative self-talk I was able to lose weight and consistently take better care of myself. The incredible power of acceptance.
Can you tell I’ve had a lot of therapy? It’s my life’s work to sort through this mess. To engage in the daily work of forgiveness.
Today, I am slim, have a beautiful home, and even at forty-six have no trouble finding quality dates. All things she valued. More importantly, I’m a good woman.
I like to think in death she is free to love and enjoy me with none of the barriers that presented in life.
I look at this photo now, fourteen years after her death, past the years of rejection, and I feel such compassion for her. I too celebrate her beauty, but it’s also a wistful acknowledgement of her fragility.
She was a great deal more.