When I was a little girl I used to twirl around and pretend I was a ballerina because I thought ballerinas were the most beautiful, graceful human creatures I had ever seen. I wanted to be a ballerina and for a few exquisite months was able to take ballet lessons from Miss Sheila at the YWCA Armory in my little town. Which meant my hard working mama needed to stop what she was doing and take this 5-year-old ballerina wanna-be to those lessons and wait around until they were done. That didn't last long, though, because mom's rule was that if I didn't practice 30 minutes every day she wouldn't spend the money on those lessons.
Well, I couldn't practice 30 minutes a day on anything besides playing so the lessons stopped and my dreams of being a ballerina were limited to the amount of twirling I would do through the house and in front of the big mirror in the bathroom.
Inevitably as I twirled, I would ask my mom to 'look at me' and then want to know if she thought I was pretty.
My mother was and is one of the most beautiful women I have ever known. She isn't beautiful from outward fussing about makeup or clothes. Back then she wore old house dresses and only put on lipstick when we went out of the house to town or to church. I can still remember watching her opening the lipstick tube and twisting the bright red out and circling her lips, smacking them just once. Perfection. That's all it took! And she had beautiful wavy hair and elegant, upright posture and the most luxurious voice and a laugh like wind chimes - the lower, mysterious ones that I have hanging all around my home now.
I worked for years to be able to answer the phone and say 'Hello' the way she did. She used to work as the church secretary and a family story was when she answered the phone with that sultry 'hello' and the man on the other end of the line, who had been attempting to contact his favorite watering hole, confessed he had the wrong number but was sure glad he mis-dialed a house of God just to hear that voice. I am proud to say that now I do answer the phone with my mother's voice and my daughter is following in her footsteps, too.
But, when I was twirling and stopping to ask my beautiful mother if she thought me pretty, her reply was always the same;
'Peacocks are pretty, but they have tiny brains.'
I knew she was teaching a lesson about being humble and to value things other than outward appearances. I knew she loved me. I knew she was encouraging me to be smart and kind and good. I knew that she did not admire women who were too focused on the outward - clothes and makeup.
And I still wanted to be pretty.
I didn't stop asking because like most little girls who were beginning to see glamorous women on the television I was very much aware of what was considered beautiful and wondered how I compared. And every time I asked, the response would be the same....'Peacocks are pretty'.
Did my mom think that pretty always meant not very smart? Which did I want more; smart or pretty? Did it have to be a choice? Couldn't anybody - ever - be both?
Eventually I started junior high and had to start figuring out those answers on my own. There were pretty girls with beautiful clothes. And makeup. And a mother who couldn't afford the one and wouldn't allow the other. Somehow I had to learn to fit in and honor my mother as well as my dreams of having it all. So I did what most 13-year-old girls do to fit in; I packed makeup in my bag and rolled my skirts up past my knees as soon as I left the house. Eventually, as is always the case, mom caught the tell-tale smudges of mascara and knew that she had lost a battle. But she won the war by allowing me to wear as much makeup as I wanted as long as she couldn't tell I had it on.
I was convinced that prettiness and small brains were not necessarily hand-in-hand commodities. After all, my mother was both. A girl could be very smart, kind AND pretty. A girl could also be very pretty and very silly or, worse, beautiful and cruel. There were choices and my mom had given me the gift of making them.
My mom taught me the really important lessons in life.
Peacocks certainly are pretty and not very bright.
And I am not a Peacock.
Thank you, Mama.