Oscar Wilde said, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.” But is turning into your mother really such a calamity? As a Polish kid growing up in a neighborhood so Slavic that it might as well have been a nook in Warsaw, I found myself both loving and fearing my mom. And as any self-respecting European will tell you, this is as it should be.
When I think back to my childhood, I see her as this lovely woman who would let me play superhero with clean towels as she brought them down from the clothesline, her laugh ringing out as sweet as June as I weaved between drying bed sheets, my face furious with concentration as I pretended to fly. Or she’d stand barefoot in the kitchen, kneading dough for cookies or bread, her arms always willing to open up and give you a hug full of kisses and flour.
But then, on the flipside, memories of narrowed eyes pointed my way at church mix in with the lovelier recollections, promising retribution if I didn’t stop sinking all bored-like from the pew to the ground. Or images with her hands on her hips come to mind as she’d quietly — terrifyingly quietly — take in the ungodly mess I created in the middle of the living room.
Now that I’m older, those narrowed eyes still follow me, but it’s no longer for discarded Barbie clothes and spilled Lego blocks. It’s for more traditional Polish-mom-life-disappointments, like how I can barely slap a sandwich together or how I don’t have a neat bone in my body. Or — our personal favorite — that I dress, ah, eccentric.
You see, I love vintage. Anything that resembles sweeping, no-nonsense Katharine Hepburn pants or Audrey Hepburn wiggle dresses makes my heart do a slow spin in my chest. I have a sharp eye for mixing patterns on top of wilder patterns, and happy popsicle colors make me as giddy on the inside as a handsome man with a slow smile makes other women.
And this drives momma nuts. When I come down for holidays wearing Peter Pan collar dresses with long sheer skirts, her face pinches into a purse that doesn’t need words. When I meet her for someone’s birthday shindig at a loud restaurant wearing a ‘20s inspired coat and mint shift dress, she pats my hair lovingly and asks why I want to look 80 when I’m only 25.
And she means well. Our mother-daughter relationship has its ups and downs, but I know each sigh over my granny-chic choices is a sigh of love and semi-proud exasperation over having a kid with such a strong sense of self. But even though it makes me laugh every time she passes my bathroom all casual-like and suggests (for the fifth time) that I change into a black dress, it does sometimes make me want to pinch her.
Which is why you’d understand the absolute and total shock I felt when I discovered a box of mom-memories in our basement when cleaning things out for a garage sale. A box full of black-and-white photos, it held suspended laughs, drunk and wildly happy hugs, groups of kids stuck in the ‘70s dancing and full of wild life. And in the middle of it all was my mom at 25, grinning with eyes closed and the total spitting image of me.
She wore vintage hats with cage nets stolen from her grandmother’s room, with dark lips that I could only assume were a burgundy red. Which is my signature lip. Her hair was a short, boyish chop — the same one she begged me not to get a year ago as I was running around the house, trying to find my car keys — with her short curls dyed a steely, silver grey. The clothes she wore were different from all of her friends’, where they wore bell bottoms and stripes and tight sweater shirts, she wore pirate-like frilly blouses and high waist tapered pants. She was me, through and through.
Sitting cross-legged on the basement floor, quiet and wildly happy, the more I sifted through the pictures, the more I saw myself in her. That polka dot dress in that picture? I have a near double hanging in my closet right now. Wait, are those overalls? I need to try wearing my pair with a sweater like that. Jesus, I hope she still has that vintage hat with the feather, that’s completely fabulous.
I saw myself in those happy brown eyes smiling up for the flash of the camera, saw myself in the caught laughter that rung out silent in my basement but so pleased. I saw myself in the hot pink shoulder padded blazer she wore a decade later, and the insanely ‘80s and on-point silver silk jumpsuit she wore to some chi-chi bar with my dad. I saw myself in the two-piece dress she tossed on as she was cooking soup in her first kitchen in the states, and as she threw a happy look towards the camera’s way, it might as well have been me holding the spoon.
Hugging the box of pictures close to my chest, I couldn’t be more thankful to find this hidden piece to my mom. Try as she may to pull off her proper mom shpeal nowadays, she was totally weird back in the day. She was completely, 100 percent me.
And I? I am completely, 100 percent her.
Now to finish off the Oscar Wilde quote:
"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy.
No man does. That's his.”
That really, really is his.
Images: Marlen Komar