Not long after my mother died of metastatic breast cancer two weeks before her 55th birthday, I started seeing signs: I was turning into her. It started with a voluntary overuse of dill in chicken soup, when I’d grown up refusing to eat anything touched by the herb.
My husband saw it too:
“What’s that on your chin?”
I cringed at the sudden, monstrous sight of the quarter-inch-long black hair, paralyzed in memories of my mother sitting by the window with a pocket mirror in one hand and tweezers in the other, sucking on her lower lip and sticking out her chin to pluck out the two hairs that plagued her face until chemotherapy took them away.
We were never rich enough in my family for wills and testaments, but my mother was something else. Everybody got something. I got mine shortly after I turned 32. It was all of a sudden there: dark, shiny, and obvious, and only the first in the list of curses she gifted me before she died:
– her need to clean the house at 5am when sleep lifts like milkweed seed blown by carpal tunnel flares, arms numb and tingling down to the tips of my fingers
– her unhappiness with the expanse of our bodies, as I pour the bottle of red to the last drop, tear into sourdough, and make sure my pantry is never short on potatoes
– her thinning hair slowly revealing the shape of my skull when the bathroom light hits it at the right angle
– her heavy breasts pinching pain in between my L3 and L5 vertebrae, swollen with the potential for a BRCA gene mutation
– her passive-aggressive silence when angry and the inability to express affection with anything other than food
“Are you going to get tested for it?” she asked me before she died.
“I don’t know. I already don’t have an ass, if I lose my tits too, I might as well disappear altogether,” I saw her suck on her lower lip to keep it from quivering.
“Well you could start doing squats if you’re worried about that,” and just like that she’s talking about my body from the outside again, about the shape of it, the familiar and uncomfortable conversation we can both laugh in.
I focused instead on my own rituals. Plucked the chin hair as soon as it started poking its dark thread through my skin. In the bathroom mirror, under the neon light that made my eyes water, never by the window. Never like her. I threw out the dill and started drinking bourbon instead of red wine. I swapped my underwire bras for sports bras a size too small, flattened my chest into my sternum until I couldn’t breathe. I made myself throw up the sourdough I still compulsively ate. I stopped sharing my food.
Gifts don’t become gifts until you’re ready. I’m ready now. I got a second chin hair. They’re both long, dark, undeniable. I bring a pocket mirror to the window, there it is: my mother’s bristly, lustrous inheritance. I find comfort in its reliable presence, a peace with this body and everything in it, all the things she left me. Most days I wish I could give it back.
And I started doing squats, just in case.