I was probably 10 the first time a cashier in the grocery store asked my mother and me if we were sisters. At the time I thought the cashier meant we resembled one another, and to some extent that was true. I was blond like my mother, with small shoulders and light eyes. The question posed by the cashier was a compliment for me — my mother was beautiful — but mostly it was meant as a compliment for her: You look so young! How could you be the mother of this big girl?
My mother was 26 when I was born, and her 20s was the decade in which she took up indefinite residence. Her youthfulness was such that she was carded in bars late into her 40s. Everyone got older but her.
When I was in high school, I wore one of her nightgowns to the prom. She was out of town and I didn’t know it was a nightgown. As far as I was concerned it was just another great dress hanging in her closet. (Note: My mother hung up her nightgowns.) Later, my friends and I all laughed about it. Her nightgown trumped their prom dresses.
My friends were all in love with my mother, with her zip-up boots and E-Type Jaguar and her thick yellow ponytail. My mother would write notes for anyone who had spent the night at our house and was late for school the next morning. “She’s more like a sister,” my friends would say, not meaning that we looked like one another.
By the time I was in college, whatever resemblance we had shared before was harder to see. My hair had faded to a color I liked to call “dead mouse” and I’d put on weight, two things that hadn’t happened to my mother. I was a little taller than she was. I no longer fit into her clothes. I came home from school and the bank teller stared at us earnestly, as if she was coming upon someone she couldn’t quite place. “Are you two sisters?” she asked. And that was what she meant: Are the two of you the offspring of one set of parents?
My mother, who looked like a cross between a Hitchcock heroine and one of John Derek’s wives, had drawn a winning ticket from the genetic lottery. Had she followed my example and done nothing more than wash her face and walk out the door in the morning, she would still have been the most beautiful woman you would see on any given day; but my mother left nothing to chance. She skipped desserts and dinner rolls, was fully committed to moisturizer and sunscreen. She had a collection of silk underwear, and when she changed her clothes, she started at the beginning and changed her lingerie as well, the things that no one would see, because the lingerie was all part of it. The best hours of my childhood were spent sitting on the edge of the bathtub watching her put on her makeup and roll her hair.
The bag boys in the grocery store argued as to who would push her cart out to her car, and once or twice the winner tried to kiss her. She had to have checks printed without her phone number because the man in the liquor store would call and ask her on dates. In restaurants someone would inevitably come to the table to tell us, just in case we didn’t know, that my mother was a vision — the most beautiful woman he or she had ever seen. My mother would thank the person while the rest of us just kept eating.
I grew up, grew older. I didn’t color my hair or buy mascara. I aspired to a look that was clean, well-kempt, invisible; in this I was successful. I had seen the benefits and costs of beauty and decided to pass. A lucky call on my part, because even though I looked nice enough, I possessed neither the raw material nor the willingness to try to improve the hand I’d been dealt. I like to think my mother’s beauty saved me time, by which I mean years and years of my life. Despite all indications to the contrary, most women harbor some secret hope that they might be beautiful, that the right dress or lipstick or diet could turn the tide in their favor. As someone who had lived with exceptional beauty, I harbored no such illusions.
It’s important for people to believe that beautiful women are narcissists, and that they’ve been punished for what they’ve unfairly received. While she was certainly punished for her beauty by jealous husbands and jealous friends, and by her older sister who liked to announce to anyone who would listen that my mother got the looks but she — the sister — had gotten all the brains, my mother was never a narcissist. She worked as a nurse for most of her life. She possessed an uncanny knack for comforting people, for knowing the right thing to say and knowing when to say nothing at all. Men liked her best, but so did dogs and children. She was funny and kind and, no matter what her sister would tell you, smart. She was also beautiful.
As I went through my 30s and 40s, my sisterhood with my mother became a given. The questions were no longer questions, they were statements of fact. When someone said, “Sisters, right?” I said, “You got it.” In fact, I was starting to be the older sister. I could imagine a time when I would be the mother.
If my mother was the one who answered the question, she always told the truth. She was the progenitor after all — she was proud of me. Once, when I was in my 40s, we stopped by my publishing house in New York to drop off some papers. The security guard at the desk took our IDs. “You two sisters?” he asked suspiciously.
“She’s my daughter,” my mother said.
There was one time we came close to evening out, and that’s when my mother was sick. It happened three years ago, before she turned 80. She had such a terrible pain beneath her lower ribs that I drove her to the hospital in a rainstorm, in the middle of the night. There was no time for makeup, no time to pack. The doctor in the emergency room sent her straight to the intensive care unit, and we stayed there for a week.
She slept in a bed inside a glass room, and I slept in a chair beside her. She had a walled-off infection in her upper duodenum. She sweated through her nightgown and sheets and then shook so hard I would climb into her bed and hold her. Doctors and nurses and phlebotomists and the housekeeping staff moved through her fishbowl room every 15 minutes to check on one thing or another, and there they observed the two pale women in a single bed who didn’t eat or sleep or wash but who lay there together, arms around waists like a mother and daughter, beneath the scorching fluorescent lights. It would be safe to say we had never looked worse.
“You look so much alike,” the nurse would say quietly, not wanting to disturb us more than we were already disturbed.
“Like sisters?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No,” she said, “like the same person.”
Ann Patchett is the author of eight novels, including “Bel Canto,” “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House,” forthcoming in September. Her children’s book, “Lambslide,” was published this month. This is an edited version of an essay that will appear in “Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents,” edited by Lise Funderburg (University of Nebraska), to be published in September.