The one inside is an actress. She is a five year old girl with thick legs standing at the top of the stairs, the dark front hall of a Milwaukee flat, hands on her hips, dressed in a new dress, made by Mom. Full of herself, full of life, full of blood, of courage, she says: “Aren’t I pretty?!” She is delight, she is perfect, she is beauty, perfect beauty. She is a perfect human being.
I did that one day. I said that one day. I stood there in the splendor of that five year old and I knew how remarkable, how beautiful I was. On that one day, I knew it completely, with my whole being.
I claim that one, I claim that beautiful girl. I claim also my own mother, standing at the foot of the stairs, hurried and impatient for all of us to be on our way. I see her holding in herself responsibility for us all. She was hurrying me, the actress, full of herself at the top of the stairs. I claim my mother, the child of abuse, her days and nights full of those memories which shaped her life, my mother, afraid for her girl child. I claim my mother as mine, who out of loving and not loving, fear and pride, who heard me, saw me on that day and said: “We don’t say we are pretty.”
I don’t remember her voice. I remember the teaching; I remember it well. In that moment, on that day, in that hallway, in the darkness of of those memories, of hers and of mine, I hauled in my beauty, my splendor, the courage to stand and to say: this is who I am, world, hear me, you’ve been waiting for me, and I’ve been waiting for this moment. I have lived my mother’s teaching, her loving and not loving, her protecting and her hurting, her maiming and her loving, my mother of strong love.
I have lived the teaching. I have sat in the shadow of a million things. I have sat behind the shadow – quietly, nicely – of the girl who sat in front of me in the second grade, keeping my bright thoughts to myself. I have sat behind the shadow of my own fear in high school, watching the prom from the windows of the gym, seeing all the pretty girls and lovely boys, unable to imagine myself in a long, beautiful dress. I have sat behind the shadow of men who could not see me. I have sat behind the shadow of others who spoke up, who stood up to say, “I am here. I am beautiful, beautiful beyond words. Hear me, hear me now.”
We don’t say we are pretty. We don’t say we are beautiful, beautiful beyond words. We don’t say we can sing, we can dance, we can make beautiful music. We don’t say we have what is needed. We don’t say we have a good idea, better than most. We don’t say we are the one, we are the one to do it, to stand up and to be heard. We don’t say this is not good enough for me, I have not been seen, you missed me, the best, the brightest. We don’t say, I am here, I need to speak.
Inside of my skin, inside of me, the one I have always known has been here all along. She did not go away. Had she not been there that day when Mom looked up at her from the bottom of the steps and spoken her strong and protecting, damaging words, she would not be as precious as she is now to me, now. She is an actress. She is strong. She is beautiful, beautiful beyond words. She can balance on the heights and she can pick flowers in the depths. These are the things she does.