My mother used to embarrass me when she'd pick me up from school. I was in the second grade and at 3:30 every day, my heart would pound out of my chest because I knew she'd be walking across the playground any minute. She was impossible to miss, rocking a velvet black turban, golden earrings, her hair combed in two deliberate black swirls of curls plotted on her high cheekbones, and cinema-red lipstick blotted to matte on her lips. I just wanted her to look like the other mothers who stood together waiting for their kids.
She had a favorite all-season coat, not a light trench like the other moms wore, but a 3/4 length sleeve, faux leopard skin jacket that she paired with a chiffon pink scarf. Surrounded by Midwestern values of frugality and modesty, my mother's patent stiletto heels said it all. Head to toe in yards of fabric more fitting for the Queen of Sheba than a widowed woman supporting six children, she was no shrinking violet. She wore what she felt she deserved to wear, not caring about fitting in or seeking approval.
I wasn't blind to the stares from the other moms. They'd see my mother, nudge each other and sometimes spoke loud enough for me to hear:
"Who does she think she is, calling attention to herself?"
"A widow with six children ... how selfish to spend her money like that."
"She probably wants to catch a husband."
They were right, in part. My father died when my youngest sister was two months old and the oldest was 18, with four other children in between. As a young widow with half a dozen of us kids, we were far from wealthy and I'm sure my mother's clothes weren't cheap, something that could have been construed as selfish.
Who did she think she was? She was who she saw herself as—a strong woman capable of not only supporting a family, but more. Her beautiful blouses and leather clutches asked for no pity from anyone. Who did she think she was? One who would not be broken by life.
She never intended to catch someone's husband. At 40 years old, she had settled into an approachable beauty. When a man would stand too close and perhaps say something that had gone too far, she delivered a stellar rebuke that still gives me chills to this day.
Now that I'm a mother of three, I can't imagine the tremendous energy it took to look like a movie star each and every day—while caring for us all by herself in a country so different from her own. The older I get, the more in awe I am of how we had food, a home, clothes ... really everything a child could ask for.
I could see, even as young as I was, that she cared little what the women on the playground thought about her. Her appearance was her daily tonic and the source of the strength she needed to keep going. Her mirrored reflection was a daily reminder, "Leonor, see who you are. Stand tall, be proud." The way she looked was in her blood and if you were to cut her, she would bleed silk and velvet.
In the last three weeks before my mother died when she was in hospice, I'd visit her daily. One morning I found her sitting in her wheelchair, wearing three blouses—on top of each other. I assumed her dementia was responsible for all the color clashing.
I was wrong.
When I wrapped my arms around her to say hello and compliment her outfit, she said, "I wanted all my favorite colors today. They told me to only pick one but I told them no, let me wear them all. Why do people care what others say?"
She was preparing to exit this world the same way she lived in it—looking like a million bucks. I looked at my mother and saw that determined beauty from so many years ago. I saw the woman who always walked past anyone with her head held high, no matter the circumstances.
I wheeled my mother out to the patio for our morning together, watching as heads turned to look at her in her yellow, purple and emerald-green blouses. I was never more proud to be her daughter.