No matter how many mother/daughter corduroy jumpers my mother makes for herself and me, or how many times we bake Christmas cookies, or fry homemade doughnuts together, we are never destined to have the same body type or body image.
She has muscular calves from playing sports and wearing ballet pointe shoes. She has no ass and no cellulite on her thighs. What she does have is a belly, a broad rib cage, and two Jane Russell style breasts ala "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." My mother is the brunette with hazel eyes, always ready with the funny comeback and the desire to have a good time.
One night, in her thirties, her bra strap breaks and her two girlfriends tell her she looks fine in her knit dress without the support of her bra, but she sits at Aunt Bonnie's table and sews the strap, so she can re-girdle those babies into their structured cotton restraints. On the beach, her bathing suits have boy pants at the legs or little skirts, but no matter what the body of the suit has, the bra has pointed cups that make her breasts reach their destination before she does.
When my father, kid brother and I are on the beach in Jersey, we are all built exactly the same from the shape of our feet to our shoulders—tall and lean. In contrast to Mom, my body from my teens until I start hitting the gym in my late twenties has little muscle. In my early thirties, my cousin Doug will drive past me on a street in Stone Harbor, N.J., slam on his brakes, and back up to tell me, "I would recognize those legs anywhere." Girls like me are bony and angular with little softness. My dad's older brother, Uncle Steve, calls me "6:00 o'clock."
In my teens, Mom often tells me I am built like the long-legged blondes my dad admires. She often limits herself to 900 calories a day, staring at cups of black coffee and hard boiled eggs. Dad tells her, "No matter how much weight you lose, you will still look big because of your rib cage. You can't move your bones, Phyllis." When Mom and I are playful, on the few days we speak to each other during my adolescence, she calls me "Band-Aids" and I call her "Balloons." Yet, I am oddly content with my B-cup breasts, but still never feel thin enough—Twiggy is my generation's role model, not Marilyn Monroe.
Of all her body parts, my mother is most proud of her breasts. She has nourished both my brother and I and even nursed a sick neighbor's baby with her abundant supply of milk. She loves being busty like popular movie stars and filling out her knit tops.
Then, one day when she is 57, she gets devastating news—she has breast cancer. Not only did cancer take her father from her at an early age, now she is going to lose the body part that symbolizes her womanhood. She has a mastectomy. For months before she has a tummy tuck and reconstruction, she wears bras stuffed with cut-up tube tops I buy for her at Target. Standing in her big white nylon underwear in her bedroom one day, she tells me as she reaches into the closet, "I will always have a flat stomach. Never again will I have a fat belly." She still has no ass and no cellulite on her thighs.
Seven years after her first surgery, she dies as the oat cell carcinoma in her lungs soon eats away at her brain, despite months of chemo and radiation that leave her bald and burned. She falls into a coma and the oxygen machine stops making noise as she lies in her bedroom in the house she bought new 41 years before. This is where she wants to die.
When I reach her age, I too am told I have breast cancer, despite the fact that we are not built the same, that I have waited until later to have children, and that I do not live her lifestyle of drinking and smoking and meat eating. Unlike my mother, I opt for bilateral mastectomy and have implants as reconstruction because I do not have enough belly fat to create one, let alone two, new breasts. I do not have cancer in any nodes, I am offered a newer generation of drugs and I have yet to suffer with chemo and radiation like she did with her lung cancer. I can now wear a bathing suit and the bra cups no longer indent inwards as a result of five years of breast feeding.
But, what I think about most often is that despite our physical differences, I am, indeed, my mother's daughter.