"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you when a child loves you for a long, long time. By the time you are Real, you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
This morning I woke up to my face being kissed by two little boys. Before I could open my eyes, I felt my bed shift as little bodies climbed in to be near me. Small voices whispered, "I love you, Mommy! Today is your day!" The deeper voice of my husband hissed and hushed as he arranged our children around me, including our six-month-old son who he held in his arms as he perched by my feet.
Last night was my oldest son's First Communion. Completely ignoring the fact that I have a child that old, I will describe to you that by the time the evening was over my feet felt broken because it was the first time I'd worn high heels in probably eight years, as many as said son has been alive. My hair, beautifully straightened for the occasion, was falling frizzily loose and lopsided from the high ponytail I'd slept in. The mascara I thought I'd washed off the night before darkened the circles under my eyes, puffy from the last several months of sleeplessness, the mark of a momma with a small baby. I'd been drooling in my sleep and had pillow prints on my cheek.
"You're the prettiest mom in the whole world," Noah whispered, stroking my hair. I opened my eyes to see him smiling down at me.
I heard Max's coo, and turned my eyes to find my baby. When our gazes met, his face broke into a wide, chubby smile and he flapped his arms.
Joey stood by my side holding a package, which he placed carefully into my hands.
I've always been struck by how well people think they know my mother. She is one of those people that if you spend five minutes with her, she'll make you feel like you're her best friend. It's a wonderful quality, but I've lived with her. I've lived with her for thirty-four years and I really am her best friend (well, my sister and I both). That means I know what it's like when she doesn't care if you feel like her best friend or not. I know what she's like when garage doors break, and when handymen quit in the middle of a big job. When older brothers are assholes and grandchildren leave poop in the toilet. I know what she's like when she's been lied to, when she's been left in a lurch. When she's really, truly happy, and when she wants to kill someone but won't say a word about it.
When people say they really know my mom, I think, "Yeah, sure you do."
Nobody watches you like your own children. Nobody sees you for who you are like they do.
The other night, Joey was thinking something over. He was deep in thought. He pressed his index fingers together and brought them to his chin, his brow furrowed. I nearly fell out of my seat.
"You're making Dad's thinking face!" I pointed out, amazed by such an honest and uninfluenced similarity. He'd done it unthinkingly.
Then we began talking. What is Noah's thinking face? What do our teachers do? Our friends?
"What's my thinking face?" I asked. I wish I hadn't.
Joey growled and blew out a huge, forceful breath. "And," he added a second afterward, "you make people feel like you're going to punch them."
"Yeah. Seriously. You're an angry woman."
No one will tell you the truth like your children.
A couple of months after I had Max, Joey said, "Phew. Your stomach's almost back to normal. I was starting to worry."
Noah had added, "Yeah, you're starting to look like your normal self again."
But I will take this honesty. I will swallow it, and hold onto it, and cherish it. Because when they drop their Legos and run to me, when they look up from an ice cream sundae and stretch their faces into smiles a mile wide, when I tuck them into bed at night and they reach up their skinny arms around my neck and say, "Stay a minute longer, Mommy," I know it's real. When Noah picks up my makeup brush and breathes it in with his eyes closed and whispers, "It smells so good, just like you, Mommy," my heart stops.
When they say, "I love your face. You're the prettiest mom in the whole world," I believe them. They're not comparing me to anyone else they've ever seen, and they never will. To them, I could never be ugly. And to me, nothing has ever felt more real.
Happy Mother's Day.