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The Looking Glass

By Anjali Enjeti-Sydow

The other day, I met a good friend and her two-and-a-half-month-old baby boy for lunch. We sat in a country-style restaurant, complete with chicken and egg décor, surrounded by the aroma of fruity potpourri. At a long Butcher Block table, we positioned ourselves across from each other. I sat between my two girls, with 16-month Leela in a highchair to my left and Mira, almost four, hunched over, butt on her heels, to my right. My friend sat across from me with her son cradled next to her.

Our gum-smacking waitress, poised with pad and pen, asked if we were ready to order. When I explained that we needed a few more minutes, she looked down at Leela, who was chattering away, then looked at me to render a brief assessment. She looked back at Leela, smiled, turned her eyes across to my friend, and, relaxing her facial muscles, exclaimed to her, “She is such a cutie pie.” My friend smiled at me, pretending to ignore the slip-up. I looked at Leela and, oddly enough, reached the same conclusion: My daughter really did resemble my friend far more than she resembled me. I scanned the rest of the restaurant, only to deduce that several of the restaurant’s patrons, the bus boys, the hostesses, and even the manager, who had catered Mira’s baptism, also looked far more like Leela than I.

This is not the sort of predicament I ever thought I’d be in. Since I was about 12 years old, strangers have mistaken my mother and me for sisters—a compliment to my mother, who is 22 years my senior, and perhaps a slight to me. My mother and I have similar facial features: High cheekbones, large, round, brown eyes, and prominent noses. We are olive-complected, although my skin has a darker hue, and we are of similar build and height. This obvious likeness often made me feel compensated for lacking a sister. Moreover, because I was always compared to my own mother, I assumed that if I should be lucky enough to have a daughter we would enjoy the same association.

Yet, as turns out, it is unlikely that either of my daughters ever will be mistaken for my sister. Although I can claim Mira’s skin tone and hair, strangers assume that she looks like my husband. And Leela and I, well, we look nothing alike. Besides the fact that she appears Caucasian and I clearly don’t, each of her features can be traced to extended family members, but not to my own.

The striking dissimilarities between Leela and me initially caused some resentment on my part. I’m not terribly vain, but I carry this deep-seated insecurity that if my daughters do not resemble me, I won’t be credited for all the good that they are or do. When I am told that they are beautiful, I am thankful that others validate my own opinion of them, but, at the same time, I feel insignificant because I can’t take credit for their appearance. Then there is that other part of me that unreasonably fears if my kids don’t look like me they won’t love me when they grow up. Silly, really, but if I can’t aesthetically claim them, will they ever want to claim me? Worse, will Leela, who looks nothing like her half-Indian mother, reject her culture and heritage simply because its genetic imprint is invisible?

Recently, my mother, Leela, and I were at the grocery store. While Leela was strapped in the cart, I perused the teas. A gentleman in his eighties stopped to admire her, then turned to my mother and told her that she had a sweet daughter. I winced at being stiffed. My mother must have sensed this, because she quickly explained that she was the grandmother and that I was the mother. Nevertheless, the man, who must have been hard of hearing, continued to acknowledge my mother’s maternal identity.

As I was paying for the groceries, Leela and my mother headed toward the exit to pick out a courtesy balloon. From a distance, I watched Leela point to a purple one and, squealing as her chubby fingers clenched its leash, look up at my mother and smile with gratitude. Then she turned and, spying me at the far end of the store, broke into a run.

“Mommy,” she exclaimed, “bahhlooo!”

I scooped my baby girl up in my arms and kissed her wildly. When she heartily chuckled and tossed her head back, drool escaping the side of her mouth, the cashier gushed, “Awww, she’s a mama’s girl, for sure.” I nodded in agreement, and gazed back at my daughter, noticing, for the first time, my reflection outlined in her irises, perhaps the only time I would ever see myself in her.

“She sure is,” I whispered, nuzzling my face into her hair. “She sure is.”

 

Anjali Enjeti-Sydow resides in suburban Philadelphia with her husband and two young girls.  She has been published in Catholic Parent and Big Apple Parent, and her work will be featured in upcoming installments of The Mothers Movement Online and Mamazine.com. 

 

Photo "Two Of A Kind" courtesy of Dan Colcer, Brasov, Romania.

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