My mom passed away suddenly and without warning four years ago. We were on holiday that weekend. I’d had to postpone a Friday morning outing with her as I was running late with errands before hubby and I went away with friends to a beloved farm. As a rule I would always give her a quick call just before we went out of cell reception, we made plans for the coming Monday to go shopping, I told her I loved her and that I’d see her in two days time. It was our last conversation. When the dust had settled after her funeral I craved a connection to her, I wanted to see her face, having it in my memory just wasn’t enough, I needed to see her, I wanted to see her beautiful smile while I remembered her infectious laugh. I couldn’t find any photographs though, certainly nothing from recent years, and very few of her from my childhood where she wasn’t shying away from the camera. It was then that I realised that my mom had spent my entire childhood hiding and inadvertently, yet somehow intentionally excluded herself from our photographic memories.
My mom was overweight, it wasn’t something that I was aware of as a young child. I don’t think kids are naturally aware early on that certain things are normal or ‘abnormal’, until it is pointed out to them. It was normal for us that my dad was the one who was involved in our activities, walks on the beach, rollerblading, climbing trees, playing in the park, my mom could usually be found indoors, sewing or baking for a client. The pinnacle moment of realisation for me that something in our family dynamic was ‘not normal’ was in Standard 1 (Grade 3 for the newer generations). It was our schools year end Christmas show and our class was gathered in our classroom, assembled in our stage garments, watching all the parents walk through the school entrance to take their seats in the hall. Craig, one of the ‘bullies’ of the class stood by the window and pointed his finger at one parent in particular and at the top of this voice yelled ‘that’s the fattest fatty I’ve ever seen’. His leery finger pointed straight at my mom. Everyone followed his gaze and, as kids do, many giggles and laughs ensued. I felt terrible anger at his comment, I was confused as to why my mom had been singled out and I suddenly felt unbelievably ashamed of someone who had never done anything to deserve this treatment. That singular moment would forever change my view of my mom to a certain extent. From then on I became aware of small moments over time that before had never been on my radar. I hit him that afternoon and I remember our teacher reprimanding me for hitting him, but he was never reprimanded for the horrific comment made towards my mommy, somehow what he’d said was far less of a problem than my hitting him.
My mom waged a lifelong war with her weight, one which resulted in much experimentation with fad diets, eating regimes and exercise plans. She spent her life trying to conquer the demons of her weight, but was never able to conquer them.
With memories fading and time passing I yearn for photographs of her and I together, both for my own heart, and to show Charlotte what a beautiful grandmother she had. The problem with this though is that my mom refused to have her photographs taken, her weight had her hiding away, behind hands, glasses, paper, glasses, whatever she could use to hide her face and avoid a photograph of her being taken. The result is that I have next to no photographs of my mother. All that remains are a handful of images where she is shying away from the camera, or of those taken when her and my dad were young in their courtship and marriage.
My moms actions weren’t intentional or malicious in any way or form, she loved unconditionally, she gave everything she had and could for us and for those she held near and dear, but I don’t want Charlotte to experience her own mothers body shame and ‘suffer’ for it. Charlotte may not understand or appreciate this when she is young, but one day when I am gone, I want her to have photographs to go along with her memories, I want to be a part of those stories and memories, the stories that she can share with her own children one day. And in this line of thought I realised I’ve started following in my moms footsteps, and not the good ones, but those of poor habits that will unwittingly affect how my daughter views me one day.
A few weeks ago an old friend and an even older friend got married in a beautiful ceremony. I did not feature in any of the guest photography, nor the group shot, in my defence Charlotte had been acting up because of the extreme summer heat and we were off in a quiet room trying to soothe her, but, I was thrilled at the idea that there was no photographic evidence of my double chin and fat arms. The same couple host an annual boxing day braai and again, I found myself part of the proceedings and thrilled that I managed to avoid being photographed yet again, instead there are dozens of photographs of everyone smiling and lovingly holding my daughter, I on the other hand don’t exist in the photographic memory banks of the day. There are dozens of photographs of my daughter with her father, but I cringe at the thought of having photographs taken which include me. Without realising it initially, I was following in my mothers footsteps for all the wrong reasons.
Nobody prepared us for the home coming of our little miracle, nobody warned us that we would have feeding issues and spend the first few months of her being home would be spent between paediatricians, paediatric wards for feeding issues and dehydration, dieticians, occupational therapists and physio therapists. The hours spent on getting our daughter to drink was astronomical and we had little time to sleep, let alone to think of cooking. As an unintentional result we fell into some seriously poor eating habits and 5 months down the line I find myself with the horribly uncomfortable realisation that my ‘fat pants’ are now too small, that I look more pregnant now than I did when I was actually pregnant. That I am both consciously and unconsciously erasing any photographic evidence of my own life and existence and that I am picking up the traits of my mom that I swore to myself I would never allow to happen to my own life. As a photographer I find myself ensuring that any ‘selfies’ that I take are strategically taken, to ensure that my full bulk is not seen by the rest of the world, and when that control is not possible, I run for the hills, much like my mom did.
Acceptance is the first step right?! For the sake of my daughter, and for the sake of my husband and myself, I need to start getting my ass in gear, literally! And it’s not going to be easy, there are a lot of habits which have formed that will be very difficult to break. There will be moments where I fail, where I slip and fall, likely into a vat of ice cream or a tub of Pringles. The important part is to pick myself up from these moments, accept that we all fall from time to time, but that we need to brush off the dust and crumbs and tackle the next day with fresh spirits and determination.
I looked my girl square in the eyes this week and made some promises that I need to keep, for her, for her dad and for myself. She smiled back with the cheekiest of grins when I told her that I loved her more than life itself, but that it was time that mommy claimed back some time for herself, to get healthy and fit enough to look after her and to be there for her for as long as is possible. So this past week I pulled out my old running shoes, had a long hard look at them and realised they were completely and utterly shot and ready to go to shoe island and retire with all my missing socks. I tracked down a good quality second hand joggers stroller so that I can take my daughter on my excursions and I popped into the sporting goods store yesterday for a new pair of running (for me shuffling) shoes to get my ass in gear. A fellow preemie mommy and friend has also been a good source of motivation with her own efforts to get back into shape for herself and her kids.
So, if you see a squishy mommy huffing and puffing profusely while attempting to push a joggers stroller in your burb, it’s probably me, I’m not a natural runner as my husband will tell you. I look awkward when jogging, picture a hippo trying to run gracefully…. I’m slow, as in really slow.
A few years back I actually managed to both train for, and complete a Knysna Half Marathon, I worked my butt off for a year to huff and puff my way through that effing race. They say, when you enter these challenges, that you tend to select someone to ‘compete’ against, this is the person that motivates you to keep going, the one which you are determined to cross the line ahead of. For me, in that particular event, it was Wonder Woman, I shit you not. She was tall and slender, she had luscious long blond hair, sparkling blue eyes, she wore a Wonder Woman outfit and she had a little sparkly blue handbag casually draped over one shoulder. The contents of that bag was a box of ciggies and a lighter. As Wonder Woman sensually swayed her way to the finish line she would habitually light up a smoke as if to mock the rest of us, showing us just how easy this event was. There was nothing more important in my life than to finish ahead of her. As she swayed along I jogged my little hobbit jog. I hauled my ass as fast as I could to keep ahead of her. The moment I slacked off she would saunter sensually passed me, trailing ciggie smoke in her wake. I crossed that line about 50 metres ahead of her, and I was a broken but elated woman. In stark contrast, she swayed over the finish line, not a hair out of place and the television camera crew running over to congratulate the beautiful Wonder Woman. Two moments at the end stand out for me: my husband was there to welcome me and congratulate me on my achievement, I fell into his arms and wept with joy, not because I had finished the race, but that I had finished ahead of Wonder Woman. J had no clue what I was huffing and cyring about, so I pointed towards her, just as she swayed over the finish line, and then the second moment occurred: as the camera crew approached Wonder Woman, she casually took a long sensual draw of her ciggie as she crossed over the finish line and she leaned forward to put her ciggie out, on the finish line, just at the camera crew approached her, the final act of defiance on her part. Her blasé attitude towards the event and its stark contrast to my own efforts will remain with me for eternity. So will the horrifying moment of rubbing the freshly shaven bald head of a close cousin near the finish line, I hugged him and rubbed his head, told him he looked like a dildo, and then, through the haze of exhaustion realised that it in fact was not my cousin, it was a very amused stranger, dude, I’m really sorry for that.
So now that you’ve had a good laugh at my expense, allow me to end things off by saying this. My daughter is her own version of Wonder Woman, she came into this world by breaking all the rules, she has fought her way through every obstacle laid before her so far, she is strong, she is brave and she is defiant, she is Mighty Mouse and she is Wonder Woman and in order to keep her safe, healthy, happy and provide for her the memories of our times together, I need to keep ahead of her as well. Keeping fit is no guarantee that I’ll around for a very long time, but it will guarantee that all the time we have together is lived and experienced to its maximum, without shame and without the overshadowing fear of having my second chin and squishy arms captured in a series of unflattering photographs.
I yearn for the sound of my mothers voice, the strength of her love, the smell of her skin and the feel of her hugs, we all have our short comings and faults, none of us are perfect, and even with her short comings in confidence and her insecurities over her weight, my mom will always be perfect to me. I just wish I had photographs to share her beauty with Charlotte.