To Mom: Inspired by Ocean Vuong’s Poem “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read”

By: Katie Stanos

But you need it, you said. I thought you wanted to be beautiful. I slammed my hands on the wheel of your Land Rover and pulled over to the side of the road near the big houses with green lawns and trampolines, Norfolk Way. I then burst into tears and cursed at you through the hands cupping my face. I wanted to be beautiful, but not like you. I yelled until your face became streaked by your black tears. I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry, you replied. Without showing remorse, I wiped my tears and put the car into drive, driving all the way home with you crying in the passenger seat. I didn’t want to get a nose-job.

I know that when you were in high school you were voted homecoming queen and cutest girl; you mention it a lot. Wearing your white stilettos, you stepped onto the makeshift stage in the auxiliary gym. You waved at the crowd of cheering students and teachers. Oak Forest High School Homecoming Queen. With your bright blue eyes gleaming with tears, you made a practiced spin. You put on a great show.

In the churchyard, on a beautiful Easter Sunday, a little girl runs aimlessly through the freshly cut grass and morning dew. Her white dress sways and her brown curls bounce as she leaps over puddles and rocks. She could be three or four.

Here it is! I stepped out from behind the bathroom door and spun around a few times to show you my homecoming outfit, a navy tuxedo, and black tie. Your eyes widened, and traced the edges of my body. There was no smile on your face. Staring at me with your beautiful blue eyes, they emitted a putrid stench.

I wanted to be beautiful, but not like you.

I know that when you were in fifth grade, Molly Buckingham came behind you in the hallway by the lockers and pinched the bra strap from underneath your t-shirt and pulled it down. Your bra fell from your sweater and landed on the linoleum floor. Everyone thought it was hysterical because you had such big boobs for a kid.

The girl in the churchyard slips on a patch of mud and falls. Her white dress dirtied by the mud, she begins to cry and calls for her mother. There you come. You pick up the wailing child and drive her home. Later, in the laundry room, your fingers glaze over the patterns in the white dress. You then meticulously spray oxy-clean on its mud stains and watch them whiten.

Come on Ma, show them one more time! You grudgingly lifted your arms and flexed your muscles for me to see. I can’t believe your muscles are that big. You don’t even work out anymore, I remarked. Don’t say that! you snapped back at me, clenching your fists. Jeezus christ! I replied, taken aback. Why do your standards of beauty have to be so archaic? You should be proud of your strength. You took a deep breath and stared deep into my eyes. On my high school gymnastics team, my teammates would make fun of my arms, and call me “muscles” and “she-man.” They were just so bulky and annoying. I hate them.

But you see, Anne, you are much, much smarter than your mother. She’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. I chuckled. She said the darndest things. Hey! you jokingly barked back at her, smiling. We all laughed together in the Ridge Club parking lot, a Hallmark movie moment. But, for the rest of that day, you remained awfully quiet, with hints of sorrow in the few words you spoke. I could sense that you were hurt. I know she wishes you were more like me. You know it too. I’m sorry I laughed.

I know that when you were studying late at night for your senior year finals during high school, your door creaked open and you saw your mother standing in the hallway. You tried to ignore her, but she entered your room and began to yell at you. How could I have raised a girl so stupid? All your siblings are smart. We’re paying for you to go to college, but you barely know… You burst out crying, screaming for her to go away. She abruptly stopped her speech, and cooly left your room. Once she left, you ran to your drawer and picked out a neon tube top and a leather skirt and snuck out the back door to your boyfriend George Sweeny’s house. He liked your leather skirt; he thought it was sexy.

I’m not sure why I tried to break you on that day. It hurt me to see you so upset, but you looked ugly when you cried.

I miss when you were like this. You pulled out my infamous little white dress from a container in the bedroom and held it up to the light of my bedroom. I miss when you wore stuff like this. Shut up Ma, I’m not gonna dress like a three-year old for the rest of my life.

No you reply. It’s not that. I just don’t understand why you don’t like dresses anymore. I didn’t reply. What was I supposed to say?

It will only hurt a little bit, Anne. All they do is rip the paper off, and you’re done. I clutched your hand as I laid back in the chair at the waxing salon. The waxing lady put the hot wax in between my eyebrows, and I twitched, grasping your hand tighter. She ripped the waxing strip off. I didn’t make a sound. She handed me a mirror. My blocky Frankenstein eyebrows were honed to smooth angelic curves. You placed your hand on my shoulder, glowing. You were so proud of me.

Sometimes, I dream of you pulling out my little white dress from underneath your bed. Your hands, shining in the moonlight, carefully pick it up. Still on your knees, and stopped in time, you scan its edges and caress the soft fabric. Bringing the material close to your face, you sniff its scent of laundry detergent and bleach. You smile but it quickly fades.

Where did my little girl go?