My mom claims to have once been a stylish young woman. She says that she and her sisters were renowned in their northern Himalayan town, that they always wore elegant saris, that marriage offers flooded in due to their beauty, grace and sterling reputations.
I believe her, I suppose. My aunts who never left India still dress with care. When they’re in New Delhi, their salwar kameezes are beautifully embroidered. They change their handbags and jewellery daily to coordinate with their outfits. When they visit my mom in America and wear western clothes, my aunts wake up early to iron their jeans and blouses. They look polished wherever they go.
One day, as we left my parents’ house—Pimu Massi in coral lipstick that matched her sweater and Jipu Massi with hair styled in feathery waves—my mother was a striking contrast in a shapeless blue sweat suit with a shapeless black purse.
“Mom, what happened,” I said, gesturing at my aunts, “that your sisters get so glam to go to the market, but you’ve stopped trying?”
“I married your father,” she said, looking glum.
Now as the daughter of the aforementioned man, the appropriate reaction could have been to seethe, but I knew what she meant. My dad has had a lifelong, one-sided feud with fashion and looking presentable. Not only is he open to wearing a bathrobe to a dinner party or a Hawaiian shirt to a formal wedding reception—and he has, mind you—his family’s attempts at personal fashion offended him greatly.
When shoulder pads became standard in women’s blouses in the 80s, he told his impressionable teenage daughter that she looked like an American football line-backer. Whenever that unfortunate girl wore makeup, he barked, “Wipe that crap off your face.” He only had one daughter, so I am speaking of myself. Under my father’s unrelenting barrage, my mother gave up on style and I never developed into the fashionista I could have been.
Fast forward a few decades, and I have devolved into the Lagos version of my dad. Each day, I pull on one of the three pairs of sweatpants I’ve rotated through the pandemic, as they are the only coverings which still fit my chubby frame. I wear battered flip flops everywhere. My current favourite tee-shirt says, “Wicked Smaht,” a Bostonian expression expressing keen intelligence in the vernacular. I like wearing this shirt because I hope gullible strangers will assume the motto is true and mistake me for a genius.
My eldest child is my opposite. She had the good luck to take after my mom before she met my dad, or perhaps she resembles my stylish aunts. This kid has always known how to dress. When she went to the theatre for the first time, she wore a ball gown a neighbour had given her. She learned to do a smokey eye from the internet. She has introduced me to concepts like ‘glow up’ and ‘edge control’. Before she moved away for school in September, she picked out my clothes for events, chose shoes to accommodate my flipper-like feet and did my makeup.
It’s been strange since she left. I keep expecting her to burst from her room, announcing plans to give me wavy beach curls while I consider it, pretending I’m the one indulging her. But the truth is, I loved that she made a fuss over me in the years we got to live together.
My mom, a girl in 1950s India, is now the grandmother of a beloved, mixed race, Indian-Nigerian girl, fresh from leaving the nest. I am the link between them, no longer young but not quite old. Although I resemble my dad in looks and temperament, my mom and I are two of a long line of women stretching back through the ages. We both adore my daughter and pray that nothing ever threatens to erode her confidence and her love of looking and feeling beautiful.
Mona Zutshi Opubor is an Indian-American and Nigerian short story author and memoirist. She is studying for her MSt in Literature and Arts at the University of Oxford.
Read more at www.monazutshiopubor.com
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