Published on March 24th, 2015 | by Egypt Titchenal6
SHE LOOKS NOTHING LIKE YOU by Egypt Titchenal
Her ambiguously brown skin and blue-black hair caused stares as she shopped with two blonde, fair-haired children. My brother, the two-year old towhead, was pushed in the stroller while I whined and sulked along beside them. Maybe her deceptively girlish hips, not spread yet by pregnancy, led clerks to believe she was the nanny. At the makeup counter, my mother would ask for something in “olive-skin tone,” or “winter colors,” in striking contrast to my “summer.” I can still see their eyes wide in surprise when, “mommy, can we go home now?” came out of my mouth, as I twirled dangerously close to knocking perfume off its delicate display.
By third grade I looked her in the eye, and the taller I grew, the further apart we became, until my mother felt tiny in the distance of uncharted territory. Pills and puffers for asthmatic lungs reacted to sunlight, causing her freckles to become darkened dappled spots, then larger patches, connecting slowly across her face like rewinding Pangea or reverse Michael Jackson. While I basked in the golden glow, trying homemade Sun-in to intensify my blonde, she wore tacky foam visors bought from camping visitor shops to shield her from the sun’s compounding effect. In school I carried a picture of her as a teenager. I’d pull it out in quiet moments, and think, “if I had known her then, would we have been friends?”
At home I rarely noticed; she was just mom. As interesting as the flower patterned couch or hanging curtains, but as beautiful as Snow White, with her black hair kept short and curly. In public she was questions, scrutiny; a visible reminder of my secret inward confusion. They’d say, “Oh, she looks nothing like you. She’s so tall. Where did she get her height from? And her hair?” Because when you’re serving unlimited baskets of fries, the Punnet square of genes is important for quality customer service. Repulsed at justifying my mere existence, I would fight back the urge to snap, “yes, mom, where do I come from?” In drowning teenage awkwardness, I gulped for answers her body couldn’t provide. To biologically be from her would mean that someday it would all feel okay. Instead, I looked in the mirror and only saw myself.
While I was away at college, my mother started teaching fourth grade in a school nestled south of the ‘city.’ A non-tribal school on reservation land. Between empty fields overgrown with tumbleweed, she rekindled the dream that had been on pause for twenty-seven years, while staying home to raise children. These children, her students, warily occupied the seats in her classroom. Communities forced by United States Government Treaties to the fate of Poverty. Fighting over the same scrap of severe land critical for housing, work, and the pursuit of an American Education Dream. Those labeled “illegal immigrant” tentatively played hopscotch on the playground with tribal members. They played on one small patch of oily blacktop. If they were especially good that day, or maybe only on Thursdays, they were lucky enough to have a tether ball hooked up to a pole for the brevity of recess time. Baking in 105 degree weather, many students resorted to standing as close to the portable as they could, finding oasis in beige aluminum shade.
I arrived at the school one day, and the girls were hanging on the wooden railing, waiting patiently for my mom, their teacher, to rescue them from the scorching recess torture. One girl was upside down, brown legs thrown askew over the railing, and her long black hair touching the ground. As I strolled by, she flipped right side up and whispered loudly to her friends, “is that Mrs. Priest’s daughter? She looks nothing like her. She’s WHITE!”
After the school bell rang, dismissing them for the day, I turned to my mom and said with a laugh, “did you hear what they said on my way in? Do they know I’m adopted?” She chuckled and said, “at the beginning of the year many spoke to me in Spanish, and daily I had to say no habla espanol, which they didn’t believe at first. Now they tell me, ‘we’ve never had a teacher that looks like us.’” I see that she’s teaching them the same lessons she taught me, and yet, her ambiguously brown skin seems to make them feel safe, understood.
If she had died a thousand years ago we would dig up her bones and come to the skeletal conclusion that she was 5’4, European descent, and childless. But the bones wouldn’t tell the whole story. That she raised three children to adulthood and taught countless more along the way.
Last summer, on break from teaching my very own class, I settle my widened postpartum hips onto my driftwood seat. In the distance I see my mother sitting on a rocky Washington beach with her grandson. Dressed like Batman, he launches stones and kelp-wrapped sticks into the measly Puget Sound waves. Her face is shaded by old habits and a red parasol. I see the contrast between them, like examining a picture of her and me, long ago. She turns to me, and says, “Egypt, he looks just like you.” His Seattle grey sky eyes. His straw blonde hair with the little duck-tail flip in the back. My cheek bones. These days when I look in the mirror, I see my son’s face staring back, and I think that’s how genetics work. I get up from my seat, strolling toward them both, and call out to her in agreement, saying, “I know, isn’t it amazing? I thought for sure he’d look like his dad.”