The modeling course ended with a luncheon at an upscale restaurant in Stamford, followed by a fashion show featuring the new graduates modeling clothes from Bloomingdales.
I invited my mother and reserved a place for her at the VIP table, which turned out to be next to the director of the school. While I waited behind the platform for the show to start, I could see Jean Curt and Jean Luciani sitting side by side and it struck me that the only thing they had in common was their first name.
Mom was a sturdy-shoes girl-scout-leader, a “no froufrou gal” (as she described herself), for whom combing her hair and brushing her teeth were a complete beauty routine. Jean Curt always looked like she was on her way to a photo shoot for Vogue. But I knew my mother was an amiable conversationalist and I wasn’t worried about them getting along. Besides, they were both in my corner.
Despite having practiced my turns hundreds of times while doing housework or taking the kids on walks, when I mounted the steps to the runway for the first time I was sure I’d trip, forget to smile or make a fool out of myself in some other way.
Yet once I was up there, my fear vanished and my feet took over. I could feel myself gliding out and back with my head held high and my arms swinging in sync with my stride. I’d never moved with so little effort.
With each change of clothes I felt more relaxed, and when the finale came, my full Dior in a flowing evening dress was perfect.
When the show was over, all of us new models came out to receive our certificates. We were standing in a line above the VIP table where the two Jeans were seated, and by coincidence I was close enough to overhear my new boss say to my mother, “You must be very proud of what your daughter just did.”
My mother fiddled nervously with the gold chain around her neck and said, “Actually I’m surprised. Growing up she couldn’t walk across the room without falling down.”
I’d heard it before. It was the punch line of a story about my childhood often told at cocktail parties and it never failed to get a laugh. But this wasn’t our living room and Jean Curt wasn’t a friend or a relative who would look at me with sympathy as I rolled my eyes. My mother had exposed me as a fraud. I felt as if I had I come to the end of the runway, taken a turn too wide and fallen flat on my face.
“Of course,” Mom added, “it wasn’t her fault. She inherited being clumsy from me.”
That was familiar, too. By labeling us both as un-athletic, she hoped to protect me from my father’s displeasure in what he perceived as my lack of physical agility. When Daddy was trying to teach me to ice skate and started yelling at me to keep my goddam ankles straight, she’d stop his bullying by explaining I’d gotten my lack of coordination from her.
Maybe I needed her protection then, but hadn’t she seen what I’d just done? Did she see me at all? Was I still that child to her? Or was my being acknowledged in public more than she could handle, even if it only reflected on her indirectly?
Unlike my dad, who basked in the glory of my accomplishments as long as he could take credit for them, my mom had always been quick to set aside a you-must-be-proud-of-your-daughter compliment as if it embarrassed her.
When a woman I babysat for told her how much her kids loved me, or friends heard I’d been inducted into an honor society or won an award and offered effusive praise, she’d nervously flutter one hand in front of her face and say, “Yeah, she’s a pretty good kid,” or “I think I’ll keep her,” which had always been enough to tell me I was loved.
Yes, I thought as I watched her continue to chat with my new boss, her comment was inappropriate, but it was just Mom being Mom and sometimes that came with disappointment. But the sting passed quickly when I remembered it was only because of her any of this was happening.