My mom wore Estée Lauder White Linen perfume: one spray applied before each 5 AM shift at the Denny’s off the highway that cut through Columbia, South Carolina; three sprays before church on Sunday morning; and three before Bible study on Tuesday and Thursday nights. It’s a sharp scent that not many women wear anymore. The Estée Lauder bottle was the only object on Mom’s dresser, a tidy surface in our cluttered trailer, which smelled distinctly like cooked meat and faintly of mold.
She taught me how to apply perfume when I was just five years old: spray your left wrist, press both wrists together and circle slowly, then slide your wrists behind your ears and down to the crook of your neck. I watched her reflection in the dresser mirror while she demonstrated. Wearing her freshly cleaned and pressed diner uniform, she showed me how to use the expensive perfume with economy and pride.
The fragile bottle was curved like Mom’s thighs, which were toned from waitressing. She was nearly thirty and had been waiting tables since she was old enough to get a job. Her distinctive smell was equal parts White Linen and the odors of labor. She always came home from work smelling like grease and bleach and cigarette smoke. She’d never smoked a day in her life, but the truck drivers at Denny’s did, and the scent clung to her hair even after she showered.
It’s not worth buying cheap perfume, she said, admiring herself in the mirror before work. Real women respect themselves enough to wear good perfume, not Tea Rose from the dollar store. Tea Rose is what many women in our trailer park wore. As soon as they opened their front doors, I would smell it mixing with the odor of damp pine needles. Mom was better than that. She was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and her church taught its members to be “in the world but not part of the world.” Our neighbors, Mom told me, were sinners, either willfully debased or hopelessly led astray. They may have lived next door to us, but we weren’t like them. We had hope for salvation, and they had only the pain of the present. They spent their free time watching TV, laughing, and partying. We spent our evenings studying the Bible.
In keeping with the rules of the faith, I refused other children’s birthday cake, sat down during the Pledge of Allegiance, and brought pamphlets about impending Armageddon to my third-grade class. I was always overprepared for Bible study, having highlighted nearly every sentence with various colors. Mom taught me to recite chapters from Psalms at a young age, and we read verses out loud every morning. I went to church three times a week and heard constant reminders that unmarried women were to remain pure and pious, not allowing men to touch us. Among the women in our house, however, touch was all right. I grew up knowing the safety of my mother’s entire-body hugs before school, her kisses before bed, her arm wrapped around my shoulders as we walked.
After school I’d read at the Denny’s counter while I waited for Mom’s shift to end. Hiding my face in a book and hoping not to be noticed, I’d listen to her banter with the truck drivers and waitresses. They taught me the art of a good story: their cadence, the small details that speak volumes, and dark humor expressing both judgment and sympathy. One of the regulars would tell me, There’s nothing as rude as telling a boring story. And my mom was never rude. She gave me books and encouraged me to read. When I was in middle school, she let me spend long summer days alone at the downtown Columbia library. I’d lie on the worn carpet and read for hours, soaking in the quiet and the air-conditioning. At home I hid in the closet to read novels and scribble in notebooks. I started to retreat into the world of fiction because those worlds were safer than mine, and the women in them led lives bigger than any I could imagine for myself.
Mom said we not only needed to act different than our neighbors; we needed to look different, because our lives were dedicated to God’s service. She always wore a flower-print cotton dress that covered her from her round shoulders to her strong calves. She ironed her waitressing uniform regularly: perfectly pressed black apron, black pants with sharp creases, and a white shirt that would no longer be white after her shift. She kept my brother, my sister, and me in our Sunday best all weekend long. In family photos we girls are always wearing pink dresses, and my brother is in little suits and ties, all three of us wearing dirty sneakers because we had only one pair each. Mom kept a spotless kitchen. She bombed our home for roaches three times a year, and afterward I would watch their shiny black bodies clumsily migrate across the narrow strip of grass between the trailers.
The neighborhood kids’ homes were messy, with cigarette butts, loose change, bottles, and candy wrappers covering the coffee tables. They had plastic toys everywhere, piled up from Christmas, birthdays, and other holidays that for me were forbidden pagan rituals. We were all latchkey kids, fending for ourselves while our parents worked, but at their homes we watched PG-13 movies and MTV, and we didn’t have to rush to change the channel when we heard the crunch of a parent’s tires on the gravel road. I learned to French-kiss from watching Cry-Baby and practiced with my neighbor Megan on the top bunk of her bed. As I got older, I craved the freedoms my friends enjoyed. By the time I was in high school, I was sneaking out of my window to party with them all night. Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, I’d wake on Saturday morning to join my mom in preaching the Good News.
I ran to the neighbors’ homes for freedom, but I ran back to mine for safety. Strangers were always picking up and dropping off things at my friends’ houses. Sometimes these visitors would stay for too many beers. Sometimes the men would stay for too many nights. I learned early on to avoid these men, even the dads. Their actions told me they weren’t to be trusted. Even before I’d heard the phrase “domestic violence,” I could tell most women were safer without the men in their lives. I’d watched Mom smile more easily as soon as my own dad was gone for good. I’d felt calmer and safer, too. Once he was out of the house, Mom could play Scrabble late into the evening with friends. I’d sit on the floor and listen to their stories of women who got hit for letting the carpets get dirty, women who got slapped for serving dinner late, women who got beat for nothing other than having been born a woman.
The women in our trailer park, most of them just in their thirties, all had drawn faces and tired voices, chapped hands and curved backs. They were exhausted from the struggle to provide a stable home and steady meals without reliable paychecks. They grasped at any sliver of control until they were just too tired to hold on. I watched as many were kicked out of their homes, leaving their belongings in piles outside the trailer. Sometimes it was just the kids who left, or the dads. Other times whole families disappeared in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Then came the days I got home from school and Mom told me to pack my things. We, too, left in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. I learned not to ask why. We moved often — because of a rent increase, a job change, a need for safety; because financially it was the only option.
Growing up poor left its mark. I still wait too long before going to the doctor — a lesson learned from years of pretending nothing was wrong. I still feel a flash of panic when I eat the last can of vegetable soup from the pantry — before I remember I can afford to buy more.
Mom taught me to escape the psychological burdens of poverty by joining a religion that held poverty as a virtue; her mother thought my looks would be my salvation. We would stay with my grandmother in Florida during the summer and when we were between places. She wanted to be called Patty because, she said, she was too young to be called Grandma. Patty wore White Shoulders by Evyan — a sweet, dense perfume, like gardenias but fruitier. She smelled stronger and also vaguely more natural than my mom. During the day Patty generously lathered on artificial-smelling coconut tanning oil while bathing in the sticky Florida sunshine behind her single-wide. I knew I had a hot grandma, with her dark olive skin and her pink string bikini. She fixed her hair into a dark-black helmet and always had a cigarette in one hand and a red plastic cup of ice and whisky in the other. Though I spent endless afternoons swimming in her trailer park’s pool, not once did I see her dip a toe in the water. She wouldn’t risk getting her hair splashed. In the late afternoon Patty spritzed two to three sprays of White Shoulders on her neck, chest, and arms to mask the Newport Lights and Crown Royal.
A lifelong bartender, Patty had decades of practice being simultaneously charming and disinterested. She perfected the art of small talk behind the bar, telling jokes perfectly timed to the ninety seconds it took to make a mixed drink. She was well-known in her central-Florida town of Plant City — which wasn’t home to any lush flora and smelled of swamp and burning plastic.
Patty hoped I’d do better with my petite figure than she had with hers. We had the same shape, the same smile, and the same skin tone. We even had the same name: Patricia, though I’ve always been called Trisha. Patty imagined that at least one of her granddaughters could avoid working herself to the bone like she had, like her mother had, like her daughters were. She would gesture to me and declare, as if making a bet, This one’s gonna marry well. She won’t have to cook. She said this as Mom was busy cooking meals for three generations under one roof.
Other times Patty would tell me, You’re so pretty, the only thing you need to learn to cook are bonbons. Her bonbons were peanut-butter balls coated with chocolate, placed in the fridge to set. She never ate them. And she didn’t make them for the grandkids either. Bonbons were for nights on the patio with her friends, talking and laughing until long after I’d fallen asleep.
Mom had her own plan for me. She wanted me to marry a high-ranking man in the congregation, a righteous man, caring and patient. Mom saw how I needed to do every little thing in my own particular way, and she knew any man who married me would have to be patient. But both women agreed I’d need a man to give me a better life.
Patty never cooked, in part because she rarely ate. She’d have three saltine crackers and call it a meal. When she did sit down to a dinner Mom had made, she’d mostly push her food around her plate, preferring to drink her calories. To control her body, Patty starved herself. I imagine the drinking numbed the hunger and blocked out the parts of her world she couldn’t control. White Shoulders blocked out the scent of the booze. Or it tried, at least.
I learned how to starve myself by watching Patty. She taught me that a woman should eat only eight bites but could survive on three. She taught me that girls have to suck in their bellies. Before I even hit puberty, she warned me never to lose my figure. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old, bony hips sticking out from my low-rise bikini, when she began saying this. She taught me that, to be a woman, I’d have to fight my own body. I learned to see my body’s changes as a threat. From Patty I learned a woman could wield the power to turn heads. She could capture a room’s attention and make everyone laugh. Everything else I knew of women’s lives told me not to trust this kind of power, but I wanted it nonetheless.
Patty died before time could rob her of her looks. Her alcoholism, pack-and-a-half-a-day smoking habit, and starvation diet tore through her stomach lining, and tumors developed. She refused to go to the doctor until it was too late. (PubMed tells me “socioeconomic class” is the top predictor of stomach cancer. When it comes to things that will kill you, “socioeconomic class” always means poverty.) In the weeks after her diagnosis, I watched her disappear slowly, getting smaller and smaller until I could barely make out her tiny form under the blankets she piled on for warmth. Patty was fifty-three, and I was thirteen — just old enough to know she was too young to die.
I didn’t cry when Mom told me Patty was gone. I didn’t cry at the funeral, where the Catholic priest was so drunk he dropped the censer over the coffin, spilling incense across the lacquered wood and onto the carpet. I didn’t cry until afterward, as I cleaned out my grandmother’s bathroom. I placed the bottle of White Shoulders, along with her fake-pearl earrings, in a pile of items to keep for myself. Tucked into her cosmetic case I found a photo of Patty on her wedding day, looking very much like Jackie O. I tucked it in with my things before anyone else could claim it. I placed her makeup, Aqua Net, and ashtrays in the trash. Then I spent the afternoon scrubbing away the yellow tobacco tar that had built up in viscous layers on the walls of her unventilated bathroom.
I remember Patty’s smile, because it’s also my smile. Or do I have my dad’s? I can’t remember Patty’s voice. It must have been soft and raspy. I’ve forgotten Mom’s accent, too. I don’t remember how either of them took her coffee, but I remember they both reheated the same cup in the microwave many times a day, only to forget it again after two sips. I don’t remember what music Patty listened to while driving us to the mall in her little red Nissan. I don’t remember my mom’s birthday.
I have no photos of either woman, no letters or cards saved. There’s no one around to help shore up the memories I’m losing to time. I grieve both of these women, even though my mother is still alive and well in South Carolina.
I was twenty when my mother said, You’re dead to me. Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain cultlike loyalty by threatening social exclusion for any member who questions the faith or breaks its many rules. When I broke the strict no-sex-before-marriage rule — in a few different ways — the elders excommunicated me from the congregation. They ordered my friends to have no contact with me. My mother, my siblings, my friends — everyone I called family was required to act as if I were dead. I left my mom’s house in the middle of the night, and I wasn’t allowed to return. In my rush to leave, I packed only a few pairs of underwear and my uniform for my job as a waitress at a local barbecue joint.
All my life I’d been taught to say no: no birthdays, no blood transfusions, no university education, no friends outside of the religion. Once I started to say yes, my desires refused to be repressed. I burst with wanting. I leapt away from the small, pious life that Mom hoped would keep me safe and toward everything she had taught me was a sin. When I rejected my mother’s religion, I also lost her, and I’ve never stopped grieving that — especially the loss of her touch.
Three months after I was excommunicated, I called my mother late one night, begging, Please, Mom, let me come over. I just need one hug.
Her response: I will hug you when you come back. I’ll talk to you when you come to church. You can have your family if you repent. She was determined to save me from God’s judgment, even if that meant she had to cut me off. She grieved my death while I set up a new life five miles down the road.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are Mom’s entire identity and the only safety she’s ever known. She was a young mother when she converted, living thousands of miles from home on a military base in the South. My dad had given her three kids and a lonely existence. One day a nice woman knocked on her door offering friendship and eternal life in paradise. What better options did she have?
Being a Witness gave her rules: what to wear, how to eat, who may speak, and who must remain silent. Follow the rules, and she’d be safe. That was the promise. So, after working long hours all week, she’d spend every day off knocking on doors with her Bible and copies of The Watchtower and Awake!, the monthly magazines published by the church. When she spent enough time proselytizing, the elders praised her, and she was given a place of reverence. Like the rest of the world, Jehovah’s Witnesses have their lower and higher classes. Unlike in the rest of the world, putting in the work did actually increase Mom’s social rank.
Mom didn’t tell me much about her life before she converted, but I overheard her conversations with friends: stories of predatory men, hitchhiking cross-country, running away, heroin addicts. Patty was often absent, either working, reading romance novels, or watching her soaps. She and my grandpa Bernie joked that they were never too concerned when their kids ran away: they’d come back when they got hungry enough. So Mom was free to come and go as she pleased. She was free to get into trouble, and I believe she did. I’ve seen photos of her as a teen with long jet-black hair, driving a tractor in a string bikini so she could get a tan while working on Bernie’s pig farm. In the photo her wide smile made her dark, deep-set eyes nearly disappear. She looked at ease, nearly naked in that wide-open field.
Mom taught me how to be a respectable woman. Her mother taught me how to be an entirely different kind of woman. In their absence I made choices I know they would both disapprove of. I pursued higher education, for one. The first in my family to go to college, I collected degrees until I had a masters and a PhD. I also collected sexual experiences, first with girls from college, then with boys I met at work, and later with both men and women. Some relationships were casual, playful. A couple were serious loves with people who became family. A few hurt me. Most of them changed me for the better.
Seven years ago, after earning my PhD, I moved three thousand miles west to teach at a university in posh Santa Barbara, California. Here I research the history of women in male-dominated professions — doctors, mathematicians, and computer operators whose achievements were often attributed to the men they worked alongside. I search the archives for their letters, notes, and diaries, keeping an eye out for handwriting that looks feminine or mentions of assistants and secretaries. I want to preserve the stories of these women’s lives, to give them a place in the history books — all the while wishing I could recover some tangible evidence of my own life with my mom and Patty.
Even as I have defied Mom’s and Patty’s expectations, I’ve kept some of their lessons: My shoes stay on the patio, and my butter stays out on the counter. I almost never cook unless I’m entertaining. That much Patty got right — though I think she would have been prouder of me if I’d married rich and worked less. I still remember how to tell stories from listening to Mom, and how to hold a crowd’s attention from watching Patty. These women taught me how to dress, how to smell, how to fix my face. But really they were teaching me how to find dignity in poverty, how to survive in a world that will take from women until we are emptied out in the service of others.
Other lessons, I’ve abandoned: I stopped ironing my clothes and got rid of my curlers. (I’m sure they’d both be embarrassed by my messy ponytail.) I now know how to feed myself properly — though eating when I’m hungry still won’t come naturally. I shower before work, not after. I’ve tossed my scented lotions and perfumes, and I moisturize with organic coconut oil that makes me smell like a vegan pastry. I brew excessively strong French-press coffee — making each cup fresh. With the soft smell of coconut and the bitter aroma of coffee, I sit down to write their stories.
When I was a girl, Mom would drive us out to the old rock quarry to swim. There was a cliff the kids liked to dive off, but I was always scared. I’d jump only from the lowest ledge, and then only after insisting that Mom swim out to where I could jump toward her. All the times we went to the rock quarry, I never once got the courage to jump from the highest ledge. Only the bravest, most reckless kids did that.
The bravest kids and my mom. It was the first thing she’d do when we arrived: stride up to the ledge in her functional one-piece bathing suit, look down, then get a running start and fling her whole body off the edge into the dark water below. Like it was nothing.