As a dentist, my mother has a tendency to see the world in terms of teeth. The model in the fashion magazine, the anchor on the news, the butcher at the grocery story: Each of these loses any form of distinguishing characteristic upon opening their mouths. “Wow, would you look at the teeth on that guy,” she’ll say, watching Lester Holt elaborate on a new bill passed in Congress. The news doesn’t matter, nor does what he’s wearing. A nuclear device could go off in Manhattan, and he alert the nation wearing only a cowboy hat and nipple clamps, and she would have said the exact same thing. “Whoever did his veneers did an amazing job.”
I guess I can’t really blame her, though. After spending thirty years looking into people’s mouths, what else is she going to notice about them? It’s the same way garbagemen see the world in terms of trash, or proctologists see the world in terms of assholes. That subtle, yet trying side effect of dedicating your life to a single career.
What made this difficult, however, was that, as a family, we tended to watch a lot of television programs with British people in them. These weren’t your Colin Firth or Hugh Grant kind of British people, either; these were the non-Hollywood types, the world’s leading scholars in Elizabethan England or 18th century ballistics, whose teeth reinforce the theory that Stonehenge is not the ancient, Druid burial ground we all know and love, but in fact the leading text in British orthodontics. My mother looked at these people the same way a feminist my look at Howard Stern. “Oh my god!” she’d say, turning away and wincing. “His teeth are terrible. Oh my god! Oh, I can’t even look at them they’re so bad.”
It’s not that she was disgusted so much; it’s more that she was offended, like a Republican when you tell them you’re not going to vote. “What do you mean you’re not going to exercise your right to braces?” I imagined her saying. And then she’d whip out a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and point to the line that clearly states our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Orthodontia.
While I’m not exactly sure when this change in perception occurred, it in no way deterred her from attempts at conversion. As the oldest child, it was assumed I would follow in her footsteps, either as a dentist or some other medical professional. So when, in my senior year of high school, I told my parents I wanted to be a country music singer, they were shocked.
“But you don’t know anything about music!” my mother said. “We’re not paying for you to get a degree in singing, and that’s final. You’re going to have to do something else.”
I ended up in the music business for two years, both studying it in college and working as an intern at a recording studio on Music Row. It was a lot of fun, but eventually I decided I wanted to do something a little more stable. So when I told my parents I was becoming an English major, and I wanted to pursue a career in travel writing, they were shocked.
“Travel writing?” my mother said into the phone. “Well, it’s better than music. But how do you even get into travel writing?”
I didn’t know, and I still don’t really know. But I wisely failed to mention that.
This dream lasted all of two months, until I got a job at JCrew and discovered that almost everyone who worked there had graduated with a degree in English. Worse yet, they had graduated with a degree in English from the college I was attending. These were not good odds. Especially for a person, like myself, who was on the prowl for a trophy wife. So when I called my parents to tell them that I was changing my major to pre-med, they were shocked.
“Medicine?!” My mother said. “But you’re graduating in a year! You’re going to need at least another two years for all the pre-reqs. And I don’t know if your father’s going to want pay for that.”
Well, it turned out he did. Together, they were more than willing to shell out the money if it meant I’d spend the rest of my life wearing scrubs and not a burlap poncho. I liked the way it felt to tell people I was going into medicine. They seemed to look at me differently, as if I was wearing a BMW on my head, and carrying a house on Nantucket on my shoulder. You have what we want, they seemed to say. And I did. Or, at least I thought I did.
My imaginary empire came tumbling down in my fifth year of college. After a series of unfortunate events that seemed to suggest I had lost all touch with the female world, I decided I needed to go somewhere to study women. So when I told my mother I was no longer pursuing a career in medicine, and taking a job at Victoria’s Secret instead, she wasn’t that shocked.
“Well,” she said, “I can’t exactly say I saw this coming, but it kind of makes sense you’d end up selling bras.”
And she was right. When you considered the careers I’d pursued were merely veiled attempts at getting in girls’ pants, it was only logical that, when I failed at all of them, I’d take a job selling what was in girls’ pants. I was simply removing the middle man.
I’ve read this story many times over the past four years, usually with a much different ending. One that involves two of my coworkers at Victoria’s Secret and me mirroring my mother’s response to bad dental work: “Oh my god. I can’t even look at it it’s so bad.” Except, in my case, it wasn’t about teeth.
Because it sort of involved her, I thought it’d be a suitable essay for Listen to Your Mother. It was only after auditioning in 2015 and watching the judges lose color in their faces that I thought, What the hell was I thinking? Concerned, I sent the essay to a past reader, the woman who’d actually encouraged me to audition in the first place, inquiring into whether or not she thought I had a chance. She essentially wrote back, “What the hell were you thinking?” and I apologized as best as I could for my existence.
What I didn’t see was how much the essay lacked. Yes, my mother struggles focusing when there’s a corn tooth in the room. Yes, those were her real reactions to my various career choices. But it neglects the smaller brush strokes, the ones that take her from being a flat, humorous character, to the person who calls me every Friday morning to see how my week went. It lacked the travel memoir she sent me for Valentine’s Day in 2008, because I’d decided two weeks earlier to go into the genre. It lacked her insistence that I keep at it instead of going to medical school, yet showing up a few months later with an MCAT study guide, determined to quiz me on our 18-hour ride home. It lacked all of the dental patients she’s bored with stories of me and my sister, an act we both get annoyed at but inherently understand is proof of her pride in us. It lacked her letters, and now her texts, the occasional care packages, and the way she looked on FaceTime when I called from Paris to tell her I was engaged.
It lacked all of these and more. So much more.
Or, at least, it used to.