Early one summer evening, my mother and I are sitting side by side on a glider in my backyard, sipping glasses of wine and chatting, staring out at my native garden. At the edge of the patio, square-spotted blue butterflies are laying eggs among the buckwheat’s pompoms of cream-colored blossoms. A mockingbird is in the elderberry, inspecting clusters of ripening fruit. Above the flowering wands of white sage, hummingbirds are skirmishing, dipping and diving, scolding each other with intense chirps as they duel for nectar.
“I need to plant more white sage.”
My mother nods. She has always loved nature, too, having spent part of her childhood next to an orchard in Stony Creek Mills, Pennsylvania. Some of her favorite memories: trees full of ripe cherries, and the violets that carpeted the orchard in spring.
I savor what my mother and I share. Common ground is rare.
“Your hair is really going gray,” my mother says. “Now would be a perfect time to add some highlights. You were a young mother last time you did it.”
“I needed sleep, not highlights.”
“They looked really good.”
“Mom, I just want to own the way I look.”
My mother purses her lips and brushes a blond wisp of hair away from her eyes. “As we get older we have to make more of an effort. There’s no harm in having a little fun.”
“Mom, this is fun, being together with no schedule.”
“I agree!” My mother takes off her glasses and leans toward me, and we do something we’ve done for as long as I can remember: So close our foreheads are almost touching, we look into each other’s eyes. In hers, blue green and hooded with age, I see love and the best intentions in the world. The best. We stay close for a few moments, and then slowly separate, leaning back against the glider.
“I’m really looking forward to redoing the front yard,” I say. “I can’t wait to rip out the lawn and that invasive ash and plant some oaks.”
My mother looks at me with alarm. “You’re not leaving the front yard the way it is?”
“No—” I’m surprised by the question. My mother knows I loathe the way the front yard is landscaped: water-thirsty, ornamental and virtually sterile, it’s a thoughtless response to California’s near perpetual drought and loss of biodiversity.
My mother frowns. “If you put in natives, your front yard will be different from all the others on the street.”
“Yes, it’ll have host plants for butterflies, and seeds and berries for birds.”
My mother looks at me as if I’m being endearingly naïve. “But it’s so pretty the way it is.”
We have disagreed about gardens, and what makes them beautiful, for years. It would be tempting (and easier) to regard this disagreement as mere personal preference and move on, retreating to the I’m-okay-you’re-okay position that neither aesthetic is better than the other. After all, it’s “just” aesthetics. But that’s the problem. It isn’t. Something larger is at stake: A notion of beauty that includes ecological integrity. A notion of beauty that rejects the devastation of ornamental landscapes and embraces the life and vibrancy of indigenous habitat.
“Why don’t you just keep the native plants in the back?”
When my mother says this, something clicks in my memory. Something feels like déjà vu. The implication: What’s authentic is inferior. Something best hidden, camouflaged or corrected. Nothing to unabashedly display and feel happy about.
I take a sip of wine. “You saw the article in the Los Angeles Times, right?”
“Oh, yes,” my mother says, “I showed it to my friends.” The article was a full-page, color spread that featured two California native gardens—mine was one. The writer described my garden as “drop-dead lovely.”
“I know native gardens are the right thing to do,” my mother adds, “but front yards need to look finished.”
And with that pronouncement, it comes to me: A day in 1970, the last day for decades I could look at myself in a mirror and feel I was fine, just as nature made me. The last day for decades I wouldn’t automatically focus on my flaws. It was a day just before the start of the new school year…
In our family’s big-finned silver Chrysler, my mother and I embarked on a shopping trip. About to enter ninth grade, I was daydreaming about the clothes we might find at JCPenney and Sears, the places we usually shopped. A short while later we arrived at Fashion Square, Santa Ana.
Through sparkling glass doors my mother and I entered one of the department stores. Displays of perfume, cosmetics and jewelry glittered, home appliances and back-to-school clothing nowhere to be seen.
“We’re going to buy you something really special,” my mother told me.
“No, you shouldn’t wear pants,” she said quietly, “your derrière is too big.” (Ever since we lived in France, that’s how she referred to anyone’s bottom.)
“It is?” I said, shocked. I’d never even considered there might be something wrong with it. It was just… my bottom.
My mother sat down on a tall stool in front of a brightly lit display case. In the case were all kinds of hairpieces for women: A coiled blond braid. A fountain of black curls. A lump of chestnut-colored hair that looked like a potato.
“What are we doing here?” I said, thinking, This can’t be for me! My hair was just past my shoulders, dark blond, not thin, not thick, but healthy.
With a smile, my mother told me that she and my father had discussed it. A nice hairpiece was something they wanted to do for me. They knew it was a splurge but felt it was something I needed for this next phase of my life.
I said nothing, too mortified for words. Until that moment, I didn’t have the slightest inkling there was anything wrong with my hair (or my bottom), let alone something that needed to be corrected. Am I that blinkered, that blind? I wondered. But what really hurt was this: In that moment my mother had orchestrated to be one of joy—shared joy—I felt a chasm opening between us.
The glider jerks as my mother leans forward and puts down her wine glass. Leaning back, she says, “What are you thinking?” Her voice is gentle. She’s intently watching my face, reading me with decades of experience.
I shake my head. “Just random thoughts.” The memory isn’t worth sharing. There’s no good outcome—what would be the point?
My mother gets up to retrieve a sweater from inside the house. I call after her, “See if Antonia wants to join us.”
Now, forty-one years later, I can still hear my mother saying...
“For high school, you need to wear your hair back with a bun. You need to look more finished.”
“I was hoping I could wear my hair down,” I answered. “I like it that way.”
“You look like a drowned rat with it down.”
“I do?” I can still feel the hurt.
My mother told me she was just trying to help me look my best: High school was preparation for college. I had to look like I took it seriously. I couldn’t look sloppy, like when I wore my hair loose.
I wondered if this were true but took her word for it. After all, I was only thirteen. She had so much more life experience.
I sat down on the stool next to my mother and looked into the case. Some of the hairpieces were as big as giant cinnamon rolls. The synthetic fibers shimmered like icing.
“People will be able to tell it’s not my hair.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll match the bun to your hair color. Hair is a mix of many different colors and we’ll find the right mix for yours.”
I stared at a bun that looked like an inflated comb-over corralled by a braid. “Anyone can see I don’t have enough hair to make one of these.”
“We’ll take some out so that it looks like it’s yours.”
The saleswoman came over. My mother asked which bun I liked. I shrugged, wanting to run out of the store.
“She’ll try on the braided one,” my mother said brightly.
The saleswoman placed the hairpiece on the counter as if it were a tiara. To me, it looked like a badge of shame. Sitting there on that stool, on my bottom that I now knew was too big, looking at the fake hair that I now knew was better than my own, I felt a sudden overwhelming sense of inadequacy.
The saleswoman pinned up my ponytail and placed the hairpiece over it.
“Beautiful,” my mother exclaimed. “It shows off your neck.”
As the saleswoman anchored the hairpiece to my head, I watched couples stroll through the department store. The men were in suits, the women in nylons, high heels and dresses. Is this what it takes to be a grown-up? I wondered. Ever since fifth grade, when I’d discovered books about explorers, I dreamed of traveling to Machu Picchu, hiking along the spine of the Andes, becoming an archaeologist and uncovering ancient civilizations. How did a hairpiece, and the type of woman who’d wear one, fit into this dream?
Sometime later, after many iterations and adjustments for color and thickness, the hairpiece was ready. The saleswoman presented it in a beautiful box with a silken rope handle. I felt humiliated but told myself that my parents intended to make me feel beautiful, too.
My mother and I drove home, the box between us on the front seat, my mother happily chatting about how much use I would get out of this new accessory. I felt guilty because I didn’t share her joy.
That night, when my father came home from work, my mother showed him the hairpiece.
“Lovely!” my father said. He was happy to be able to buy me this gift. His parents—Vladas, a coal miner, and Anna, a housekeeper—never could have managed such an expense.
My mother told him about our day. I tried to echo her enthusiasm. To do anything less seemed impolite and spoiled, like the actions of an ungrateful child. From all that my mother had told me, I knew that our trip was the kind she would have loved to do with her mother, if she hadn’t died when my mother was six. My mother never did this kind of trip with her stepmother either. Money was too tight and Alma wasn’t interested in fashion. As my mother talked, I kept telling myself, Don’t take it personally. But I did. Big bottom. Inadequate hair. For decades, I would never look at my body the same way again—that is, without judgment. Without doubting any self-assurance I might feel about the way I look.
I took the box upstairs and buried it in a bathroom cupboard.
From then on, the hairpiece became a contest of wills between my mother and me. On days I didn’t have after-school sports, she suggested I wear it for school. I never did. For any event in the slightest way special, she reminded me about the hairpiece and how this was an opportunity to look my best. I held firm in my refusal. I felt I’d already ceded enough ground by, every morning, letting her fix my hair in a small tight bun on top of my head.
My mother sits down on the glider, now wearing a light sweater over her shirt and jeans. “Oh, that feels better,” she says, eighty-three, sensitive to the slightest chill. “Antonia’s busy packing. She’s so excited—engineering at M.I.T. I almost can’t imagine it. What was your major?”
“Philosophy, finally. I wish I’d known about environmental ethics. I think that’s why I loved biology in high school—it was all about nature.”
“Maybe you should have majored in biology.”
“I think if I’d been a boy, I would have.”
My mother looks startled. “What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say Orange County wasn’t exactly a bastion of progress for women. That’s why I started out as a French major—so much more ladylike.”
My mother bats at the air around her head. “I think the mosquitos are coming out. Do you have some citronella candles?”
I go inside the house. In a kitchen cupboard, I locate the candles in their metal tubs. The wicks are buried in wax. As I dig them out and light them, only to have them sputter out again and again, I think back to when I packed for college…
My mother’s frustration boiled over when the hairpiece was absent from my suitcase. “Why did you let me spend all that money on something you’d never wear?” she said.
“You wanted it, not me.”
“You wanted it, too!”
No matter how I tried, I was unable to convince her that I didn’t. Intimidated by her displeasure, I was unable to tell her, exactly, how the purchase of that hairpiece had made me feel. But even though I disliked her aesthetic, I had internalized it. When I looked at my seventeen-year-old self in the mirror, my gaze was self-appraising and critical. I could not un-see my flaws: My hair was too fine, my bottom too big, my smile too broad, my eyes too small, my back too swayed, my arches too low and, what’s more, I held my fingers too straight. Observe how ballerinas hold their fingers, my mother had instructed more than once, they curve them. I mourned inhabiting my body without judgment. Mourned feeling unburdened by anxiety about my appearance. Mourned feeling free. I had become my own severest judge. I was annoyed and angry that I had done this, and that it was my mother who taught me to do it.
In college, however, I realized that this constant judgment of the female body was not something peculiar to my mother. It was everywhere. Despite the gains of first- and second-wave feminism, women were being messaged in every possible way that, unless they achieved a current ideal of feminine beauty, they were deficient. Women were encouraged to be impossibly thin, dye their hair, augment their breasts. To achieve an ideal and stay there was a crazy-making, never-ending process.
From my family and culture, I yearned for radical acceptance but couldn’t have named it at the time. I wanted to feel that my apparent inadequacies made no difference. I wanted to feel loved for all of what I was. I yearned to live in a family and culture that valued spirit and vitality more than superficial notions of beauty that damage women’s mental and physical well-being. And when I finally read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, the book not only confirmed my experience, but opened my eyes to the extent and ways that women are subjugated by notions of beauty.
The citronella candles finally stay lit. Wax shavings and burned matches litter the kitchen counter. Outside, I place the candles in a protective ring around the glider.
“Thanks, honey,” my mother says as I sit down beside her. “It’s so relaxing out here. I love watching the birds. What are those big round brown ones—the ones that do the backwards hop?
“California towhees—they’re uncovering insects and seeds.”
“So cute… but, you know, I’m sorry, I just can’t imagine your neighbors being happy if you put native plants out front.”
I take a slow sip of wine. Fitting in has always been important to my mother. “Mom, the aesthetic needs to change. You read the book by Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home.”
My mother nods. “You gave it to me.”
“Well, then you know native plants are essential for healthy ecosystems. Up to 90% of leaf-eating insect species, like—”
“—I know, caterpillars of butterflies, can eat only native plants, and caterpillars are the main food of baby birds. You’ve been telling me that for years.”
“Then shouldn’t ornamental gardens be the outlier? Shouldn’t support of nature be what guides us, rather than some crippling aesthetic?”
I could continue, but I hesitate to say more. It has done no good in the past. It didn’t help us arrive at a deeper shared understanding. It only caused my mother pain. I don’t want pain to be the way we think of us during the time that’s left.
Besides, my mother’s idea of garden beauty isn’t something peculiar to her. It’s everywhere, promoted by the ornamental horticulture industry and held by the vast majority of people in the United States. Just like the beauty industry, the ornamental horticulture industry teaches people to “see” what is authentic as inferior. Just as women “can’t” be beautiful simply as they are, gardens “can’t” be beautiful if made of native plants—the plants that nature spent thousands to millions of years perfecting for that place on Earth. Just as women “need” to hide, camouflage or correct their physical appearance, gardens “need” to be made of ornamental plants, the native landscape erased. Anorexia, bulimia, dieting fads, medically unnecessary plastic surgery, etc., testify to the beauty industry’s damage to women. The ornamental horticulture industry’s damage: In the U.S., forty million acres of pesticide-soaked lawns, vast sub/urban expanses of ornamental shrubs and trees that obliterate the food web, watersheds polluted by fertilizer run-off, garden water use far in excess of rainfall, and the introduction of invasive non-native plants that spread into wild lands, reduce habitat, maim ecosystem function and, in the Southwest, increase the risk of wild fire. But, hey, aren’t ornamental gardens beautiful?!
My mother gives me a disapproving look. “Crippling aesthetic—don’t you think that’s a little strong?”
“No, not at all.”
She purses her lips again. “You sound so harsh, so uncompromising, like there’s no reasoning with you.”
I feel a surge of annoyance. I start to answer, then stop and take a deep breath. “Remember that hairpiece you got me?”
My mother studies my face. “Yes, why? What made you suddenly think of that?”
“Your comment about looking finished.”
She looks puzzled for a moment. “Oh, when we were talking about your garden. Whatever happened to that hairpiece?”
“I have no idea.”
“That was a really nice chignon. I never did understand why you didn’t like it.”
“Mom, that hairpiece was like thinking we need ornamental plants to make beautiful gardens.”
I gesture at the backyard. A blue-bellied lizard is literally leaping after butterflies in the buckwheat. The pompoms of flowers are bright against the dark green, rosemary-like leaves. In the canopy of the elderberry, band-tailed pigeons are gobbling berries alongside the mockingbird. The tree is still producing clusters of small yellow flowers—it’ll have fruit for a few more months. “Mom, there’s a reason these creatures are here and not out front. This garden nourishes them. The problem isn’t native plants. It’s a problem with how we see. Look at the flowers, the leaf colors, the textures, the animals… there’s so much here to enjoy.”
“Well, we all have different conceptions of beauty,” my mother says, “but I agree, health is most important.”
“Then how can you defend ornamental gardens?! They’re the opposite of health. They celebrate damage as beauty. They normalize the absence of something vital. People don’t even see what’s missing!”
My mother doesn’t reply. We sit in silence for several moments.
“You know, after you got me that hairpiece, I felt insecure for years. The only time I didn’t was when I was camping alone in some remote place. A place where I could just be. A place without mirrors.”
“Oh,” my mother says, studying my face with alarm. “I never realized… I just wanted to do something nice for you, that’s all.” She tucks her hair behind her ears. Her hands are shaking. Her eyes well up. Mine do, too, seeing her pain at having caused me pain, and from seeing the hurt I just caused.
“I know, Mom. I know you did,” I say quickly, and give one of her hands a squeeze.
Despite our love for each other, there is a chasm between us.
“Mom, what if we honored women’s bodies and native landscapes in all their forms? What if we celebrated their authenticity as beauty, rather than adhering to some narrow damaging definition? What if we put native plants in our front yards and lived without constantly judging the way we look? Imagine how good that would feel?!”
My mother looks at me for a long moment. “You’ve always been such an idealist,” she says, and gives my hand a squeeze.
Hand in hand, we sit quietly, listening to the soft chirping of crickets. The patio is now in shadow, the light from the candles more pronounced. The lizard has disappeared. The butterflies have gone to their roosts for the night. In the warm dark stillness, my mother and I watch the birds high in the canopy of the elderberry. Birds, leaves, flowers, and berries—all are illuminated by the last of the evening light.