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Now that I no longer have three storage units full of my things and one of mother’s, the pieces I haven’t sold, given to the Salvation Army, or had hauled away, are stacked in cardboard boxes in my garage. Last weekend I started going through them.

Opening these boxes has been like entering a dusty, faded time machine.

Except for mother’s belongings, they were all things I packed when James and I moved from the Spy House on the Hill to the Little House at the ranch. Worst case we thought we’d live in the Little House for two years while we designed a “big house” and had it built. Then we’d get our things out of storage. That was 10 years ago! Since then James and mother have died and my life is very different.

Some things I wonder why I stored them in the first place, like a box of tin buckets full of citronella to keep mosquitos away. Others make me smile or make me melancholy. There is no middle ground. The most unexpected items that affected me were photos of when I was 23-years-old and the maid of honor at my mother’s second marriage. 


I’ve always known I was strong and smart, but until I looked at these photos, I didn’t realize how pretty I was. How sad, but I believe that can be said for many of us, don’t you? We reach a certain age and look back at our younger selves and wonder why we didn’t appreciate ourselves more? What was the inner dialog we had with ourselves that made us feel that way? 

As I looked at these photos, I thought about the things that made me doubt myself. They all came from my mother. 

Mother often referred to me as “Poor little thing,” as though it were my name. One of my earliest memories of this was when mother rubbed Vicks Vapor-Rub over my bare, nine-year-old chest. 

“Poor little thing,” she said. “Your asthma makes your little chest look all sunken, and your little rib cage sticks out like the hull of an abandoned ship.”

Mother would also say things about my looks in front of other people like… “Poor little thing. She has such a long, horsey face. Let’s keep her hair short so we don’t drag it down further.” She said that to a new hairstylist, cutting my hair. Or… “Poor little thing, her glasses are so thick. They look like Coke bottles.” She said that one a lot. Then there was “Poor little thing. She’s tall and skinny and has no figure at all.”

No wonder I didn’t think I was attractive!

Last weekend I had an ah-ha moment. It was mother who was the “poor little thing!” A child with a bowl haircut who lived in a boarding house with her divorced mother, in a small Tennessee town, and had only two dresses to her name. For some time I’ve believed mother was jealous of me and the advantages she never had. The feelings she’d internalized about herself… She’d placed them on me. Talk about sad.

While I’m closer to 70 than 23, now I realize I’ve always been a fine-looking woman. More importantly, I’ve always known I’m more than my looks. I’m full of the right stuff, the good stuff, and you know what? I’m officially taking any missing threads of my power back! Is anyone coming with me?

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  1. Brenda, you said it so well. It’s taken a lifetime to realize and appreciate who I was at 16 and 26. And to celebrate her for getting me here today. Thanks for this insightful post and reminder to be gentle with her and with others.

  2. It is liberating to cut the destructive apron strings, isn’t it? At the same time, I do believe that mothers teach daughters how to assess themselves critically. How to look in the mirror, find the flaws, and disguise them. This behavior probably – not probably – does! grow out of a society that values women only for their beauty.

    I remember thinking with my four sons – they’re all so handsome and perfect and when they look in the mirror, they know it. They never heard me say the sorts of things my mother said: “always wear a v-neck to disguise your thick neck,” or “you look thinner in dark colors.”

    I think my mother was trying to prepare me. And maybe she did me a service. I’m honest about my shortcomings in life and I work hard to improve myself as a writer, as a wife, as a mother.

    I’m not sure my sons can look with a gimlet eye at their reflections and see anything other than what they want to see.

    • I’m not surprised you’ve raised your sons differently than our mother’s raised us. You’re open and loving! What a huge advantage that will them with most any situation in life they face. My late husband and his ex-wife raised what I thought was a wonderful young man, who knew he had it all, but somewhere along the way, he turned into an angry bully. It literally broke my husband’s heart because he died the day he realized, as he put it, that he’d failed at the only job he had while he was here. “To raise a good man, and if I ever thought I’d failed at that, I would have failed as a human being.” That afternoon he died… unexpectedly. That realization nearly killed me as well. While I don’t think the rest of the family has let themselves “go there,” mentally, even if they did, as the ex-wife used to say… “Oh, I wouldn’t say that to him if I were you!” I can’t tell you how many dozen times I heard her say that. In her heart of hearts, she has to know they failed him and the carnage left in his wake. Thanks, Mithra

  3. I can so relate, Brenda. Jealousy is an ugly thing. It was helpful, for me, to write my memoir and vent all those things that made me angry, frightened, and unsure of myself. It’s liberating, isn’t it?

    • Barbara, Yes, writing is liberating although I’ve always been about the most liberated woman I know. The realization that mother was the real “poor little thing,” felt good. xoxox, Brenda

  4. Oh… I can so relate, too, Brenda. Except I was “nine axe handles tall and just as wide.” Ha. Or “skinny and homely.” But I think those were from my grandmother and not my Mum. You were and are beautiful. A dead ringer for Natalie Wood, I’ve always thought.

    • Sue, No!!! You were an adorable child and look at you now!! Absolutely gorgeous with the most wonderful twinkle in your eye and your smile. That pains me to know you, too, heard those things! I never had children… I didn’t want another parent/child relationship, but if I had, I hope I wouldn’t have been cruel, even in passing. All through the years, I’ve had dogs and cats. Daily I’ve told each one of them how pretty and smart and funny, how loved and valued and appreciated they are. Like children, animals know when you’re being verbally mean to them. Natalie Wood… LOL! On Instagram, someone looked at one of these photos and said I looked like “Candy Bergen” at that age, then there’s the parking attendant at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas who seemed to really think I was Diane Keaton! xoxox, Brenda

  5. Oh my gosh, Brenda! You were, and are still, stunningly beautiful! It’s amazing how we accept and internalize what adults around us say! So happy that you can see yourself objectively now and know that you were much more than how your mom classified you then. You are beautiful inside and out. A treasure.

    • Thank you, sweet Beckye! We think “they’re” just “words,” but words can harm us as surely as we’d been slapped across the face or upside the head. Words can be devastating. I’ve always known how strong I am, but it wasn’t until I got away from my mother that I realized I was attractive… which is a relative thing to begin with, but sometimes has a bearing on our self-confidence… although I’ve never lacked for that. It was in writing this blog that I realized SHE was the “poor little thing.” That does make me sad. xoxo, Brenda

  6. This is such a sad tale! I think your mother must have been so jealous! I’m very lucky to have had a really good relationship with my mother, we have been more like sisters/best friends.
    I’m just about to loose her to cancer and I will have a huge void.
    Laurie xx

    • Oh, Laurie… I’m sorry about your mother’s cancer. What a gift you’ve been to one another all these years. That love and acceptance is the best thing you could have given one another. I know this is a sorrowful time for both of you. I hope you find your way through this. xoxox, Brenda

  7. Well said Brenda! I have been working on my relationships with both my Mom and Dad for decades now. They know not what they do, but we must live the consequences until we wake up one day and say, “NO, you were so wrong about me!” Changing those feelings inside is still quite challenging, but you and me, we are so up to this challenge!

    • Laura, It breaks my heart to know how many of us have suffered from the verbal abuse of our parents. We can say “they know not what they do,” or take into consideration how they were raised, but we’re still left with how they’ve affected us, and yes… You’re right. It’s challenging. Here’s to strong women and the challenges we overcome!! xoxox, Brenda

  8. This one really hit home for me. All I ever heard my entire childhood was “Don’t be so goddamn stupid”. Mom could never remember my name and always called me Do, short for Doris, her sister’s name. Nothing I did was ever good enough. As a matter of fact, nothing I ever did was enough, period. I was 43 years old before I developed any self-esteem.

    • Denise, What you endured cuts to the core of our self-esteem! Even if someone we haven’t known for long calls us by the wrong name, it’s a wound of sorts… We have to assume we don’t matter or they’re not interested enough to remember it, but when it’s your own mother… I can’t imagine! I have to wonder if your mother had any problems with mental illness, or like my mother, felt inadequate her entire life and turned those feelings back on me? I hope you’re grounded in your self-esteem, now. This really bothers me…. Blessings, Brenda

  9. This was interesting to me, I have never been beautiful or very cute. My Mother in law said I was ‘sharp looking’, in the day that was a compliment. But I married a cute man who loves me dearly after 54 years. I have never had trouble with friends, family, or insecurity. Why? The honest love and approval of all my family? I was never bragged about as I am from Mn. and you never think you are better than anyone else. I thought of all this when I saw the pics of Barbara Bush and people said George was so much cuter than Barbara. She did become a very handsome woman, she was so strong and smart and self confident. I know I am loved and that is the jewel in my crown.

    • Gayle, You’re right about being loved… It’s EVERYTHING! I waited all my life for my second husband. Daily he told me how much he loved, valued and appreciated me, and I’d never had that before. While I miss him, at least I know what it’s like to be loved like that. “…the jewel in my crown.” You’re very wise about that. Thank you, Brenda

  10. How sad, Brenda. One’s mother should always be your proudest supporter. You are beautiful and successful, so… you win!
    My mother never spoke a negative word about her daughters but just the reverse. I loved her dearly and still miss her after twenty two years.

    • Joanna, I can’t imagine what that kind of mother/daughter relationship would be like, but I know that’s the way it should be. I’m happy you had that kind of love and support in your life and imagine she is missed. Thanks for your kind words, Brenda

  11. Our mothers must have been sister’s. At least you were invited to your mother’s 2nd wedding,! Ii wasnt…@he chose not to explain that i was !adopted to her ‘new FAMILY can imagine my surprise when i was called an hour after wedding and i asked what all the background noise was and told their reception! Really…seriously…i have learned what i didnt chose to be.. i pray everyday to be kind and gracious. I never heard the words ..i love you..from her…ever i` 48 years?
    I tell my girls how fabulous, lovely wonderful good people they are and end every conversation with i love you.?

    • Oh, Joyce! You’ve experienced something far worse than I have. You must have been hungry for her love and to have her acknowledge that. If she didn’t tell you she loved you, I’m guessing she never hugged and scooped you up in her arms or gave you much affection. What she did to you all those years was child abuse!! It’s unconscionable! Your own daughters have benefited from your heartache because you haven’t passed on her abuse or your anger… you didn’t say you were angry but I imagine it’s there somewhere… and heartbreak to them. I stand in awe of your strength. You are kind and gracious and loving… everything your mother was not. xoxo, Brenda

    • Sandra, I had the same feeling when I saw these photos all these years later. I know mother cared for the man she married, but I think she married him because she didn’t want to be alone and hoped he would care for her, emotionally and financially, so that feeling of JOY one should have on their wedding day wasn’t there. There were also the dynamics of our mother/daughter relationship going on. Funny, but I don’t remember much about that day. Thank you for your sweet words. xoxo, Brenda

  12. My gosh Brenda, you were a beautiful young woman, but now you are a radiant gorgeous woman! It’s so true, what we could have told our younger selves…you are beautiful, believe it and enjoy it! You are right, your mother was projecting her insecurities onto you. My daughter just turned 12 and I tell her everyday how incredible I think she is. We so owe it to our girls to give them the confidence and security to go conquer the world.

    • Thank you, Jill. I often wonder if my mother’s mother (I only met her twice, so I didn’t know her.) didn’t do a good job of reinforcing my mother’s self-confidence, but then growing up poor, in the South, with no father, would have been a lot to overcome for many young girls. Looking back on my relationship with my mother, I should have kept that in the forefront of my mind and been more understanding. We had a very difficult relationship, so it makes me happy to read about mother/daughter relationships like yours. xoxox, Brenda

  13. Brenda, you were a knock out and you still are my friend!! Thank you for sharing your feelings with us, it’s such an important issue. I, too, suffered for years with low self-esteem and confidence. Our mother’s can really do a number on us. It’s so sad that it take years to work through it all, it’s such a sticky web to untangle. So glad you did! XOXOX


    • Thank you, Cherie. I didn’t suffer from low self-esteem or confidence… I’ve always had tons of both! Because of my mother, I didn’t think I had much to offer in the looks department, but now I realize that wasn’t true. Perhaps that’s why I worked on developing other parts of my personality and what I had to give to others. xoxox, Brenda

  14. NO WORDS…….stunned by what she said to YOU!
    My Mother had a PHRASE she used when she got mad at me…………a lot of bad words put together and for the LIFE OF ME I cannot recall ONE WORD!
    BLOCKED from recalling!
    She always threatened to send me to the 3R’s school………..which was for handicap children!
    I’m GLAD you rose above it ALL and YES you are BEAUTIFUL!

    • Elizabeth, It seems as though most of us had mother’s that weren’t always supportive, and to some degree, that’s part of parenting, but being unkind and cruel. I’m not a parent, but in my idealized world, those things aren’t called for. Thank you for the compliment. xoxox, Brenda

  15. Awesome post and great reminder that we carry so much baggage from our parents. Good for you for recognizing this and reclaiming your power! I’m on board as well 🙂

    • Thank you, Mona! I appreciate you stopping by. Parental baggage… I wonder if that ranks up there with handicaps and bad allergies? It certainly affects us for most of our lives. Brenda

  16. YOu were beautiful then and you’re beautiful now – but I know exactly what you mean about comments made by our parents that sucked away our self esteem. I really hope I didn’t do that to my daughter – she has so much more confidence than I ever had so I guess she survived. I’m finding Midlife is where I’m finally starting to claim some of my self worth too.

    • I’m happy to hear you’re reclaiming your self-worth as well, Leanne. Perhaps it’s because we’re far enough away from parental put downs to have it in perspective. I also think we can realize our parents weren’t always right. Thank you… I appreciate your comments. Brenda

  17. Fascinating post. You were indeed beautiful, Brenda, and still are. I don’t understand why your mother would say those things, but I can see how they would hurt. Incredible photos.

    • Thank you, Rebecca. The funny thing is mother and I didn’t coordinate our dress choices, but we wound up wearing the same shade of blue. My dress was gorgeous, but I think I gave it to Salvation Army pretty soon thereafter. xoxo, Brenda

  18. It is amazing what off side comments stick with us forever. My mom was always discouraging me from anything physical because I was ‘not graceful’ and a ‘klutz’. I never have enjoyed sports until now when I realized I couldn’t do them well because I never tried!

    • I understand that, Laura! I had asthma as a kid and couldn’t take PE, but when I did “run” or try “track” in high school, I had just the opposite problem. My PE teacher would yell at me that I was too GD “graceful.” She’d tell me to “get out there and run!” Regardless of whether they’re positive or negative comments, or they even make sense, they have more of an affect on us than we… or those who fill our heads with often the wrong things, can possibly imagine. It only everyone was sensitive and aware of what we say to one another. Your so right: It sticks forever! Thanks so much for your awesome comment, Brenda

  19. You’re such a lovely person, Brenda, both emotionally as well as your beautiful visage, that it’s hard to imagine your mother purposely demeaning you. Clearly, she wasn’t happy with herself or the cards life had dealt her. Sounds like she was very jealous of your youth and beauty…and all of those possibilities waiting for you out in the world. You should be proud of yourself for surviving the negative messages that were “implanted” by the one person that should have been your biggest cheerleader. Look at all you’ve accomplished! The things you’ve done, the people you’ve helped, traveling the world and having incredible adventures! But most of all, think of how deeply you’ve loved and have been loved.

    • Thank you, Val. I didn’t realize until shortly before mother was diagnosed with dementia that she’d suffered from depression most of her life. Much of that time she played the victim card. I’m not sure what her payoff was because it didn’t bring her love and comfort, but she clung to it like a life preserver. I think she was jealous of all the things you mentioned, which just made our relationship even worse. While I know she loved me, it was difficult to get past her sullen, frosty facade. And yes… I have been deeply loved… I waited all my life for James, and it was worth the wait and this time without him. Multiple times a day he would say, “Do you know how much your husband loves and values and appreciates you?” and he showed me that in every way possible. He was a jewel. xoxox, Brenda

  20. This really hit home—thanks for writing it. My mother’s childhood was similar to your mother’s and sadly the jealousy continues. She would say I “married well” while she did not. There is much resentment towards me as a result. It has taken me 40 years of adult life to finally break the ties that wound, to stop feeling guilty for what she did and does not have and to embrace my own blessings and strength. We no longer are in contact and that is both a joy and a tragedy.

    • Victoria, I’m sorry you’ve lived a similar pain. My mother and I weren’t in contact for four years. I didn’t invite her to my second marriage, but at some point, I knew I needed to reconcile… whatever that would turn out to be… with her, and I’m glad I did. When I moved her to be closer to me because of her dementia, my husband said something so profound: “She may not have been the mother you want, but you can be the daughter she needs.” I wish I could tell you the last six years of her life and our relationship was warm and cuddly, but I can’t. Because of her dementia, some days were awful, and I’d leave almost as soon as I stopped by to visit her. Other days she was sweet and I was glad I’d come. I fully understand when you say your current relationship, or lack thereof, is both a joy and a tragedy. How will you feel if she dies? Relieved? I felt relieved, for her and me and that she wasn’t imprisoned in a mind and body that no longer worked, but I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d walked away for good. You can’t change her and more than likely, you can’t change the dynamics of your relationship, but if you were to reconcile, you can put up boundaries for yourself. You can be in control of when you talk to her, what you share with her and as nice as you can, extricate yourself from the conversation… “Gotta go, mother! I’ll talk to you again soon. Bye.” Think about it… I don’t want you to have any guilt when she’s gone. xoxox, Brenda

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