My Mother’s Beauty

My mother’s 101 birthday would have been June 22. This is for her.

I don’t think anyone ever said of my mother that she was “a beauty.” A childhood photo when she was nine shows a slender and almost delicate girl on pointe in a perfect ballet tutu and pose. Her face is serious.

Photos from her teen years show a serious pensiveness–no smile, but no frown either. Was she always a serious child? Perhaps this was before the era of family events that are always being marked by photo opps and parents’ admonitions to “smile.”

Photos with my dad before they were married remind me of two kids having fun together- doing acrobatic tricks, or side by side, she smiling and standing tall and straight, feet together, dressed in the over-sized pants of the 1930’s, he with suspenders, and that wide smile that charmed just about everyone.

image of my mother tall proudWhen my mother was raising children in the expected full-time mom era, the words I ascribed to her were very competent, strong, determined. She was determined her three girls would be accomplished, and achieve all she set out for them. The few times I remember her dressed up she was still tall and proud in dresses that swished when she walked.

The day I noticed her beauty was in early winter when I walked into Regency Gardens Nursing Residence in New Jersey. By then her children were grown, even her grandchildren were grown, and she had been an active widow, painting, traveling, and in Toastmasters until a stroke slowed her down in 2001.

Sitting in her wheelchair by the window in her room, both feet, now in permanent retirement, were propped on the footrest. My first glimpse was the back of her head. It was mid-morning.

Winter sunlight coming in a window holds none of the frigidness of a Northeast winter, only a softer light. Her hair was a silver halo. Coming a few steps into her room, my view of her shifted like a camera on a dolly curving around and in on its model. Her stroke-affected right arm curled up and into her chest at the elbow as if her hand were like an infant wanting to be close to its mother. Her left hand supported her chin. Her face was at rest. A small oval face, pale, held up by an arthritic and age-spotted hand.

She turned and a smile, small and slow, embraced her face. She was beautiful. It was almost as if her face got lighter, not more pale, but suffused with a light like when the sun comes from behind a cloud and the shadow it has cast slides away.

Her head tilted a little to the side as she looked at me.  “I didn’t think anyone was coming to visit today.”

And because my heart filled with love, she was even more beautiful.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.


  1. joanne sabates

    Being one of the most poignant and lyrical essays I’ve read of yours, Ethel, the words in the concluding paragraphs depicting the imagery of light spilled over and welled in my eyes. The underlying tension of the piece seems to lie in how, through your eyes, your mother faced the challenges of life and of death. Acting ‘competent’ and ‘determined’, she found her balance and, up to the end, transcended it all. With death’s darkness approaching, she appears angelic, ‘suffused with light’ and with a ‘silver halo’ of hair. In this, her ethereal phase, she still remains proud and determined to face her final task. What wonderful and precious memories to harbor of one’s mother!

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Being with my mother almost daily in her last five years was a gift I never dreamed of.

  2. joanne sabates

    Full-circle: The movement in this reflective essay is circular, evolving, like the mirrored images on a merry-go-round ride. The ride starts with reflections of photos, old and dear, then moves to the present, towards the finish, to the end. A picture of a light, fragile angel in a chair, with a ‘silver halo’ depicting her hair, holds the reader captive, until a smiling face, ‘suffused with light’, draws the ride to a close, an ending feeling of delight.

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      My mother was in some respects a “fragile angel” as she neared the end of her life. She was also like those “steel magnolia” women. Pretty resilient.

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      Each year when mother-type milestones approach (birthday, Mother’s Day, Mom and Dad’s anniversary, stroke date, death) thoughts of my mother go across my radar screen of memories- complete with sensory input- how she looked, colors, textures, her voice, her eyes. I think that is part of my writing- to not only save those memories, but to tease them out of what could be just a dormant past.
      I’m reading Oliver Sacks’ ON THE MOVE. There’s a section (among many wonderful thoughts) about storytelling I have to find it and write about it.

  3. Debra Wilson Brown

    Ethel, I took a few moments from my maniacally crazy day to focus on something far from the madness and I read this essay. My eyes are misty and my heart is full because your mother and she was ALWAYS beautiful to me! This is lovely! So glad to see you are doing well and writing, writing, writing. Hopefully, the next time you are out this way our schedules will meet. Keep writing, I’ll keep reading! 🙂

    • Ethel Lee-Miller

      I’m smiling big time seeing your name and comment. It brought me back to WPUTI and the many many great times and events we had around the table at William Paterson. That’s right -you met my mother. I remember bringing her over to a meeting and her saying, “Don’t make me talk.” (As if anyone could MAKE her do anything!). I empathized knowing her difficulty in speaking after her stroke. But I wasn’t really all that surprised when she raised her hand for Table Topics. Toastmasters brings out the best in folks!!
      Are you writing? We come East about once a year, so next summer – I will contact you!!!!

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