Who’s Your Momma? by Elizabeth Nelson

All the girls in Mr. Frye’s fourth-grade class knew where the porn closet was at Heather Huff’s house.

We often wound up at Heather’s on hot summer afternoons, slurping popsicles on the dusty porch while her mom Denise lounged on an old brown flowered couch with her greasy boyfriend Ron, eyes glazed and a smell that, until college, I identified only as “Heather’s house” emanating from them both. As our popsicles left sticky trails down our arms, one of us would lean in and whisper, “Let’s go upstairs.”

“Upstairs” meant to Denise and Ron’s room, to the closet where a stack of dirty magazines sat underneath a shoebox crammed with letters and ripped-out pages from Denise’s journal. We’d sit on the edge of the unmade bed, sweaty thighs stuck together and heads touching as we huddled close to read Denise’s most intimate thoughts out loud. The letters said things like “Ron, when you touch me, I feel beautiful” and “I love the way you feel inside me.” We never got far before we were too embarrassed to continue, so we’d switch to the magazines and grow quiet as we slowly paged through them, an uneasy mix of disgust and arousal causing some of us to fidget and others to giggle, until we collapsed in hysterics and Heather shoved everything back in the closet.

It was hard to imagine anyone making Heather’s mom feel beautiful. Denise was old, for one thing – she was probably close to 35 – and her stringy hair and lumpy thighs were far from my idea of beauty. There was something about seeing her with Ron though, something compelling about those love letters. Thinking about them gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I couldn’t stop, couldn’t help picturing Ron running his hairy hands over Denise’s naked body, making her feel beautiful. I tried not to think about it, but sometimes at school when I looked at Heather sitting across from me in the cafeteria, I saw Denise instead, her eyes closed, her face flushed with pleasure. It made it pretty hard to choke down our school’s signature Friday French Dip and apple cobbler combo.

It wasn’t just Heather who was inextricably bound up with her mother’s image in my mind.

There was my reading partner Becky, who I’d known for an entire school year before going to her birthday party and discovering that her mother was morbidly obese – or as I thought of it then – freak-show fat. Some of us stopped jumping rope with Becky on the playground after that party, ashamed to look her in the eye.

And then there was Gabby, whose mother was so pretty that we tripped over ourselves to get her attention whenever she was around. When she smiled at you, you felt special. We all of us knew that Gabby would grow up to look like her, tiny and lithe and dark-eyed, her dimples making her look like an eternal schoolgirl.

My best friend Angie’s mother was a hairdresser who cut hair and gave perms in the family kitchen while Angie’s Vietnam vet father lurked in the basement, tinkering with radios and chain-smoking. On the rare occasions he came upstairs, we high-tailed it into Angie’s bedroom and locked the door, wary of his steely gaze and quick temper. Angie’s parents were about as far as you could get from Denise and Ron and their sexy love letters; I doubted they ever touched each other at all.

And then there was me. Everywhere I went, people told me I looked just like my mother. I never knew what the right response to this was. Was it a compliment? Should I say thank you? “I know” never seemed right somehow, but it was often the only response I could think of. Sometimes, if I was feeling mean, I’d say “No I don’t. I look like my father,” which was true – I look like both my parents – but I only said it to hurt my mother; or maybe not to hurt her, but to escape her.

As far back as I can remember, my mother told me that she always dreamed of having a daughter named Elizabeth. “When you were born, I almost rolled off the table, I was so happy. And now here you are – my Elizabeth.” She used to tuck my hair behind my ear and put her arm around my shoulder, and I’d shrug it off and push her away.

When my first daughter was born, I remember the first time that I cried looking at her. She was a day or two old and I was struggling to nurse her, holding her little hands to stop her from scratching herself. Seeing her fingers clasped tightly around my own, I realized that her fingernails looked just like mine –miniature carbon copies, exact replicas of my own. I sobbed and sobbed over those tiny fingernails.

Who do you see when you look in the mirror?

Whose mom do I look like? The other night while I was making dinner I dropped a stick of butter and it skittered down my skirt, leaving a big grease stain as it fell to the floor. Too busy to stop and change, I threw some cold water on the front of my skirt and kept cooking. Later I saw myself in the mirror – unwashed hair piled sloppily on top my head, makeup settled deep into the lines on my face, a giant wet stain on the front of my skirt. I looked old, tired, badly put together. It was hard to imagine anyone making me feel beautiful, anyone wanting to touch me at all.

I thought of Denise and Ron, and of Heather out there somewhere, both of us older now than Denise was in the days of our sex-closet raids. I wondered where she was, what she’d become. I wondered if Gabby really was as pretty as her mom, and if Becky’s enormous mother was still alive. I wished Angie and I could sit in her kitchen and watch her mom cut someone’s hair, listening for her father’s footsteps on the basement stairs and whispering secrets in each other’s ears.


Elizabeth Laura Nelson lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional roaches, and the specter of a long-promised dog. She runs a 9-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to get up and sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter @AnotherAnnie and find out when she finally gets her girls that dog.



  1. Wow. Thank you. Brave writing.

  2. shannonhumphreys says:

    So awesome and honest. I loved this.
    I used to say the same thing when people told me I looked like my mother, and it took me years to figure out why. My mom was not especially self confident in those days, and it totally rubbed off on my perception of her. Looking back at pictures of when I was young, she was absolutely gorgeous, but she didn’t seem to see it. Now that I really do look so much like her, I appreciate it. Life’s funny like that.

  3. Very good. I had a miscarriage in November and now I’m prgenant again. I have a 5yo also. There are so many reasons why you miscarry. I believe that the reason I miscarried was I waited too late after I ovulated to have sex. The egg and sperm joined, but the embryo was not viable because the egg was deteriating. My husband was out of town when I ovulated and when he got back the next night is when I got prgenant. A circumstance like that is completely nonrelated to the ability of your body to sustain a healthy pregnancy.


  1. […] be persuaded to get up and sing at a karaoke bar. Check out her other MsBehaved posts here and here and follow her on Twitter […]

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