“And then God sent an angel to pick blackberries,” my mother says, tucking me in. “He chose the two biggest, darkest ones and gave them to you for eyes. Another angel brought two roses for your cheeks, and he then flew to one of heaven’s cherry trees and brought down the ripest cherry for your lips.\”
My eyes are starting to close, but she goes on. “But then God sent a younger angel, one that didn’t have a lot of experience, to look for something to make your nose. And that silly angel went to the vegetable garden and picked an artichoke, and God plopped it in the middle of your face.” As I nod off the Catalan word for artichoke, carxofa, seems to perfectly recreate the sound and feel of God plopping the artichoke on my face.
But I am no more worried about having a carxofa on my face than I am flattered by the blackberry and cherry clichés. What sticks in my mind is the miraculous care and attention—all because of my specialness–that my creation story presupposes on the part of God, the angels, and my mother.
It is only when I am a few years older that I realize what the artichoke metaphor is all about: I have inherited the Benejam nose. According to my mother, that nose, which my father got, along with his musical talent, from his mother, is disproportionately broad. The Benejam nose sits in the middle of our faces like an artichoke among the fruits and blossoms of an otherwise pleasing still-life.
I don’t perceive any meanness in my mother’s tone when she critiques the Benejam nose. Heaven knows she loves my father and me to death. I have to grow a little older before I realize that, coming from someone with a narrow, more classically correct nose, her talk about the noses of her beloveds carries a whiff of schadenfreude.
Oddly enough, this does not give me a nose complex. Even at the nadir of my adolescence, when I deplore most aspects of my anatomy (too much hair, not thin enough, etc.), my nose ranks low among my concerns. Rather, in my longing to draw close to my father, I like to think that the resemblance of our noses is an outward sign of the deep bond between us.
If my mother does not stint her observations about my nose, she is equally unsparing of her own perceived shortcomings. The chief one among these, according to her, is her legs, which are slightly bowed—something I would never have noticed if she hadn’t brought it up. And she in turn heaps praise on my legs, which she says are straight and perfect as Greek columns.
Neither my artichoke nose nor my columnar legs have much emotional impact on me as a child. What does put an indelible mark on my psyche is my mother’s preoccupation with physical beauty. Hearing her analyze other women’s appearance in clinical detail—eyes too small and close together, nice long neck, pity about those short arms—I learn to pay close attention to looks, mine and everyone else’s.
Now I am in tenth grade, and my mother is concerned about my teeth. It seems that my jaws are too small, or my teeth too big, and she takes me to the orthodontist because, as she explains to a friend, “nobody is likely to marry this child for her money, so we need to make sure she looks as good as possible.” Braces are only the latest in her list of improvements, following years of orthotics for my supposedly flat feet, and surgery to correct my errant left eye.
I am grateful to my mother for her proactive attitude towards my appearance. Thanks to her my eyes and teeth are reasonably straight, my feet well arched. But I’m glad that she left my carxofa nose alone. These days I am often startled, when passing in front of a mirror, by what looks like the ghost of my mother. When did I grow to be so like her? But if I stop and look closer, there in the middle of my face is my nose, in all its Benejam splendor, to remind me that I am also my father’s daughter.