I have a friend whose 17-year-old daughter is like a facsimile of her, except that she does her hair and makeup differently (as in not at all) and dresses her own way. They’re like two identical dolls dressed by radically different children. There’s danger there, because my friend sees her own face so clearly on her daughter, and struggles at times to see her daughter as a separate person, with different characteristics, and needs, and limitations. The temptation to project yourself and your own feelings onto such a familiar face must be extraordinary.
“You sound just like your father.” I said this to my second oldest nephew recently, because I heard his voice from a distance and actually thought it was my brother. His voice had deepened significantly since my previous visit. The older one looks more like his father, and the younger one sounds more like his father, but neither one of them is just like either of their parents, even though there are those genetic matches, and habits they’ve picked up in how they phrase things.
I look very different from my mother, especially in body type. I am taller, with a bigger frame. I’m built more like my father, which does not feel good to me. As a teenager, I tried to starve myself down to the right size, so that I would resemble my mother more, and my father less, but it only lasted long enough to give me fainting spells and muscle cramps, and when I started eating again, the illusion of similarity disappeared.
My father is six-foot-four and over three hundred pounds. He used to be unspeakably strong, before diabetic neuropathy, two strokes, cancer, and age. My hair is brown with red highlights, like his was, rather than dark brown to almost black like Mom’s. My nose is more rounded, like his, my face is more Russian, like his, my skin color is peachier, like his, whereas Mom’s coloring is more Mediterranean. To other people it’s probably subtle to the point of invisible, but to Mom, and therefore to me, the differences are overwhelming.
The fact is, I didn’t and don’t look like my father. I have a full head of hair, and no beard. I am nowhere near as tall or imposing as he is, and my body language is very different. I wasn’t a smaller version of him, at any point in time. But when categories were being given out, my brother matched up more with my mother and I matched up more with my father, and that was that.
For a lot of people, there’s relief in being able to see a parent’s features in a child, if only because it proves parentage. That way you know for sure that the babies weren’t switched at the hospital, and the mailman didn’t get his genes in there without you knowing. But I wonder if looking nothing like your parents might be easier, as long as you are certain of their love and attachment, because then people can see you more clearly as an individual and not so easily confuse you with someone else. But then again, we all look for clues to who we are in the people in our families. We look for a great uncle with our particular inability to do math, or a cousin with our propensity to laugh until we fall on the floor crying. The balance between wanting to be unique and wanting to fit in is so precarious.
I have two dogs instead of human children, and they are small, white-haired dogs. We will never show up in those side by side pictures of dogs and owners who look alike.
When I was younger, we used to have black-haired dogs, so that was a little more like me. I especially felt like Dina, my black lab mix, was my familiar, even if we didn’t look exactly alike. I related to her “black dog” status, not the most desirable puppy at the shelter, not the right size or breed or coloring to be popular. There were lots of puppies like her at the shelter, and at every shelter. But mostly it was her personality, and her status in the family, that I related to. She cried desperately when we had to keep her downstairs in the kitchen as a puppy, before she was potty-trained. She escaped from every enclosure we made for her, but no one was willing to put time and effort and money into training her, or buying her special beds and toys and treats, or coming up with a set schedule for her. She was largely left to her own devices, like I was, and she was overwhelmed, like I was, and she developed some odd behaviors as a result, to try to comfort herself, like me.
A look-a-like was what I needed at that time. Someone I could think of as just like me, and still worthy of love and attention and care. Taking care of Dina taught me how to take care of myself. But by the time Cricket came along, I was ready for a dog who was not like me at all, but who needed me anyway. She was so assertive, and cute, and very high maintenance. She taught me that even though there’s a steep learning curve in loving someone so unlike yourself, there’s also a freedom in it. It’s so much easier to accept her strengths and weaknesses as they are when they don’t reflect on me. She’s her own person and I can see her clearly without judging her, or myself, quite so much. And that’s a relief.