My Mother’s Mirror, fromPersonal Geography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth


The walls of my room would be covered with portraits if only I know the spell to call them forth from my mother’s mirror with its round silver frame. The first portrait would perhaps be of Mother in her wedding veil, tucking orange blossoms between the veil and soft fair hair. There would be many quick sketches of Mother later, in the first frilled shirtwaist, wearing for the first time her gold pince-nez, and then as an older woman, holding the same sweet look she had had as a girl. Father was not one to look much in mirrors, but he may have looked in this once or twice to see if the part in his hair was straight. There would be hidden here no portraits or sketches of Grandmother Coatsworth. She would, I think, never have entered her daughter-in-law’s room. A young woman has a right to some privacy, and if Mother’s was minimal, at least I am sure it was absolute.

Of course there would have been many sketches of Margaret and of me, so unlike in everything but our youth. The only carefully studied mirror-portrait of me was taken when I was ten or twelve years old.

Mother came into the room and said mildly, “You’ve looked long enough at yourself, Betty.” Or was I still “Bess” then? Anyway she was completely mistaken. I was not admiring myself. I was searching to find out who and what I was. There was no humor in the eyes that looked back at me under the arching brows, but I am sure there was humor in the thoughts back of the eyes. Like Father, I could make a joke without smiling. Like him, I could not laugh, just as I could not whistle or sing. As yet no one even guessed when I thought something was funny.

So if I knew the magic formula, all about this room there would be sketches and sometimes portraits of us all, of blue-eyed, smiling Margaret, and of sober, solemn Betty dark as a shadow. Our spirits did not know then how akin they were, how in later years the fair and the dark would merge into one complete whole, which even death would not completely destroy.

from Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene Press, 1976

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