Laurel studies the woman with the same rapt attention she usually reserves for advertisements for anti-aging solutions. She knows she should appreciate the silky use of color that almost lifts the figure off the canvas and into the room with her, but all she can think of is,” Look at that neck!” Whistler’s mother has a jawline like just kneaded dough, and Laurel instinctively pushes the loose skin on her own face towards her ears.
Laurel turns to her daughter and says, “Can you imagine the conversation between mother and son when he first showed her that portrait?” She makes her voice go up an octave and rounds her vowels as if she is Whistler’s mother and says, “Apart from stretching out my body, so I look like a long string of molasses, you’ve made me into an old lady. But, of course, you will not be showing that to anyone. Couldn’t you at least have given me some colour? I look like a figure from a wax museum, and that chin…”. Emily giggles and says, “You’re obsessed. Here we are standing in front of a great work of art, and all you can focus on is the fact she could do with a good face-lift.” Emily fishes out her phone and says to her mother, “Let’s take a selfie.” Laurel grimaces; these days, she hates seeing photos of herself. “Okay,” she says, “But hold the phone up” she knows her own double chin is camouflaged from that angle.
As they sit in the gallery café, Laurel gets an alert she’s been tagged on Facebook. Pulling it up, she sees her daughter has posted the photo of the pair of them in front of “Whistler’s Mother” with the caption ‘one of these things is not like the other.’ Her ex-husband, Emily’s father, has replied with a laughing face emoji, and Laurel feels herself flush. In the photo, she has thrust her chin out in an effort to give herself a jawline but has only succeeded in making herself look constipated. Laurel shows her phone to her daughter and says, “Oh Emily, how could you? I look like Whistler’s mother’s mother.” Emily rolls her eyes and replies, “What? I think it’s a great photo of us.”
Laurel watches enviously as her daughter tucks into a pastry as large as a small baby. She chose the tomato and burrata salad and is trying to resist eating the second slice of sourdough that came with it. Laurel sighs and says, “God, my Gran used to say ‘old age doesn’t come alone,’ and I never knew what she meant until now.” Emily pushes her hair behind her ears and replies, “For God’s sake, Mum, sixty-five is not old. Are you going to eat that bread?” Laurel passes it over and spears a tomato, “All I’m saying is make the most of your life. Do you know I stopped wearing a bikini in my twenties? I hadn’t even had you and your brothers. I was conscious that I had a slightly rounded tummy, so I only wore a one-piece. What a colossal waste.”
Emily grins and retorts, “I’m sure it wasn’t as colossal as you imagined.” Then, when her mother looks blankly, she adds, “Your waist, I’m sure it wasn’t colossal.” Laurel shrugs questioningly. “You said you had a colossal waist, a huge middle….” Emily trails off. “Oh, hilarious,” Laurel says, “I’m trying to in part some advice, and you’re making jokes.” Finally, it was Emily’s turn to sigh, “I know, wear a bikini. I’ll regret the things I turn down more than the ones I accept, and um… what’s the third thing?” Laurel replies, “Moisturize your neck every day, and if you don’t want to be written out of my will, never post a photo of me online without clearing it with me first.” Then she leans over and helps herself to the rest of Emily’s pastry.