"She's with me."
That's the line my mother uses when people look at her quizzically at the grocery store, at the doctor's office, the first day of school or anywhere public for that matter. She pulls me in very tight when she says it, like if she could just get me close enough, maybe she could transfer her skin onto mine.
At 5 foot 11, I'm almost half a foot taller than my mother. Her radiant green eyes always stand out against her flawless skin, making my brown eyes seem painfully ordinary. My almost-black hair turns brown in the sun, while her hazelnut hair turns red. She's well endowed enough to actually need a bra, whereas I ... Her cheekbones get a warm sprinkling of freckles whenever she is in the sun. All I get along my cheekbones are breakouts.
As a small child, I didn't realize that I didn't look like my mother. Then, when I was 7 and my sister was 10, we took a family trip to Jamaica. It was a weeklong vacation, and my dad had to leave early for business. Our seven days in the sun only increased the differences in our appearances. When we arrived at the airport, my sister and I had sun kissed complexions, while my mother was a sunburnt, aloe vera-wearing mess.
When we touched down in Toronto, the Canadian customs agent looked at me, then at my sister, and said, "Ma'am, you need special papers to take locals out of the country."
We live in an age where children are born a quarter Japanese, a quarter Italian and half Iranian. As a result of this ethnic blending, many children don't look like their parents. My family, a mix of Irish, Polish, Chinese and West Indian, is the new norm. We can go out for a Chinese buffet, roti or borscht and equally (not) fit in.
But blond, fair-skinned mother equals blond, fair-skinned kid in some people's eyes. I had to sit through a series of questions from Canadian officials.
"When is the last time you saw your daddy?"
"Is this lady your mommy?"
Throngs of others families moved swiftly past the customs agents while my mom answered questions. I just stood there, grasping her hand tightly, fully aware of where I belonged.
Again and again throughout my childhood, I was mistaken for someone else's child. It never bothered me all that much, but my mother felt differently. One particularly disheartening day when someone mistook her for my piano teacher, my mom had us stand in front of the mirror and try and identify one similarity. She was desperate to find one feature we shared. After about ten minutes she came up with fingernails. I let her have it, even though I didn't think that was a very significant trait. "You know, Shoola," my mother said, using her nickname for me, "If I hadn't carried you in the womb for nine months and been present at the moment of your birth, I'd never believe you were mine either."
But what my mom was forgetting were all the similarities we share that aren't obvious to the naked eye. Not only have I adopted her fondness of wearing head-to-toe black, but we harbor the same secret obsession with every "Say Yes To The Dress" franchise, and my mom is solely responsible for the secret stash of chocolate I keep in my bedside table. I have also inherited her love of creating to-do lists (for herself, and others) and her unshakeable determination that led both her and I to leave our hometowns at a young age in pursuit of better education and job opportunities. I've come to love that the things that tie me to my mom aren't the obvious, surface things. I don't even mind that some people, when informed that I'm my mother's child, might think I'm adopted. I don't mind that it looks like she chose me. Because although she didn't choose me, she shaped who I am now. I think what makes you a family is that even if you can't share a skin, you absorb parts of one another -- you can't help it. My mother now loves Indian food like I do. I have adopted her "If you don't ask, you don't get" motto, and I too have learned there should always be cake in the fridge. That, to me, is true resemblance.
It is a bummer that I can't steal my mom's makeup -- her bronzer gives me ghost face -- and that I'll never look at old pictures and be unable to tell us apart. But I still love family photos and have a collection of them hanging all over my room. There is one from a trip to the Dominican Republic that I keep on my fridge. We are all perched on the ledge of a pool. My Mom and Dad anchor the photo, and my sister and I sit squished in the middle. We had just spent a week on the beach. Last month, the photo caught the attention of a friend who'd stopped by. "This is such a great picture," she said, holding the frame in her hand. Then she frowned, pointed at my mother and said, "Too bad that tourist got in it."