We moved to New Jersey from California right before the start of second grade. We drove across country in a rented moving truck. The kind with a small space behind the two front seats in the cab. My sister and I played games, argued, slept and ate all the junk food our mother had never let us eat before in that 6’ by 2’ stretch of rubber lining over metal. I know it sounds horrible, but it was really amazing.
We were moving from an LA suburb, from an apartment complex with a drained pool in the center courtyard. There were plenty of kids in that complex to play with and that fact almost made up for the sadness that a permanently empty pool can induce in a 7 year old. There was a cement drainage ditch in front of the building and the neighbor kids would skateboard in the sloped ditch. One afternoon, after a massive skateboard collision, there were skinned knees and elbows everywhere. For some reason I can’t recall, I tasted my blood, finger to knee to mouth. “It tastes salty,” I said. One of the kids next to me in the makeshift half-pipe had skin of a significantly darker hue than my own. He put a quick finger in his own mouth and announced, “mine tastes like pepper.” We all fell over ourselves in giggles.
I told my mom what the neighbor boy had said. I really wanted to know if it was true that if your skin was brown, your blood was peppery rather than salty. She smiled and said that our skin color did not matter. It was just the outer-most layer of us. “Underneath, we’re all pretty much the same,” she told me. Our blood was no different. “But,” she added, “that was a very clever joke he told. Not everyone is that clever.”
Then we were in New Jersey. In a house in a recently-built development flanked by creeks and woods, and filled with kids even paler than me. It was a change in a lot of ways. We knew no one there. We left a place where my parents had friends that dropped in all the time or who we visited often. Eclectic friends who played in bands and were raising children whose skin tone did not match their own, one who wore a large, black carefully groomed mustache and called himself “Poopsie,” and a large number of folks who didn’t seem to own any footwear other than flip-flops, and lived in bikinis and caftans.
Now we were in a house that shared no walls with any other home. We had space to run, a patch of tall trees in the backyard and a whole living room that we never used. We were also in a place that had radically different ideas about boobs.
It all started with a magazine. Not the kind that traditionally features boobs, but one directed toward readers who have them—Ladies Home Journal, Parents, something like that. I saw a picture when looking through the magazine of a woman nursing her child. I thought the picture was beautiful. So much so that I tore the picture out of the magazine, folded it neatly into a perfect square and put it in my pocket.
Later that day I was playing with some other kids and must have shown them the picture. One of the girls grabbed it from me and started chanting some stupid rhyme that included the word tits. The other girls joined her in singsongy fashion. The woman’s breast was partially exposed in the ad, but there was no view of the nipple or other scandalous imagery. It wasn’t until I heard them laughing that it occurred to me that there was something shameful about the picture and even more shameful that I had felt compelled to tear it out of the magazine and show it to anyone else. I was seven. I had no notion of porn. But in that taunting songstress’s bedroom I learned that carrying around a picture of a boob was, at a minimum, weird.
When I got home that afternoon my mom asked me to come to the kitchen. She was cooking kalbi, Korean short ribs. It was a meal as foreign to that neighborhood as we felt. She immediately asked about the picture. One of the girl’s mothers had called my mom to warn her that I was running around the neighborhood exposing other children to erotic imagery.
My mom was very matter of fact. She heard I had a photo of a naked woman. I pulled it from my pocket and handed it to her, still pressed into a pocket-sized square. She unfolded it and sighed. “Wow. This is a really beautiful picture,” she said. I remember looking up at her, searching her face for some sign that what I had done was wrong, that I was wrong. It wasn’t there. We talked about how cute the baby was and how the mother’s face looking down at the baby was really pretty. She clearly loved her baby. That was it. My mom smoothed out the photo, getting a little bit of marinade on it in the process, and stuck it to the fridge with a magnet. Then she asked me to help finish dinner.
I only learned later from my mom about the frenzy this ad for diaper cream or pain reliever or some other mom-targeted product caused. I can’t even remember what prompted the conversation that took place almost two decades later, but my mom vividly recalled the anger in the woman’s voice on the phone. This other mom wanted me punished, wanted to be sure that my mom talked to me about how bad it was to show a picture like that to other kids. She told me that she listened to the other mom and told her that she’d talk to me when I got home. I asked if she argued with the woman and she said she did not. She needed to talk to me first to figure out what happened. She only told the other mom that she’d talk to me when I got home—and that’s just what she did.
Thinking about this encounter with boobs (the one in the ad and the ones in the neighborhood) makes me, mostly, happy. I think about how my mom refrained from judgment until she had the facts. About how her first instinct was not to blindly defend the conduct of her daughter, how she waited. I think about how she was able to make me feel better, to confirm that I was not a weirdo, and validate my feelings about the beauty of the image, all while cooking some ridiculously good kalbi.
I think about how much it sucks that she’s not here, how I miss her so much that sometimes all that missing forms a mass in my throat roughly the shape of a short rib, and it feels like I can’t breathe. I think about how she had a way of saying exactly what you needed to hear and embracing the weirdness in everyone she loved, and how, in her view, the best things you could be were clever and kind…and how I never asked her what she put in that marinade.