I used to wonder what it was like to be my mother, breathless and confused in a maternity ward, three times in a row. To push three defective children out from inside of her; to spend nine months dreaming in intricate detail of the pristine bundle of joy that awaited her, and each time, to wake up to a wriggling pink mass dangling out of a nurse’s arms and think oh no.
My granny likes to tell me that when she came to greet me in the hospital, she peered down into the mess of blankets perched on my mom’s chest and a great big pair of eyes stared back at her. Like Harry Potter’s first impression of Dobby, when he sees those two eyes and nothing else blinking at him through a bush, mine sort of hung there, round and earnest, eclipsing the rest of the infant body she knew must be attached.
This is what she says.
I was an Ohio baby, the first of her grandchildren to be born in the state where her grandparents plopped their Old Country trunks down and never left. So it’s fitting that when she stared down at me and cooed hello, Miss Big Eyes, her subtle midwestern dialect smushed the Miss so it sounded more like Ms., and the g didn’t come out all the way; and thus, I became Ms. Bigeyes.
The Ms. was important to me, because it matched my mom. Well before defects 1, 2, and 3 came along, just as second-wave feminism was coming to a close, my mom made my dad read A Room of One’s Own before he could marry her and kept her last name once he did.
A name that means Ohio like my granny, Ms. like my mama.
And Bigeyes like my dad. My father is a man who disposes of mouse carcasses with studied cool and pats his substantial belly like a good boy puppy and writes all his words in capital letters and compliments other men’s vehicles, but he is also a man who meticulously stitched the head back onto my teddy bear every time her fluffy pink torso went rogue, who gets dizzy after one glass of wine, who stores his toothbrush in a gold lamé dopp kit. And when he took me to see Marley and Me, I turned to look at him during the part where they put Marley down, and his eyes were so clear and shiny and full. And I understood that my eyes are his eyes, just a tiny bit greener, like my mom’s. But that mostly it didn’t matter that he was good at sweating and watching sports; we were Bigeyes and Bigeyes, Jr., and the world looked pretty much the same to us both.
But in the world of this maternity ward hospital room, where cinematic first impressions are the name of the game, I find Granny’s origin story hard to believe. She says the eyes were all she saw, but I’ve seen pictures of baby me. I know what I looked like.
Number one was my brother, who came out mostly fine, except that his left thigh was covered in a dark, swirly patch of skin. Shaped like an upsidedown Ohio, I used to think, as he massaged gallons of sunscreen into the area, which the doctors said was dangerous if it burnt. What happened was that God pressed too hard with the marker he was using to shade in my brother and colored that leg darker than the rest of my brother’s pale, Ashkenazi skin and was like whoops! My b. But it was chill. This defect wasn’t so bad. The nurse probably didn’t even notice right away; only my mom did.
People didn’t seem to notice it much, either, as he grew up. A leg is just an extremity, after all. I thought he looked fine, was in the clear, until he hit high school.
Meredith tells me that her sister, Lauren, who is in my older brother’s grade, has a crush on his friend, Bobby, and that another one of her sister’s friends is interested in another one of my brother’s friends, but that neither her sister nor her sister’s friends are much interested in my brother himself. According to Lauren, his nose is the dealbreaker. “It’s too big,” she says. “Lauren says that you guys have the same nose, actually, but you carry it better. She thinks he might grow into his, though.”
It’s a lot to process, because she talks fast and I think I am supposed to thank her and there are so many names and degrees of separation, but also because this nose stuff is all new to me. I understand that some noses look different than others, because when I stare in the mirror and push my nostrils up I look a lot like my first grade teacher, which is fun. But the “carrying it well” and “growing into it” thing; the idea of the bad nose/good nose dichotomy–this was not on my radar. I had no idea! Lucky for me that I have friends like Meredith to set me straight.
Further inquiry leads me to the phenomenon of the Jewish nose, which, Meredith again clarifies, I have but not as bad as my brother. Phew. I thought Jewish was just a religion, but it’s kind of cool that we have this genetic thing that we all share. I wish the Jewish nose looked more like Meredith’s, though, so that her sister wouldn’t think my brother was ugly.
I learn later that there are other genetic things about being Jewish, like owning all the money in the world and controlling the entertainment industry. Fascinating. What about people who convert? Do they get a new nose and money when they agree to wear a yarmulke? Meredith does not know the answer to this question.
I never met my grandpa, but based on pictures, I think that this nose that my brother and I share came from him. Apparently, he was obsessed with the Holocaust. In a freakish way. I wonder how he felt about the face-measurement tool the Nazis used. If your nose is too big you’re a dirty dirty Jew and it doesn’t matter that your family converted to Christianity in 1298. His Hitler books fill up four entire rows in our study, but not one bears any trace of underlining, notes, or highlights. When he flipped through these pages half a century ago, was he angry? Resigned? Did he wish his features were just a little less prominent, so that just this once, he could blend in? Or did he feel blazing pride, marked by God himself as a boy with a big fat nose?
After my brother, there was me, Bigeyed and 80s-feminist-independent, but the defect crept north north north and plopped down smack in the center of my face. A giant red balloon growing on top of my mouth, puffed full of air but made out of lip, big enough to be a third eye. God was putting the finishing touches on my face when an angel or like wandering soul came by and bumped God’s elbow and God was like NIGEL dude we talked about this you really need to get control of yourself but there I was and there God was and there Nigel was and there my mom was with defective child number two. I’m sure the nurse noticed right away, this time. It is not a thing you can easily miss. I wonder if she gasped when she inspected my face. I wonder if my mom had to nudge my dad to smile weakly instead of the confused sort of grimace he had accidentally adopted. I wonder if my granny did her usual cough and politely said hello, Ms. Bigeyes so that everyone would stop feeling so weird about my face.
I know my lip was disgusting, objectively, because children tell the truth, and before my preschool peers learned that it is bad to point at someone’s face and say “what’s wrong with your lip?” they did exactly that, and after I explained it to the best of my primitive communication skills, they usually stared blankly for a while and then said “well, it’s disgusting,” and wandered off.
The interesting thing about this response is that physical and moral disgust are a two-way street. You see something immoral and you feel disgusted, but also sometimes you see something disgusting and then your brain interprets that as immorality. This is a real psychological thing that I do not know the official name of but is definitely a thing. Let’s call it Sins of the Ew.
Armed with the empirical evidence of my youth, then, I have concluded that had I been born four hundred years earlier, The Puritans would have thought I was a witch. They would see my face and consider it a Sin of the Ew and say TO THE COURT! and then I would get to give a long and dramatic woe is me monologue from the witness stand in my cute Puritan bonnet and everyone would be emotional and the whole town would be torn into pro- and anti-Eliya factions and riots would break out, but due to the fact that I am also left-handed and Jewish and do theatre, three historically wicked characteristics, the consensus would eventually be that I am in the Definitely Satanic camp, and I might end up burning at the stake but gosh darnit if they wouldn’t write my name in their diaries and court records and then hundreds of years later all the historians would be like wow who is this Eliya person she seems like a Big Fucking Deal.
I wonder what would have happened if granny had been honest with all of us when she took a gander at her first ohio grandchild. If she had said something like hello, Ms. Biglip. Maybe we all would have been cool with how my face looked, and I wouldn’t have minded in kindergarten when Rose said I was a dumb girl with a big fat lip and one person giggled and the name stuck. Maybe when she called hey, Big Fat Lip Girl across the playground, I wouldn’t have wanted to keep digging in the sandbox until the bottom fell out. Maybe when Mrs. Hiller heard what Rose was calling me, she wouldn’t have made Rose apologize in front of everyone, and I wouldn’t have stared around with my eyes bursting out of my head, petrified that this public proceeding would only make the name more popular.
In another world, I would’ve smiled and thought that my big fat lip was just like my grandpa’s big fat nose, and that would have been that.
The year I turn fifteen, a Buzzfeed quiz tells me that when a boy stares at your lips, it means he wants to kiss them. I am distrustful of this advice. Clearly whoever wrote this has a symmetrical face. And no witchy inclinations whatsoever. But a few weeks later, a boy is indeed staring at my lips. It makes me uncomfortable, at first, because I am used to people staring at my mouth and I know what it means. But he looks sort of happy when he stares. So I am thinking maybe Buzzfeed was right.
And then a year after that, I am standing in my living room with a lot of adults who have run out of things to say, and a very nice lady tries to make small talk by pointing to a picture on the mantel. What an adorable baby you must have been! she says. And I realize I am no longer Big Fat Lip Girl at all, because all of my baby pictures feature a prominent lip pillow, and I suppose that if the baby in this picture does not have a lip pillow and this lady still thinks it is a picture of me, it must mean that my big fat lip has shrunk beyond obvious notice.
But then I realize that this also means I must respond to her comment, I must correct her in front of everyone, and I feel angry. I wish I had my lip pillow back, I wish for burning at the stake or even Mrs. Hiller in front of the kindergarten class; I wish for anything that would prevent this moment. Can’t she tell that that baby is so obviously not me? Its mouth is medium and its nose is medium and its eyes are medium. I do not want to tell her who is in the picture. I do not want to tell her what happened.
Number three was my sister. God was hungover and trying to catch the Sunday game but the remote wouldn’t work and he was also in a big fight with Moses and really he was just so distracted and stressed he would later tell someone, really wasn’t paying attention and he messed my sister up, he messed her up from the inside out in a horrible way. God didn’t say anything this time when he realized what he’d done. He felt bad. Really really bad.
She was born with perfect medium mouth and medium nose. Her name means beautiful in Hebrew and in English. She was picture perfect. Except that her eyes were medium, too. They did not focus, they did not fill with much of anything.
The nurse, this time, did not notice anything was wrong when she inspected my sister. I know this for a fact. My mom tells the story of Bella’s birth delicately, like she is dangling a piece of lint near her mouth and if she talks too loud or too fast it will blow away. But there is a flash of pride when she comes to the part about the nurse, a triumphant maternal flare of the nostrils. Like when Miss Clavelle turned on the light, my mom said something is not right! with my child and the nurse said no ma’am, it’s a beautiful baby girl and my mom said said SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH MY CHILD, MY CHILD IS NOT BREATHING, GET THE DOCTOR. And she was right, of course. Because my mom always knows everything.
I do not know what my granny said when she saw Bella for the first time. Probably a gentle cough and then nothing at all. Silent like God.