One by one they glide across the civic center stage. Their smiles are as perky as their hair-sprayed curls. These dozen women – age 60 or better – hope to be crowned Ms. Senior Missouri USA.
The woman stealing center stage is Mom. I spot her dangly rhinestone earrings. We’d searched for “pageant earrings” when she visited me in Boston two months ago. “I need something that will catch the light,” she’d said.
We’re a 10-person cheering section in this Florissant, Missouri, auditorium. My grandmother turns to wink at me each time her dolled-up daughter takes the stage. I spend half that time fumbling with my smartphone for a photo. But Mom’s dress, drenched in silver sequins, is so brilliant it keeps blowing out the exposure.
A former piano teacher and church soloist, Mom has always loved the arts. Our family was surprised but supportive of her auditioning. We saw the pageant as a way for her to put her own interests first after years of taking care of others. After three months of rehearsals – on top of her full-time job in real estate – today she’s giddy and stunning.
It’s like watching Mom go to prom.
She’ll be judged on her “philosophy of life” (the importance of gratitude), a talent (an original piano piece), and general poise (a piece of cake). “We are very grateful there’s not a swimsuit competition,” quips a former queen.
Today’s winner will strut onward, in heels, to the nationals in New Jersey.
“I’m not into all the fanfare, crowns, and gowns,” Mom had said in the car going over, her nerves emerging. “Befriending other women who like to share their talents is enough for me!” Sure. But everyone, even your mother, wants to win, a little bit.
I’d flown into St. Louis on a red-eye the day before. My arrival was a surprise. “What the fairy godmother?!” screamed my mom, whom I’ve never heard cuss.
That night I helped stuff goody bags meant for her fellow contestants. I timed her “philosophy of life” statement, which can’t exceed 35 seconds. She warmed up on our upright piano. She asked for feedback on greeting the imaginary crowd.
“You have a great smile. I think you should smile with your mouth open,” was my only critique.
Then it hit me: We had traded places.
Mom logged a martyr’s load of hours driving me to dance, music, and art lessons throughout my childhood. She never complained, always reminding me of my inner excellence with every ungrateful grimace I made. As a mortified middle schooler, I once forgot how to play a Bach sonatina midway through a competition. She praised my poise after I slid offstage in shock.
“Good job, sweetie!” she cried, as if I’d won. Later on, she’d fly to different cities for my theater performances, patiently sitting through experimental shows that were always way too long. Again, she never complained.
As I walked into the auditorium in Florissant, I realized that I’d performed here in a fourth grade production of “The Nutcracker.” My ballet teacher cast me as one of the toy soldiers, killed by an evil rat and dragged offstage feet-first. Mom was a supportive backstage coach, slipping me juice boxes and bobby-pinning my hair. She was only ever constructive.
“You were wonderful, sweetie!” she cooed about my seconds onstage. “Maybe next time just don’t smile at the audience when you’re dragged off, stage left.”
Mom always made me feel like a star. Now it’s her time to catch the light.
Mom wins Ms. Congeniality. I whoop and clap till my hands are sore. “I knew she would!” shouts one of her friends. Mom, hand over mouth, floats forward for her rose. An endless line of fans greets her at the reception. I gush with praise and hug her.
“It’s a life-changing experience,” she tells me.
I finally succeed in snapping a photo of Mom and my grandmother, who cannot contain her pride. Ms. Congeniality had dedicated the pageant to her mom, the one who drove her daughter to all those piano lessons for all those years.