She Who Once Was
We were standing at the kitchen sink, chopping vegetables for a salad, when Martha announced her plan. She'd thought about it for months, she said. Maybe years. I regretted my response immediately, and to this day still regret it. Just listen to me. I am telling my friend that she does not need a face-lift, that she is one of the most beautiful women I know.
"I knew you'd say that," she says, as if I've insulted her. In this kitchen moment, Martha is fifty-three, the age I am now, seven years later, as I write these words. She is trim and fit, a marathon runner with classic good looks, a dazzling smile, and the angular facial structure of a photographer's model. The kind of woman who turns heads when she enters a room.
"The person in the mirror is older than the person I am inside," she continues, her chiseled features sharpening.
"The world needs beautiful older women," I say.
She flinches as though I've slapped her. "I'm not ready to be an older woman."
Something scratches at the edge of consciousness. A memory, jagged, fleeting: a few months before, Christmas breakfast at my brother's table. We are on vacation, my husband and I, still wearing our robes and luxuriating in our laziness, the California sun pouring through the tall windows onto our faces. My brother takes a seat across the table. "Hmm," he says, staring at my face, then turning his gaze to Donald. "The wife looks a little different in this light, doesn't she?" End of Christmas morning, end of sunlight on my face.
"When I look in the mirror," Martha is saying, "I don't know who that person is."
"Then don't look in the mirror," I snap. I study her face--the strong, taut jaw, the high cheekbones, the smooth brow. What could she possibly want to change?
Martha takes a sip of wine. "I just thought you should know that I'll be out of commission for a while, until everything heals. I won't be going out. Some friends"--and here she hesitates, as if considering whether to include me in this group--"plan to come by. To bring a movie, a meal." A few years before, I had visited Martha in the hospital, bringing flowers and candy, steadying her as she shuffled down the corridor. But that was for a hysterectomy. Something to save her life, to prolong it. This hardly fits in the same category, does it?
This is when I should start backpedaling. After all, it's her face, her decision. But I can't let it go. The arguments stack up in my mind; some form into sentences. I am morally opposed to plastic surgery. And what about the expense? You could send a kid to college for what it would cost. And what about the messages this sends to young women, to our own nieces? I know I should get off my high horse, try another ploy, but I am suddenly desperate to make my point. I ask her if she's seen the PBS series, the British one with the older woman and her much younger lover. "She's very sexy," I say. "Age can be very sexy."
Martha clenches her jaw, but still I don't stop, though I have long since depleted my arsenal of logic and must resort to dumb repetition. "You need to get your vision checked. You are one of the most beautiful women I know." I mention the plaque that hangs over the bureau in my friend Suzanne's guest room, where most people would hang a mirror: the best mirror is an old friend. Until this moment, I'd assumed that "old" referred to the longevity of the friendship. Now it occurs to me that the plaque carries another meaning altogether. Okay, how far am I willing to go with this? "If you look old to yourself," I begin, "then your friends must look old, too." I don't know what I expect her to say other than the truth, which is the last thing I want to hear.
"You're right," she says. "They do."
The first and only time I saw Aunt Bessie cry was the night I played Lottie Moon. It was 1965 and the production was Her Lengthened Shadow
, a sentimental playlet about a woman missionary who died nearly a century ago. I was fifteen, the same age Lottie Moon is when the play opens, and in the hour it took to perform the play, I aged fifty-seven years. Great-Aunt Bessie, a fixture in my parents' home for many years and my sometime roommate, had gone to church with the rest of the family to see the play. My mother had sewn the costumes and someone else's mother had applied the pancake makeup and, during scene changes, penciled in lines between my eyes and on the sides of my mouth. I remember frowning mightily to create forehead furrows and smiling crazily, unnaturally, to form craters around my mouth so that she could guide the eyebrow pencil into the depressions. In the last scene, when a special lightbulb cast a shadow across the stage, signifying my death at the unthinkably old age of seventy-two, I heard gasps in the audience and knew I had played my part well.
After changing back into my clothes and cold-creaming the years from my face, I walked out to the family's station wagon, parked at the edge of the church parking lot. My parents and siblings were waiting with almost universal praise, but Bessie was uncharacteristically silent, facing straight ahead, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. I climbed into the backseat beside her. Though I was a petite teenager, I sat higher in the seat than Bessie, who, try as she might, could never quite keep herself erect; her crooked hip tilted her body to the side. Bessie was smaller than any grown-up I knew, but her hands were disproportionately large, marbled by dark, prominent veins and mottled with age spots. Did I mention that Bessie was old? Always, always, from my first knowledge of her, old. And now, smack-dab in the middle of the Lottie Moon memory, I am stopping to do the math. Nineteen sixty-five. Bessie was eighty-five years old. Tears were sliding down her ancient face. Tears? I had known Bessie all my life, had slept in the same room with her, the same bed, had, I now realize, even loved her in my selfish, adolescent way. But I had never seen her cry.
I tapped my mother on the shoulder. "What's wrong?" I asked. I often talked around Aunt Bessie as if she weren't there, as if she were a piece of furniture that had been in the house so long, you no longer saw it--may the universe forgive me for this. My mother turned from the front seat and calmly shook her head as if to silence the question. But Aunt Bessie had heard, and she turned to me, her eyes rimmed with red, brimming. "You looked so old," she said. "It hurt to see you look so old."
Early photographs of my mother bear witness to my father's frequent remark: "She was a living doll." Sometimes I correct him, joking that if he's looking to make point, he shouldn't use the past tense. But usually I don't make a federal case about it, partly because the remark doesn't seem to bother my mother, but mostly because his affection for her is so obvious and steadfast, so daily. Let's say she's getting up from her chair, where she's been piecing a quilt or arranging photographs in an album or writing a note to one of their fifteen grandchildren. As she moves across the room, without fail my father's gaze will follow her with all the admiration of a newlywed, for, if we are to believe his eyes, she is all news to him, this woman to whom he has been married sixty years. Sometimes, out of the blue, he will say to me, "Juanita is a wonderful woman. You have an amazing mother. Do you know that?" This is a rare gift, I realize, for a daughter--of any age, let alone a daughter as old as I am--to witness a father's love for her mother, and hers for him. And I mark it here, so I will not forget. If beauty resides in the beholder's eyes, my mother is still beautiful to her beholder. Yet even so, there remains that troublesome past tense: My mother was
a living doll.
As I mentioned earlier, on the afternoon in which she announced her plans, Martha was a beautiful woman. Two weeks ago, a few days past her sixtieth birthday, I visited her in her southern city and I can attest that she is still a beautiful woman. I hesitate to phrase it that way. To say that a woman is still beautiful suggests a remove from what went before. It hints at time, change and loss, placing the receiver of the compliment in a fragile holding pattern. Still
beautiful. Still holding. I don't like the implications, but it is difficult to compliment an aging woman, even one as attractive as Martha, without employing some syntactic time marker. She looks so youthful
, we say. Or: She is aging
well. Recently, a young colleague, after seeing my age reported in a magazine, said, "If I hadn't seen this in print, I wouldn't believe it. I mean, you look good." As if it were some minor miracle, at my advanced age, to look presentable. I shushed her with thanks before she could say more, before I could say more. No need to confuse her with details that are no one's business but my own: that, on the advice of my older sister, I touch up my hair color every six weeks or so. That, to be honest, I have been doing this for over a decade now, long before Martha had her face-lift. "Nothing ages a woman faster than gray hair," my sister had said, though there was no need to convince me. The first wiry gray coils had sprouted shortly after my fortieth birthday. No way, I thought. No way is the woman in the mirror going to be older than the woman I am inside. I'm too young to be old.
Last month, one of my nieces gave birth to a daughter, and I am happy to report that little Addison Kate is aging quite well. She came into this world already nine months old and, if the universe permits, she will continue to age until she dies. If Addie keeps growing old, perhaps one day a century from now some young sculptor will cast her likeness in bronze as Rodin did the old woman we now call the Helmet-Maker's Wife. Actually, the full title I read in the museum beneath Rodin's arresting sculpture was She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife
. Art critics make a big fuss about the sculpture's content--the withered naked figure, her sagging flesh and shriveled breasts--but it is the work's title that breaks something loose inside me. To be named not by what you are now, in this moment, but by what you once were. As if everything that matters is already gone. The old women pass by on the streets of my city, and I imagine captions floating over their heads: "She Who Was Once the College Professor's Brilliant Daughter." "She Who Was Once the City Ballet's Principal Dancer." "She Who Was Once a Living Doll."
Aunt Bessie's caption might have read, "She Who Was Once the Young Woman Beneath the Flowering Tree, Holding a Guitar Close to Her Face and Leaning Visibly into the Music." This is one of the few early photographs in which Bessie is not looking away from the camera, or tilting her head down. For even in the eye of the most sympathetic beholder--her husband, for instance, who died long before I was born--Bessie could hardly have been seen as beautiful, even in her youth. Tiny at birth, weighing only four pounds, she never grew into the voluptuous form of her mother or of her sister, my grandmother Sylvia, who stands always directly in front of the camera's lens. Bessie's body remained, throughout her life, scrawny and tough, her crooked hip hitched at a cubist angle. And her face offered little comfort. One eye wandered to the left, and a deep scar across her nose, the result of a childhood encounter with boiling lye, was a burden she carried, not always without bitterness and shame, until her death.
Yet even so, Bessie aged well. Released early on from the expectation of beauty, she could turn her gaze outward to all that caught her wandering eye--farming, reading, bird-watching, traveling, mothering the tribe of great-nieces and -nephews--and away from the woman in the mirror, her fading, if imperfect, glory.
I don't remember when I first suspected that beauty was not my strongest suit. I do remember a contest that some girls in my sixth-grade class organized. During lunch one day in September, probably about the time the Miss America pageant was due to air, they passed out ballots listing the names of all the girls in our class, and beside each name, four possible boxes that you could check: "Beautiful," "Pretty," "Lovely," and "Cute." You were allowed four votes, one girl for each category. By the time the dismissal bell rang, Marilyn Stacklo had been declared "Beautiful," Christy Schutz was "Pretty," and two girls whose names I cannot recall were "Lovely" and "Cute." There were no check marks beside my name, but Marilyn informed me that I did get one write-in vote. On the bottom of a ballot, someone had neatly penciled my name, proclaiming me "Sometimes Cute."
The universe offered other clues, and by the time I turned fourteen, I had concluded that though in a pinch I might pass for pretty, I was definitely not a "knockout," the word I'd heard people use when describing my sisters. My skin was pale at a time when pale wasn't fashionable; my sisters tanned easily and evenly. Plus, they had our mother's dark, expressive eyes. I'd inherited our father's blues, which, according to all the songs in the sixties, were what every American girl wanted. But who among us wants what we already possess? Desire is measured by what we lack.
At any rate, I believe I am being truthful in saying I am grateful for being eased out of the beauty race and into the whirl of school and clubs and plays and writing. For if aging is difficult for those who were only sometimes cute, just imagine how hard it must be for the aging knockouts, the living dolls. Especially those who knew the power of early beauty. My friend Gail, who knew such power, powerfully, and who has openly mourned its passing over the past few years, has begun making alternate plans. "I've decided if I can't be beautiful anymore," she says, "I will make beautiful things." The things she plans to make--or, rather, to continue making, for she has been making them for decades now--are poems. Other women make other beautiful things: gardens, homes, businesses, paintings, symphonies. My mother made children. Then grandchildren. Then a church nursery school. Along the way, the homes she and my father made housed not only their children but also her elderly parents, Great-Aunt Bessie, and assorted lost souls for whom the home served as halfway house: a mentally ill niece, a young woman studying at a nearby college, a Chinese immigrant who had no other place to go.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Kiss Tomorrow Hello by Edited by Kim Barnes and Claire Davis. Copyright © 2006 by Kim Barnes. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.