For almost 30 years, my husband and I have been friends, lovers, and occasional combatants. Along the way we’ve produced three children, a garden in which the weeds are winning, and uncountable spaghetti dinners. We’ve weathered the loss of parents and friends, career frustrations, potty training, driving lessons, SATs, and empty nest. Together we’ve moved from New York to L.A., then to Washington, D.C., then to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and then, for a year, to Glasgow, Scotland, where one morning I woke up to discover that I had breast cancer. We survived chemo, nausea, hair loss and the sudden realization that I could, in the careful vocabulary of my doctors, “pre-decease” my husband a lot sooner than either one of us had ever considered. We got through hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Irene. Not to mention the dozens of minor hurricanes that blow through our household with every passing year, the petty jealousies, the arguments over unwashed dishes, un-hugged children, un-remarked-upon achievements, and yet another move, to New Jersey. And now we are in the middle of the middle of mid-life, and embarking on what will certainly prove to be a non-winnable challenge. In short: while my tall, handsome husband—a professor of law—grows ever more distinguished, angular, and attractive, my own looks are fading.
It wasn’t the chemo that did it, either. I bounced back from chemo like a Super Ball. Nor was it the three children. Four months after each pregnancy, I was down to my pre-pregnant weight. I’ve never been even a little bit heavy, in fact, nor have I ever indulged (much) in the kinds of bad habits that can sink a girl’s looks—smoking, drinking, lying in the sun. No, my problem is far more serious: I survived cancer only to have to face the rest of my life, along with the aging that is both a privilege and a curse.
I’m 55. My hair is more gray than brown; my upper arms have become soft; my face is a map of laugh lines; my teeth are more beige than white. Once upon a time, however, I was willowy, graceful, succulent—pretty in a strange, dark, off-kilter sort. I was in love with my own reflection in the mirror; it was the source of my power, my ticket to what I hoped would be not only a fulfilling adulthood, but something greater than that, and infinitely better: a life characterized not just by happiness, but by radiance. I’d look at my reflection in the mirror and realized that I looked like the girl—whoever she was—in the movie. You know the one, where the lovebirds fall in love and then are separated but end up in each others’ arms at last.
I had thick brown hair that fell down my back in a heavy braid, a figure so perfect that people assumed I was on a constant diet, and dark eyes under dark lashes. Boys were drawn to my image like moths to light. They beat their wings against it, dashing their skeletons (and their egos) against the beautiful smooth surface that was my carefully tended exterior. In the early days of our courtship, even my husband fell under the spell of my appearance. I fell in love with him back when he insisted on knowing—really knowing—the messy imperfection that was the real me. But he still thought that I was beautiful, and I basked in his admiration.
In short order, I became the young mother of one and then three almost ridiculously pretty children, a woman in white billowing linen clothes and brown sandals, heavy silver bangles shimmering at my wrists, pushing my children down the sidewalk, or walking with them as they learned to ride two-wheelers. Then I became a patient, bald and greenish. And then, before I had the chance to consider the passage of time, I became the middle-aged mother of a daughter so beautiful that grown men stop to stare at her.
My daughter is 21, in her last year of college. When I look at her, I see traces of my mother-in-law, as well as a large dose of my maternal grandmother, Jennie, mixed in with my husband’s impossible lankiness. She was a child who, even from the first, was complete unto herself, as if born with an old soul. And this soulful, thoughtful quality of hers also shines through, as if her very being poses a challenge to the rest of us to dare to be so fully ourselves. She looks like no one so much as her own self, and when I gaze on her loveliness I am happy for her, but apprehensive, too, because what I sometimes see in her beauty is the continuation of my own deterioration. As for my daughter (and even though she’s seen the photographs), she can’t so much as believe that my stomach was ever as flat at hers, that for years and years my jawline was taut, or that I wore miniskirts. But who could blame her? For most of my life, I had a hard time appreciating that my own mother—she of the slowly but surely expanding waistline, dimpled and rumpled belly, and varicose veins—had ever been anything other than a middle-aged mother who drove a station wagon, met her girlfriends for lunch, made endless meals, and griped about my father.
I know indeed that it’s impossible to turn back the clock, and even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. Let’s face it: even without time travel, I could sign myself up for a little plastic-surgery, followed by a good color-job posthaste. But I’ve had enough pain in my life, both physical and otherwise, and simply can’t fathom why I’d want to put myself through even one second more.
We are at a turning point, my daughter and I: she is poised, as I myself was 30 years ago, to overtake her mother in terms of sheer feminine magnetism, not to mention in terms of strength, sensuality, and raw sexual energy. As she blossoms, I fade. As she flirts, falls in love, takes her first lover, and then perhaps a second, I will be the mother at home, fussing in the kitchen or perhaps puttering in the garden, the one who’s always available for a good long talk on the phone, but who—please—so seriously needs a wardrobe update that it’s not even funny.
Where do I go in all this? And who does my husband see, when he turns to me in bed to kiss me goodnight, or comes into the kitchen when I’m at the sink, washing lettuce? Is it possible to remain in a state of in-love-ness with a woman whose toes have become deformed with use?
But I’m luckier than many of my friends, because my own mother, unlike some of theirs, was almost entirely without vanity. She embraced her expanding waistline like a funny new friend, and while she occasionally did things like dye her hair a ridiculous shade of jet-black shoe polish, she basically felt that, as long as she was healthy, her looks weren’t of any great importance. I found this attitude to be astounding. After all, every day I passed her wedding portrait, which was propped up on the piano and showed a slender young woman with dark hair cut as short as a boy’s and shining dark eyes sheathed in endless, perfect white satin. Her figure was so boyish that she barely had breasts, and her neck was long and graceful. Once upon a time she’d been a dancer, and in her wedding portrait, she still looked like one. By the time the last of her four children appeared, all traces of the dancer she’d once been were gone.
But around the time my own first baby was born, my mother turned to me, and for no apparent reason, announced that by 40 or so, any woman who is more concerned with her outsides than her insides is in big trouble. She was thinking, perhaps, of those friends of hers who had had facelifts or tummy tucks, and still weren’t satisfied. Or perhaps she intuited that, unlike her, when my own looks began to give out, I’d mourn. When she herself died, of cancer, at the age of 72, she was bloated beyond recognition, and more beautiful than ever.
Jennifer Moses is a writer and painter.
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