Today would have been my mother’s 91st birthday. This photo was taken at Donegal Castle, Northern Ireland in June of 2004, just weeks before she surprised us all and broke our hearts by passing quite unexpectedly. She was 79. The cane you see is hers, by the way. I was only minding it.
In the intervening years I retired, became a grandmother, and qualified for Medicare. However, the biggest change is that before I turned sixty, people argued when I told them my age. “No! You can’t be that old!” Now when I state my age, they don’t argue. It hurts, you know?
It is with thoughts of that inevitable process of aging that I wrote this piece fifteen years ago. It first published in the Nevada Appeal on December 20, 2001.
I saw her again this morning. My sweet mother. She lives 500 miles away but there she was staring back at me from my bathroom mirror. It’s her all right; there’s no mistake.
Soft brown and gray curls, soft sags of skin, laugh lines, a few age spots. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mom and would introduce her to you proudly if she were standing beside me. It’s just that when she looks back at me from the bathroom mirror, it’s … well … unsettling.
So every day I spend a considerable amount of time pushing her back out of my way and finding myself, recreating the person who greets the world. The steps have become a ritual.
To my clean and exfoliated skin I apply a moisturizer with sunscreen. It’s my first line of defense, my armor against any further damage from the sun. Apparently those summers at the beach in Southern California 40 years ago have been burned into my skin as well as my memory.
Next, I sponge on the foundation. When you build a house it is the foundation that holds everything upright and straight, making it endure. This foundation just allows my little illusion to last throughout most of the day. And then concealer. It goes to work hiding dark under-eye circles from the wakeful nights that began when I became a mother in 1976. I have been collecting those little bags through 23 years, two children, colic, croup, curfews, and college.
My brows are alternately plucked and penciled, growing thickly where I do not want them, thinly where I do. Like the lawn. And of course it is made even more challenging by failing eyesight. Dime store glasses and a magnifying mirror aid in this task. Then eye shadow, eyeliner, and mascara are applied to enhance what people used to tell me were my best features, but which now lie hidden behind bifocals.
Finally a bit of blush to mimic what I can no longer trust the sun nor my innocence to produce: a rosy glow, an embarrassed flush. I’m not sure the makeup conceals much. Perhaps it’s only an attempt to reveal the person I believe still resides in this middle-aged body — someone who was considered intelligent, creative, friendly, fun and — once upon a time — even cute.
It is getting harder to find that girl with each passing year. I suppose sometime in the future the law of diminishing returns will cause me to reassess how I spend my time.
Although I had an old auntie who put on a fresh coat of makeup every night before going to bed explaining, “If I died in my sleep, nobody would recognize me.” She lived to be 100.
Perhaps one day I’ll accept these little imperfections as battle scars, as medals of honor. Perhaps one day I can wear them as signs of survival and triumph. Perhaps someday. More likely though, as aching joints and old age creep in, I’ll just be grateful for the sunrise and breath. Merely being clean will be good enough.
And maybe one day when my mother isn’t around anymore, I will even find it comforting to see her in the mirror, to know she’s close and that I’ll always have something to remember her by. Right in front of me.
Not today though. Today I will color and curl my hair, carefully apply my makeup, and accomplish a nearly complete makeover each morning. I’ll look into the mirror and see myself again and not my mother. Once the transformation is complete, I’ll put on my control top pantyhose, my sensible shoes with the orthotics, and my bifocals. I’ll take my hormones, allergy pills, vitamins, extra calcium. Even ginkgo biloba, if I remember. I’ll check the mirror once more and walk out the door accepting the fact that someday my mother in the mirror will be moving in to stay. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.