Facing Up to Mother
Even before she lost her teeth, I thought my mother, Clara, was funny looking. She had kinky orange hair and wore red lipstick, which always struck me as clownish. When I got old enough, I straightened my own kinky hair and wore the palest lipstick I could find.
Mother’s skin was embarrassingly white, especially her legs, and in hot weather she was brazen enough to go around barelegged. As a teenager in Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, I slathered on self-tanner, which she pretended not to notice except once. “Oh honey, I always thought pale skin looked just right on you,” she said when my “tan” became orange streaks, and I took to wearing long slacks and long-sleeved shirts in 90-degree heat.
Eventually I abandoned the tanning lotions because I discovered that, by sitting in the sun for smaller increments of time over a long period, I could achieve a golden hue that—although I wouldn’t see this until decades later—ruined my skin forever.
Mother had a long, bulbous nose. My own nose was also too long. At 16, I announced that I wanted to have it “done.”
Mother said, “Honey, what happens to you won’t depend on the length of your nose. It will depend on this.” She tapped my temple. This sentiment moved me not a whit. I wanted a shorter nose, a different nose from hers.
“Why stop with your nose?” asked my cousin Richard, who loved to torment me. “What about the double chin?” I kicked him. He fled. I didn’t have a double chin then and neither did my mother.
Mother made me wait until I graduated from high school before I had my nose fixed. She also made me pay for it myself, with money mostly earned by working part time in a shoe store. It was a boring job and I longed to quit. “If you quit,” Mother cautioned, “be sure you have something else to go to first.” I was miserable but I stayed—a lesson I’d appreciate later.
The surgery was a little more daunting than I’d expected, but for many years I was delighted with my new look. Only in retrospect, when I flipped to my senior picture in my high school yearbook, did I notice that my original nose—Mother’s nose—had a kind of dignity that the new one, a little too short, a little too cutesy, lacked.
While in her 40s, Mother lost most of her teeth to an ongoing infection and ever after wore dentures that never really fit. Over time, her jaw shrank and her face collapsed around it. She also developed a turkey-wattle of a double chin like the one Richard had foretold. When she heard one of her co-workers whisper that she “looked about 95 years old,” she shrugged it off. “She’s no raving beauty herself.” But not long after, I saw her catch a glimpse of herself in a department store mirror and pull back the skin on her cheek to erase the cobweb of wrinkles her face had become. When she caught sight of me, she said, “I wasn’t planning to win any beauty contest anyway,” and with a bright, false smile, quickly moved on.
I didn’t feel sorry for her. And I did. Either way, I was determined that no co-worker, or anybody else, was ever going to say such things to me. Twenty-five years ago, I had a facelift. Whether this was for me or her or both of us, I was never sure.
The facelift kept my encroaching double chin at bay for more than a decade. Better yet, modern dentistry allowed me to keep most of my teeth and replace the missing ones with implants that looked better than the originals. But the hours I’d spent in the summer sun had taken their toll. My hands became Mother’s hands. My tightened face bore the hint of an all-too-familiar network of fine wrinkles.
Considering the advances in skin care, I could have had my problems filled or Botoxed or lasered away. But year after year I hesitated. Mother had grown frail, then ill and then died in 1986.
It wasn’t until recently, years after the long loneliness that follows the loss of any parent, that I realized why I’d left my aging face alone. In the mirror, an 80-year-old woman stared back at me with kinky hair I no longer straightened, a startlingly pale complexion I tried to brighten with lipstick, and of course that skin, far more lined than that of my friends. Despite years of angst and plastic surgery, I looked a lot like the woman who once told me that life is about inner strengths, not appearances, and who turned out to be right.
I wonder now why I ever wanted to eradicate Mother from my reflection—why any of us do. Who would have imagined how comforted I’d feel these days, knowing I have only to look into the mirror to call up that much-loved woman?
Ellyn Bache is the author of nine novels, including Safe Passage, which was made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon, and two collections of short stories, one of which received the Willa Cather Fiction Prize. She is a life member of Hadassah who lives in South Carolina.