Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Eye of the Beholder

I remember the year my mother turned 35. I was 15, and even in my teenaged self-absorption, I recognized that my mother was depressed. I would catch her staring in the mirror, her face alternating between sadness and anger.

My mother had made some pretty bad life choices. At that time, she was still recovering from her second divorce, from a man who abused her, me, and my sister. She was undoubtedly feeling fragile about her place in the world, and the changing of her face must have seemed a frightening sign that the thing she had always used to her advantage—her beauty—might suddenly be on the verge of failing her.

I did not understand my mother then. I thought her vain and shallow, and I laughed at her sudden allergy to birthdays. Thirty-five seemed old to me, of course, but I could not comprehend her depression or her fear of aging. Even then, I had taken as my motto “Every birthday spent above ground is a good one.” I could afford to be glib because I didn’t know a damned thing about what it meant to face yourself in the mirror and know that your days as an attractive woman were numbered.

I was never the kind of woman that men flocked to. I wasn’t beautiful like my mother—“cute” was probably the most generous thing you could have said of me. The men who did find me attractive were generally the ones who took the time to get to know me—but even I had my share of admirers.

Since I didn’t meet the cultural standard of beauty, however, I never put much stock in my looks—or thought I didn't. I convinced myself that my personality and my brains were the important things. I rarely dressed up, wore makeup, or fussed with my hair. To paraphrase a popular country song, I was casual before casual was cool.

I made it to 35 with no major psychological crises (unless you count my divorce, but that is another post). I can remember thinking to myself that I had reached the age that had so depressed my mother, and I felt nothing negative at all.

And then, one day recently, I looked in the mirror—and I didn’t recognize the woman staring back at me. “Who is that old woman?” I asked myself. And was horrified when that brief second of incomprehension lifted, and I saw my 41-year-old self looking back at me. A small voice in the back of my head said “Look at yourself—this is the best you are ever going to look. Tomorrow you won’t look as good as you do today, and the day after that will be worse.”

It had taken me an additional 6 years, but I finally understood why my mother stood in front of that mirror and looked so unhappy.

I cannot say for sure what my mother was thinking then, but I can report that my own awakening was more than a simple mourning of the aging of my face and body. I experienced that image of myself as the death of possibility and the slow disintegration of myself as a sexual being.

The reality is that time is closing doors for me—as she does for everyone. The possibilities I took for granted at 15—and even at 35—have either died long since, or are fading slowly, but inexorably, into the coming twilight of my life. My face was only registering a truth I had long avoided. The truth is that I am mortal, and that time is consuming me in the same way she devours everyone.

Now that is a trite realization, I know—but it was mine. And it shook me in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I was 15 and making silent fun of my mother. I don’t know if it’s largely an American thing, but we in this culture are so conditioned by the notion that we can be anything—or anybody—that we want to be. It comes as an unwelcome realization that this is a lie. And always was.

They say that 50 is the new 40, and I can believe that. We don’t age the way we used to—good medical and dental care keeps us looking, and feeling, younger. Economics help too—middle class women don’t age the way that poor women do, and I have the luxury of being able to afford all the anti-aging cream that I can carry home from the mall.

But, assuming that I have an average life expectancy, I am definitely at the half-way mark of my life. I have done everything I am supposed to do—college, grad school, marriage, motherhood, and home ownership. I have traveled, studied a foreign language and the violin, and started my own business. I have loved, been loved, probably broken a heart or two, and had my own smashed into tiny pieces.

But I have never been beautiful, and now it is too late.

I am already becoming invisible. Young men look at me and see their mothers. I still get the occasional glance from older men, and—feminist though I am—I confess that this gratifies me in some small way. I had not realized how important it was to feel desirable—and the hard thing about that image in the mirror was that, in a flash, I realized that what little desirability I have possessed is fast diminishing and I will never be able to get it back. Soon I will fade completely into the woodwork. I will have to live with the fact that I will never again feel the little surge of adrenaline you get from an admiring glance. In some ways, it seems such a silly little thing, and yet...and yet it wounds.

I thought my mother was vain and shallow—and maybe she was. But I understand her now. I stand in front of my own mirror and mourn both what is, and what will never be. And the mirror silently stares back at me, reflecting the truth I didn’t want to know.