When the topic of plastic surgery arises my mother is rarely wistful. She brings it up occasionally, usually when she sees a friend or colleague that has had a little work done. Sometimes her comments are cautionary, as in:
“She didn’t even look like herself, more like a wax figure molded by an incompetent artist.”
Sometimes her comments are enthusiastic and slightly jealous:
“She really looked good, hardly a trace of the scalpel.”
And there is the issue. Which camp will one fall into, the pretty doll or the scary doll?
My father was a handsome man. Over the course of life his eyelids, on the heavy side to begin with, started to sag. He told his doctor he couldn’t see as well and claimed his golden ticket in a medical diagnosis and subsequent insurance approval to have his lids done. Off he went to Atlanta to place himself in the hands of one of the top surgeons in the South. When he returned, we both looked startled, he because he was suddenly wide-eyed and me because, well, he was suddenly wide-eyed. I thought to myself, ‘maybe his eyes will relax once they fully heal’ but they didn’t, at least not for about twenty-five years. He continued to look surprised and severe. My mother said that along with the extra flesh he lost the character in his face. For me, it was the loss of the softness around his eyes. I loved that little bit of softness, maybe I needed it to offset his sharp tongue but whatever it was, I missed it for a long time.
I tell my mother that I’m surprised she never had any work done. I say,
“Gee mom, you’re as concerned about your appearance as anyone I know and you have the money. Why didn’t you pursue it?”
“ I can clear that up in less than a minute. Let’s put it this way: one little slip of the finger….”
She lets that hang in the air and then says that even if she had a surgeon she trusted she would never have been able to justify the expense with so many people in the world struggling to put food on the table. “Any regrets?” I say. She says she’s a lot more self conscious about her neck than her face and relies on scarf magic to create illusion. When people comment and say it’s just not possible she’s in her mid-eighties, she smiles and thinks, ‘if you only knew’.
But they don’t know because she has a full kit of fashion tricks that redirect the eyes of the beholders and she knows how to artfully drape anything droopy. She is thoroughly familiar with her body head to toe and she features her assets. She urges us, her offspring to feature ours too, something none of us want to hear the details on—ever. My sister Windsor said on her last visit that mom couldn’t resist—although she has been instructed by all of us that our semblances are off limits. She asked my sister, before an outing,
“Is that how you’re wearing your hair?”
“Mom, we’re already in the car—yes, this is how I’m wearing my hair and I forbid you to speak of it again, ever.”
But she will, we all know she will.
I too have eyelids that languish and sag. My mother says when she smiles her eyes disappear and she looks like a boiled egg. Ditto, two short, straight lines would suffice in any accurate cartoon drawing of my eyes. I’ve already been advised by a plastic surgeon whose wife is his best advertisement that I would sail through the rubber stamp process to have my lids done. But I think I won’t. I have devoted the whole of my recovering life to finding the comfort in my own skin that allows me to forget myself. Wrinkles are a real aid to that self forgetfulness.
On the outside, I can think of nothing good regarding getting old. Age spots, skin that resembles elephant hide, worn out everything. I have stretch marks on my belly that forbid me wearing a two piece bathing suit, something I aspired to after I saw Helen Mirren looking particularly glorious in a bikini. But each set of silvery lines and squiggles represents one of my three pregnancies and the joyous arrival of my children. So I content myself with an extra long tankini and when I’m disturbed by the landscape of my midsection I pat my stomach and say:
“That’s Becca, that’s Henry, that’s Lily. These are the marks of a life that is full and blessed”.
And they are.
On the inside, getting on in years can provide new palaces for the imagination. There I can be as young as I like, there, everything is possibility, there, I can care a lot less about what others think because, as I succumb to the invisibility and obsolescence in culture around me, I am reminded that other people are thinking about their own skins—not mine So I plan to leave with what I came with, to let gravity have its inevitable way, but to simultaneously let my own brand of freak flag fly and to favor Free People over Chico’s. I tell my pals I won’t subject them to a halter top and my friend Becca says,
“Aw come on Ashley, do it for your country.”
So maybe I will—but not in front of my mother. She wouldn’t be able to control herself over that one and would certainly rush over ready to drape me in one of her smart scarves.