Did you ever look into a mirror and, for just a flash, you see an unfamiliar face? Or, more the point, it’s the face of someone you almost know.
I realized it was the silvering hair that I didn’t recognize. In my youth I was quite meticulous about keeping up with it, attacking those marks of age with a viciousness akin to hand-to-hand combat. Grab the Miss Clairol quick, there’s a grey hair! I’d been doing so since I turned 24, had my beautiful baby girl and found that family streak of white hair near my temple.
Then I ventured near 50 and the battle got to be too much. I was quite obviously losing and I started to wonder if I shouldn’t be worried more about how much hair I had than what color it was. And I started wondering if maybe, just maybe, I looked like what I was - a woman pushing towards middle-age who was to too afraid to face it with any kind of dignity.
I found myself ruthlessly applying touch ups every week. This was ridiculous-- and getting expensive. Couldn’t we use that money for something else? Like a mortgage payment? When did I stop trying to hold on to something that was obviously slipping away from me with the speed of a banana skin pratfall.
What snapped it into perspective, though, was seeing an older woman - probably someone up near my mom’s age - coming out of the salon, coiffed and permed and dyed to the roots. Bless her heart, she had the most beautiful jet black hair--and thinning crepey skin, wrinkles and was slathered with enough make-up to make Maybelline stocks skyrocket. Blue shadow, pink blusher, dead spider eyelashes and rocket-red lipstick. OMG! That’s what I was going to wind up looking like, I thought. I was so terrified to look my age that I was actually going to look worse - I was going to be an old lady trying to look young again.
I slowly let go of that self-image and greeted the new me in the mirror. I also found, as if quite by accident, I was using less makeup, fretting less about being seen without it. I relaxed - I breathed. And I started to like this new look. It was certainly less stressful - on me and my family.
And I lost a certain amount of patience with this youth-oriented society. I don’t take botox commercials seriously, though I do admit to occasionally staring into the bathroom mirror, pulling my face skin back tautly across my cheekbones. Then dropping it into place. If I squint (which I’ll do if I take the glasses off) it almost looks the same. More than that, the people who love me don’t seem to notice the difference. Or at least they say they don’t, which is close enough.
If the outer package changed, so did the inner one. This one is comfortable in that old skin, not second-guessing and fussing about what people might think. There are only a handful that are important. I’m more concerned with what I can do with who and what I am. Who can I help? Who needs me and the gifts I can offer? Anybody who sees only the outer package and forms an opinion, probably isn’t worth the bother.
I’ve become comfortable with the amalgamation of features that makes me uniquely me. I have my father’s eyes, a funny green that seems to deepen when I’m feeling weepy. I have my paternal grandmother’s face - it’s shape, cheekbones, broad forehead, too thick eyebrows and wonky part in my hair. I know if she had lived to see me, she would have seen herself in my face. I have my maternal grandmother’s temper and “go ahead and take a swing at me” chin- the kind that juts out when I’m feeling ferocious.
Best of all, I think, I have my mother’s spine. It snaps into place, stiff as a board when anything needs to be dealt with, when the road gets rough.
More than that, I have children. And anybody who has children can tell you it’s impossible to take yourself too seriously when they are more than willing to burst your illusions. And I’ve been fortunate enough to be their Velveteen Rabbit - no longer shiny and spiffy, but marked with the wear of the love I’ve been fortunate enough to receive in my life.
I think it’s the things that nobody sees - like my mother’s spine and my dad’s tender heart- that helps me recognize the face that is sometimes no longer my own in the mirror. My face is like my favorite pair of jeans- worn and comfortable and conformed to fit me after years of wear.
And if I’m still a little startled when I look in the mirror, I remind myself that a few grey hairs seem to be, in the long run, a really small price to pay for a life that has only gotten better with age.
Cooper, a Peachtree City resident for 22 years, has been a book reviewer, writer and editor for several national magazines since her original stint at Fayette Newspapers, Inc.