By Leslie Wibberley
I step naked from my morning shower. My calloused feet leave damp shrouds on the tile floor as I move towards the gilt-framed mirror that holds court above the double sinks in our bathroom. My belly jiggles. Silvery threads drawn in lacy patterns across my pale skin by my two beautiful babies dance in a gentle rhythm. They remind me that my daughters are now adults in the eyes of the law, although never in my own. My small but pendulous breasts play a counter melody, softly slapping against my chest with each step.
I am fifty-seven years old. Fully clothed, I can pass for fifty-six, on a good day. But here, in my birthday suit, bathed in the unforgiving brightness of this early spring morning, I appear much older. The mirror reflects back an image that has, in the past few years, slowly begun to resemble that of my mother.
Horizontal lines groove my forehead. Etched by twenty-three years of motherhood, worry, stress, and exhaustion. Matching channels run from the corners of my nose, to the edge of my lips. Marionette lines, I’m told. Lines easily erased by fillers, Botox, or, as far as I am concerned, other equally implausible solutions to the ravages of time. These wrinkles are balanced nicely by a series of crow’s feet that fan out from the corners of both eyes, and a few parallel lines running just above the tip of my nose. From scrunching when I smile, I think. These are my happy lines. Drawn by decades filled with triumphs, big and small, and endless joyful moments.
Today I am having headshots done for an essay I have written, soon to be published in a literary magazine. I want to look my best; better even. If my face is to become a permanent part of the online world, then it should be a face I enjoy seeing. Determined to put my best face forward, I start applying makeup with a heavier hand than typical. I smooth out the grooves and crevices, using the deceptive make-up techniques taught to me by my youngest daughter, the artist. A touch of shadow here, a highlight there—all to create the illusion of youth.
Three quarters of the way through my attempt at deception, I pause and stare long and hard at the no longer middle-aged woman staring back at me. A conversation I had last night; with my daughter’s boyfriend, the photographer who will be taking my picture, repeats in my head.
“Where do you want me to take the pictures, Les?”
“Wherever I’m going to look the best, of course. Silly boy.”
He laughed at my comment, at first not realizing that I was completely serious.
We decided that our back deck would be best. My decision hung on the hope that the luminous glow of the pink blossoms covering the branches of our peach tree would be kind to my aging skin. Kiefer’s was all about the light. When the pictures were done, I laughingly ordered him to take at least ten years off my face with his gifted editing skills.
“Ah, Les, you won’t feel good about it if I do,” he answered. You want to look like yourself, don’t you? Not some reasonable facsimile.”
His comments create conflict in my reluctantly aging self. Do I? Wouldn’t I rather look like the person I used to be, the woman who still exists in my mind, if not in reality?
Thinking back on that conversation, I wonder why this should matter so much to me? What purpose will it possibly serve for me to look like something I am not? Will my words be taken more seriously if I look younger? Will people respect me more?
How young or old I appear should not matter. I know it doesn’t matter to my daughters or to my husband. They constantly chastise me for my negative self-talk when I bemoan my aging skin that droops and dangles from my bones, or the pounds that have crept surreptitiously on my frame, despite constant vigilance. These wonderful people, who I am proud to call my family, assure me I look beautiful, like a mother, a wife, and a woman who has lived fifty-seven years and lived them well. If they can find no fault with this body in which I live, why in the world should I?
If I am unwilling to accept my aging self with grace and dignity how can I expect my girls to do the same when they face these same physical changes. I raised them both to understand that their bodies are a means to a long and satisfactory life, not objects to be admired because of how they look. I told them good health and the energy to enjoy life should be their ultimate goals, not to fit into society’s preconceived ideas of what is beautiful. And yet, here I am falling prey to a mindset that tells me youth is beauty, and beauty is youth. I wonder how and why I have arrived at this state of mind. When did I succumb to this ridiculous belief?
From somewhere amidst the convoluted and complex network of neurons and synapses that is my aging brain pops a line from a Robert Browning poem, Rabba Ben Ezra. “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” How perfect, Mr. Browning! I may be well past the halfway point of my life, but I am still excited to find out what happens next. The best is absolutely yet to be.
My lips purse involuntarily. Shallow creases branch up from the crimson borders like run-off channels carved into dry desert hills. It is time for me to set a good example.
I turn on the tap and run the water until it is warm. Then I pull a thick terry washcloth from the sea grass basket that sits on my counter and let it soak in the warmth. I squirt a dollop of facial cleanser on the cloth and inhale the tangy scent of grapefruit that fills the air. I raise the cloth to my face then pause. My resolve falters, but only for a heartbeat. I need to do this, not just for myself but for every woman who has faced this same moment of self-doubt.
I scrub away the façade, down to the bare truth that lies beneath. My soul feels lighter somehow, like a weight has lifted. I rinse away the evidence of my insecurities, and just like that I am finally free. Free to give up the pretense and free to just be my 57-year-old self. I pat my face dry, apply a light dusting of foundation, and reach for a tube of lipstick. I choose rose, not because it flatters my skin tone and suggests youthfulness but simply because I like the color.
Leslie Wibberley is physiotherapist by profession, a slightly maddened mother to two outstanding young women and one slightly insane cocker spaniel, and wife to a loving and extremely tolerant husband. Writing has always been her passion but one she has only recently re-committed her life to. Her article RAISING A CHILD WITH SPECIAL NEEDS, A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE recently won 6th place in Writer’s Digest’s annual contest, and her creative non-fiction essays can be found in several online literary magazines including MOTHERS ALWAYS WRITE and MAMALODE.
What a breathtaking piece!! Leslie is such a brave woman, sharing with us her perception of ageing gracefully with dignity and self respect. I am a 62 year old proud mother of two adult wonderful girls…. I understand every word Leslie has written so brilliantly. Thank you Leslie.