Paula and Marcia in their Twenties
Mom and I sit on her sexy white wraparound couch talking about everything and nothing. She has her hands folded and her fingers are laced. As she speaks she twirls her thumbs. I know what this movement portends- sad news. Rotating our thumbs is what we do when bad stuff is coming down. Mom tells me her father has cancer. She cries.
Our conversation totters a bit on the subject, and then takes a strong right turn. Perhaps we discuss the new polka dot pillows I have brought for her sofa. Perhaps we talk some nonsense about the latest in celebrity news.
Mom stands up and lifts the leg of her trousers to mid thigh. She points to the zig zaggy purple lines on legs. She tells me that she is paying $350.00 to have these spider veins removed. I detect a hint of hopeful triumph in her voice.
"Good, Mom”, I say.
But my thirty-something mind wonders why. Mom is a woman in her late fifties. Age is bursting out everywhere on her body. Visions of the little Dutch boy who tried to stop a flood by sticking a finger in the hole of a dike cross my mind. Certainly this spider vein procedure cannot stop the inevitable fallout of age, I think to myself.
Later we go for dinner at the clubhouse. Two men my mother's age offer to buy us drinks. I hate this. I am a woman who does not let men buy me drinks. I am an “I will pay my own way thank-you very much “ type, but Mom is different that way. I give way to a cocktail. We drink, chat and leave.
Back at the condo, she models the yellow linen dress she has bought for her next blind date She has high hopes, for her vein procedure will be completed by then she reminds me. She has been actively seeking men for a few months now. Three marriages under her belt and a string of love affairs later, she still believes that she needs a man to be complete. The fluorescent light of the bathroom vanity accentuates every line in her fifty-something face.
“It’s real pretty, Mom. You look good,” I encourage her. Inside I pray that I won’t be this desperate at her age. "Hey, you will find a man if that is what you want. Look at those two men who just bought drinks for us."
She turns away from the unkind light, looks me straight in the eye, and says, "Paula, those men were interested in you- not me."
My heart breaks for her. She is probably correct, but I play dumb. My stomach squeezes in on me.
Mom grew up believing that her appearance was her most valuable currency. She had been able to trade on it for most of her life. She feared losing its spending power.
Oh, Mom, why did you not see that your raucous sense of humor, your keen intellect and your willingness to share your deepest feelings were your special gifts? They could have carried you gracefully over the threshold of aging.
Now Aunt Sarah, well, she did aging differently. Her body had its fair share of pooches, droops, and discolorations. But Sarah trusted who she was. And if she did feel a bit wistful at times about the loss of her youthful looks- and I am certain she did because I knew my aunt-she was not going to dignify it with any dialogue.
In the eye of memory I visit her. Today she is wearing old shorts and a paint spattered shirt. She gardens now as I look on, and as she does she sings:
"White coral bells
Upon a slender stalk
Lily of the Valley
Deck my garden walk
Oh, don't you wish
That you could
Hear them ring?
That will happen
Only when the fairies sing"
She has a joy in her heart that will not pay duty to the boundaries of age. She pauses to admire her flowers before heading to her studio, for while she was gardening she got an idea about how to solve a problem in her current painting. This has been gnawing at her for several days now, and she cannot wait to get started.
Today she will work in her studio in the woods until the late July heat beckons her to pull on one of her stretched-out swimsuits for a delicious swim in the bay. She rejoices that her heart still beats, her legs still carry her and that her eyes continue to seek out beauty.
The water of Grand Traverse Bay is just cold enough to be refreshing this evening. The geese cry as they fly in formation overhead. She is glad and give thanks for yet another day as she enters her eighty-second year.
Age has made me naked. It has shucked me right down to my stalk- raw and exposed. Pretending does not work any more. I catch myself lying to myself too fast these days. I have blown my own cover.
I put on my new blue bathing suit. I am the fattest I have ever been compliments of the broken leg.
I stare at the woman who looks back at me in the mirror.
If I, but for a moment, hear myself pass judgment on that woman, I shall stop. I will hold myself tight in my own arms until I find her- my own true blue gal.