What do you do when your mother won't let you see her grow old?

Published January 13, 1998 11:26AM (EST)

I was still in college when my mother had her first face lift. She and my
father had moved to Los Angeles that year when my father's company
relocated. Maybe it was moving to the celluloid city, or maybe it was his
affair a few years earlier, but for some reason she decided it was time to
ditch her jowls and crow's feet and join the ranks of the lineless.

At 22, I was much more interested in my life than in hers. I was in love
for the first time and elated to be living on my own. When she told me
she'd had a face lift, I wasn't surprised. It seemed an inevitable outcome
of how she'd always lived her life.

When she was younger -- working as a model in Boston, where she was born
-- my mother was so beautiful that people often stopped to stare. Her
entrance into any room delivered a knockout punch: She was 5-foot-10 and had
big breasts and a tiny waist. She knotted her black hair in a chignon,
painted her full lips crimson and would flash her startling green eyes like
iridescent almonds. Her beauty brought her lots of attention from men:
Doors were opened, cigarettes lit, promises made and later broken. Beauty
was my mother's trump card in life, and I was not surprised that she
wouldn't accept her changing face -- that she wanted time to stand still.

At the end of the school year I flew to Los Angeles to visit. My mother
looked different -- tighter, sleeker. Also more masklike, and even more
remote. I hadn't felt close to her since my adolescence. In fact, at times
I hated her. I remembered a picture of us taken at a party: She was tall,
dark, unreasonably beautiful. I was gawky, pimply and miserable. I was
looking at her with admiration, anger, fear -- admiration for her beauty,
anger because I didn't want beauty to be the standard by which I was
measured and fear that if it was, I would disappoint her.

I remembered all this as I looked at my mother's transformed face. As if
reading my thoughts, her only comment was: "You'll see. One day you'll be
older, too."

Ten years later, my mother was recovering from her second face lift. Her face was swathed in white gauze, completely hidden except
for the holes that had been cut so she could see, breathe and eat. "My doctor says I'll be ready for my
close-up in no time." She tried to laugh but couldn't.

By then I was 32, she was 62. My father had died five years earlier and
my mother was now alone, so I went to Los Angeles for a few days to help.
This time, I saw everything. After her bandages were removed, her face was
black and blue -- she looked like she'd gone eight rounds with Mike Tyson.
Black sutures marked a border between her face and ears.

A doctor friend of mine once told me how a face lift is performed: The
plastic surgeon cuts skin away from both sides of the face, creating two
large flaps, which are then lifted away from the underlying fat and muscle.
The surgeon tightens the skin, removing any excess, and then sews
everything up. I thought about this while I looked at my mother's beat-up
face. I felt queasy.

This time around, I was more uncomfortable. I'd seen the carnage up
close. One face lift I could write off to vanity -- but two seemed

I shopped for her, cooked for her, helped her bathe, made sure she was
comfortable. "Aren't I just gorgeous?" she asked with a laugh, lightly
touching her bruises.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

After a week, she was going house-crazy. "I've got to get out," she
implored. She put on a turtleneck and big, dark glasses, wrapped a scarf
around her head and put a hat on top of it. We drove all of half a mile,
and in that time I saw two other women with scarves, hats and glasses. It
was as if the streets were filled with look-alikes for Claude Rains in "The
Invisible Man." My mother looked at them too, and smiled to herself in

I assumed that after my mother's second face lift, she'd call it quits on
plastic surgery. I was wrong. Shortly after she turned 70, she called to
tell me she'd had another face lift -- "but only a partial."

I was furious that she'd done it, and furious that she hadn't told me.
"You'd only have argued with me," she said. She was right. I didn't speak
with her for weeks, and felt like a jerk.

"Were you angry with me?" my mother asked later.



I paused, because I couldn't tell her the whole truth, so I settled for
part of it. "Because when will you decide that enough is enough? That it
doesn't matter that you have wrinkles? So what if you no longer look like a
magazine ad?"

"Don't you think I've thought about that?" she answered bitterly. "Don't
you think I know that this pressure for women to look young sucks?"

For the first time, I saw that she was not so cavalier about her
surgeries. That she was angry, too. That she was more complicated than I

What I didn't say was that I'm disappointed and sad that I have to look
to other women to show me how to grow old. That my friend Kate, with her
silver hair and deep furrows, is still beautiful to me. That my friend
Yvette's jowls seem to give her a kind of dignity and weight. I want my
mother to show me how to grow old, but she can't.

My mother must have sensed my thoughts, because she said to me again, 20
years after the first time, "You'll see. Just wait and see what happens
when you're older."

I am older. I just turned 40 -- now far enough from my 20s to taste the
beginning of my invisibility to others. I walk down the street and men
don't look as much as they used to. I go to a party and a man I am speaking
with looks over my shoulder at a woman 10 years my junior.

"You'll see," she said, and I do. I see that I am changing. Tiny
spiderlike veins begin to appear on my thighs. My waist is slowly
thickening. A red spot appears on my chest. The skin on my chin is getting
more slack. I sometimes look tired even when I'm not.

I have the urge to put up a fight. I put on more makeup. Highlight my
hair. One day at a party I pass myself in the mirror and think I look like
female impersonator. I get home, throw all my makeup into a bag and stick
it at the top of my closet. A week later, I take it back down.

I've staked a lot on being different from my mother. But I wonder, how
different am I? Maybe makeup and hair color are just steps along a
continuum that ends in a face lift. As horrific as plastic surgery is to me,
I don't yet know to what degree I'm willing to go to feel beautiful.

"Do you think if we give up our true faces, we give up our true selves?"
I asked my mother one day over coffee. As soon as the words came out, I was
embarrassed. We don't usually speak on this level; she'd always call my
introspective tendencies "morbid."

"You're being morbid," she said.

"No, I mean it," I said. "If we change how we look on the outside, does
that affect who we are on the inside?" I asked, aware that, even as I
asked it, I was wearing lipstick.

"Like how?"

"Maybe if you just let your face be and worried less about how you
looked, maybe you'd spend your life differently." I stop. "Maybe it would
be a huge relief just to live your life."

We looked at each other. I could tell she took my suggestions as
criticism. Maybe they were. Over her lifetime, she had spent extravagant
amounts of time and money on her appearance. And I wondered what else she
could have done with all that time and money.

My mother looked at me with hurt, beautiful, unlined green eyes and
remained silent. The conversation was over. But what I really wanted to say
was this:

"I haven't seen your real face in 20 years. Do you know what it's like
to dream about a mother you can never see?"

By Anne Levine

Anne Levine is a writer living in Portland.

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