Mama is ninety-one and a half. I believe when a woman has made it into her nineties, she has earned the right to again claim her half-years, as she once did when she was five-and-a-half or ten-and-a half. Halfway to her next birthday, Mama is on the verge of moving to a life stage every bit as edgy as first grade or middle school: she is halfway to becoming a ninety-two-year-old. On this steamy September day when I’m writing about her, Mama still drives and gardens and oversees the care and feeding of five cats and gets annoyed with politicians and stays informed enough and remains savvy enough to know when she’s right to be annoyed about politics, but like any almost-middle-schooler, Mama knows there is no guarantee that all will continue to go well when she reaches her next milepost.
At Mama’s age, things have a way of disappearing: the book she had almost finished reading, one of her morning pills, the insurance bill she put in a “safe place” so she’d be sure to pay it today, the tailless orange cat we all loved, a bit more of Mama’s high-frequency hearing, the use of her right index finger. Who’s to say that by next March she won’t have lost the ability to see well enough to drive to Publix for cat food, or to understand the political scene astutely enough to gripe about it? I live a few hundred feet away from Mama and see her every day—I would understand better than even my brother and sister in South Carolina and Arkansas might understand if Mama worried and mourned over such possible future losses.
But yesterday she blindsided me when she wistfully reflected on the winding-down of a lifetime of being “not beautiful.” I’d been sympathizing with her over her arm having almost healed from a skin-cancer procedure, only to have one of the cats catch a claw in her tissue paper skin and rip it open again. “I know it must be discouraging,” I said, shaking my head, “to know your arm will look nasty for a while longer.”
“Oh, I’ve never paid any attention to how I looked,” was her shoulder-shrugging reply. “I was never beautiful.”
Never beautiful? That auburn-haired colleen, stretched out, swim-suited on a rock in the North Carolina mountains the summer I turned five, and captured by my daddy that long-ago morning in a photo cherished by me all through my childhood as displayable proof that my mama did not look like a mother at all, but like a calendar girl—this is the same woman who was never beautiful?
During the seconds after her comment, I was too bumfuzzled by her assessment of her looks to even know how to argue against it without sounding placatory. Finally I said something about how Daddy had always called her beautiful to all and sundry within hearing, but she knew that already. And besides, judging by the ease with which she moved to discussing what to cook for dinner, she had apparently just been stating what seemed to her a demographic; she hadn’t been wheedling for reassurance.
Yes, but, (my mind carried on the line of thinking her statement had started) even after ninety-one years of living in a woman’s body, she is still carrying around the idea that we women must all be classed as beautiful, or not. Otherwise, she would not have said what she said, right?
Maybe. Or maybe I of a post-women’s lib generation am the wrong-headed one, for presuming out loud that Mama might be saddened over her skin not looking perfect, rather than simply being dismayed over the more basic realities of pain and possibility of infection. Maybe I am the one presuming all women in some deep corner of their thoughts classify themselves as beautiful, or not.
I needed to think this through. I tend to do my clearest thinking outdoors, so after I crossed the road to my house I let the dogs out and sat on my porch to watch my ugly-as-homemade-sin boxer mix, Lily, stretch herself out on the sun-warmed grass. Okay, I thought as I looked at her. For starters, I should quit telling people how “Lily is a sweetheart of a dog, but she’s no beauty.” Obviously, if she has a sweet heart, she is a beauty. Her sweet nature is the best part of who Lily is, and where our best part lies—it came to me then—there our beauty lies, also.
The battle to keep us women from classing ourselves as beautiful or not beautiful will not be won by denying beauty, but by expanding our vision of what comprises beauty. I needed to start with myself, to practice what I suddenly knew I should be preaching. I happen to have always looked on my mother as a classic Irish beauty; she does not share my view. But, I realized as I sat on my porch thinking all this through, when she said she was never beautiful, Mama had been referring only to her opinion of her skin and bones. She was not saying that she didn’t possess beauty in any form, which is why she threw her comment out as if it wasn’t terribly important. It wasn’t.
I know she knows where her truest beauty lies: when my mama sings, she is beautiful. The beauty that is inherent to music calls to the beauty inherent to her singing, even if she has never consciously thought of it in that way. All of us are happiest when we join hands with the possibility of beauty, and make it so. That’s why Mama sings.
That’s also why Lily, who must have fought ugliness every day of the year or more—she survived as a street dog before she came to us—now is a peace-maker dog. Lily’s sweet gentle nature has found a home where it can join with my old dog Max’s need for gentleness. It’s beautiful.
And so is Mama, but I won’t make a big deal about it around her.