Chapter 18. Vanity, Gravity, Levity
I've often hoped that as I advanced in years I would also advance as a human being, "every day, in every way, getting better and better," as the old saying goes. I've even secretly wished that as a very old lady I might become a truly saintly individual, like one lovely old woman I used to know. She was almost incandescent with goodness, having spent a selfless life helping others and never uttering an unkind word about anybody. She had a beautiful face, and beautiful hands softened by innocent old-fashioned lotions that smelled like roses, and yet she seemed to be entirely without vanity.
I've also thought it could be interesting to go in the opposite direction and turn into a little old Holy Terror. I've known a couple of those, too.
So far, though, I just seem to continue being me, the same person I was at twelve and at fifty. If sainthood or deviltry is my destiny, then destiny is taking its own sweet time, especially in the "getting better" department. Though I try to be friendly and polite and generous and thoughtful, as my mother instructed her children to be, I have many faults. I know I'm not selfless, for one thing.
At sixty I'm just as self-indulgent as I ever was, possibly more so. I put extra butter on my English muffins, I paint my toenails bright red in winter even though nobody can see them but me, and at certain times you will find me lying on my bed reading a book when I should be sitting at my desk writing one. I try not to utter unkind words, often because they generate a kind of trouble that is both painful and time-consuming. But never? How I wish that were true!
Vanity may be less of a problem than it was forty years ago, though I can't take much credit for that. At this age, what choice do I have? When my late sister, Anne, turned fifty she told me, "After a certain age, there's only so good you can look." Anne was a beautiful woman all her life, so to hear her say this made me smile, but I understood what she meant. One reaches a time in life when the attempt to look gorgeous requires an effort greater than any results it can possibly produce. That's when it makes sense to make friends with reality.
I find that I don't mind looking at my face in the mirror anymore, except maybe in the middle of the night that can be scary. I've "grown accustomed to my face," to paraphrase the song Professor Higgins sings about Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. I'm not only accustomed to my face, but I've also become quite fond of it. This is a very different feeling from the one I had at twenty or thirty or even forty, when I worried constantly about its faults and flaws. Maybe I care less now than I did then about how I look to other people, or maybe I know from long experience that most people ignore our imperfections because they are concentrating upon theirs.
Furthermore, I no longer have the good eyesight and steady hands to do what I did every single morning when I was twenty. I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror trying to hold an eyelid still with one hand while brushing eye shadow on it and then painting a tiny stripe of eyeliner along the lower part, just above the eyelashes, with the other. This was a complex process, especially for a left-handed person with questionable fine motor skills. I would find myself in a complicated self-hug, elbows crisscrossing over my chest like the gesture that went with a song we used to sing in summer camp in the fifties:
I love myself. I think I'm grand!
I sit in the movies and I hold my hand.
I wrap myself in a warm embrace,
And if I get fresh, I slap my face!
After applying the eyeliner I would take out a tube of mascara and cover my lashes languorously with the little brushy liquid-coated wand, blotting the dark residue with Kleenex in the hope that the stuff would not all be transferred, as it usually was by the first blink after application, to my upper cheek. Mascara provided less glamour than I hoped for, leaving me as it so often did with that sleep-deprived raccoon look.
The place where the mascara once ended up is now webbed with what the cosmetics people call "the appearance of wrinkles." I am aware that it's the reality of wrinkles. I don't care what they tell you on TV. But I also like to think of it as the appearance of ancestors. Sometimes when I look at my face in the mirror now, due to the passage of time and the forces of gravity, I can see my mother's face and even my grandmother's face looking back at me: blue eyes, wrinkles, glasses, and all. It is a very friendly family reflection.
I mention the glasses because I rarely wear them in the bathroom, what with the potential for splattering toothpaste on the lenses, stepping on them in the shower, and/or absentmindedly flushing them down the toilet. When I say I don't mind looking at my face in the mirror anymore, part of the reason may be that I can't see it. That is not such a bad thing, either. I have often felt that the inevitable gradual failing of our eyesight over the years is God's plan to help us let go of vanity. By the time you don't want to look at your face, you can't see it anyway perfect solution.
I may feel a nostalgic recognition and a sweet yearning for those long-gone wrinkly faces I find in the mirror, like the feeling I have if I visit a house I knew intimately in childhood. But the truth is that my feminine forbears did not surrender to their own wrinkled landscapes without a fight, and neither will I. I still make an effort, at least "in public," which means in places where the majority of other women wear real makeup, like Texas.
Like my mother before me, I have some pink stuff that I put on my cheeks and some red stuff that I put on my lips (not to mention the toenail polish) and I even have a little compact, with a remnant of face powder in an undetermined color, the label long gone. That's as far as I am willing to go, even if I get to Houston.
Real makeup doesn't work for me. It never did. The mascara was bad, but other things were worse. I couldn't use the gooey stuff that came out of bottles labeled "Foundation," which was applied to the face like a primer coat in house painting, before other applications went on with wands and brushes. "Foundation" made my skin itch and gave me claustrophobia, probably because in earlier years I was susceptible to poison ivy, and spent many spring and summer days and nights covered in pink, flaking calamine lotion. As medicine, it was effective, but it was the makeup from hell.
There are thousands of women of high intelligence, warm heart, and fine character for whom makeup is an art mastered early in life and so essential to one's daily wardrobe that it would be as unacceptable to leave home without it as it would be to walk out the front door stark naked. Most of these women, at least the ones I know, live in states where they would not catch cold if they did go forth into the world naked. Makeup, like the mint julep, is a Southern thing, though not exclusively.
Last summer a friend of mine here in Vermont miraculously survived a terrible car accident. The vehicle was destroyed, but her husband escaped with bumps and bruises and she felt "lucky" to come out of the experience with only a badly broken right arm. It was not an easy time. When some of us stopped by a few days after the accident, she was thankful to be alive, and was managing pretty well under the circumstances. We had been most worried about the pain in her body and the state of her mind, but she told us that another woman had telephoned her, very distressed to hear her news, with only one pressing concern:
"How will you put on your makeup?"
My friend was just beginning to absorb the daily difficulty of brushing her teeth, getting her clothes on, and answering the telephone one-handed, so she found herself unable to answer.
I'm not saying that vanity is all bad. Millions of women and men, too, these days work hard to counteract the effects of aging. Their dedication provides jobs and profits for the cosmetics industry and enriches plastic surgeons all over the world. It bolsters sagging economies while lifting drooping faces and other body parts. Some people, including actors who depend upon youthful good looks for the continuation of their careers, may succeed through repeated surgery in making themselves look younger than they really are, at least for a while. Other people usually only make themselves look hazardous, because their skin is stretched so tightly over their bones that it looks to an observer as if the whole face might split open at any moment like an overripe pea pod and spill its contents.
No matter how good the results of plastic surgery may be, they don't last forever. Everyone who gets old will look old, someday. Most of us retreat from the battle somewhere along the line, leave vanity to those who enjoy it, and amuse ourselves in other ways.
For those aging women who have lived in the country too long, or have just lived too long to remember the knack of putting on makeup, and for those hopeless fashion duds like me who never got the hang of it in the first place and had creepy calamine lotion claustrophobia, there is another way to cheer your days, brighten your appearance, and enhance those glimpses of yourself in the mirror or in store windows that you can't avoid and you know you can't avoid them all.
Ladies, I give you Accessories! Hats, scarves, earrings, pins, and socks, the brighter the better, especially the socks.
I have cheered myself through two weeks of rainy weather and a set of abnormal test results, very scary ones, simply by wearing colorful socks. I have a large collection. My socks are of various colors and motifs, and may be decorated with anything from white sheep on neon-green fabric to red hot peppers against a sophisticated black wool blend. Where I live there is a "Vermont Sock Lady," too, an entrepreneurial genius who understands the power of footwear. She has created a line of vibrant hosiery, every single sock a little different from every other, in irresistible colors and one-of-a-kind patterns. She markets these with the inspiring thought: "Life Is Too Short For Matching Socks."
This is true, in the greater scheme of things. However, most of us live not in greater schemes but in smaller ones, and prevailing opinion in our society dictates that matching socks are essential: nobody ever got elected to public office or became a senior partner without matching socks. One has to muster a good deal of energy and fearlessness to buck the trend. Interestingly, this kind of mustering is much easier at sixty than it was at nineteen. As Bette Davis famously told us, "Old age ain't no place for sissies."
Hats are helpful accessories, too, though my opinion is that women who wear hats well need to have a flair for it. Hat wearing can easily go over the edge, as reflected by the Red Hat societies that have sprung up around the country recently. These are organizations of women of a certain age who have taken to putting on crimson hats of all shapes and sizes, and gathering in Red Hat groups, like flocks of tufted titmice. The inspiration for this behavior is a poem by Jenny Joseph called "When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple," though I read an article in which the poet herself denied all responsibility for the Red Hat craze. I had a sense when I first read it that the poem was about her own plans for an old age in which she would do all the things she had been told she shouldn't throughout her life, like wearing purple "with a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me" and learning to spit becoming a Holy Terror, in other words.
There is nothing wrong with red hats, or with hats of any shade, shape, or dimension. I have one elegant and charming female friend, several decades older than I (imagine that!), who was born with the instinctive style and good fashion sense to wear hats well. This is not a characteristic given to just anybody, but a gift bestowed upon a lucky few by some good fairy at birth, and it lasts a lifetime. The girl who stood on a platform with a smart little black beret perched aslant on her head and waved to a soldier leaving on a troop train in 1942 is the same white-haired woman with the stunning wide-brimmed confection you notice at her granddaughter's summer wedding in the twenty-first century.
My mother wore scarves when I knew her, not hats. She liked to have "something silky at the throat," and said she did this to soften the look of an aging neck as well as to complement whatever she was wearing. Often there was a simple gold or silver pin fastened to the scarf, fashioned in the form of a shell or a tiny, bare tree branch, or a heart.
Along with the scarves, and long before Jenny Joseph wrote her poem, my mother wore purple, but gently. She called it "lavender." I always think of her in this color, though she wore others. She had lavender trousers and a lavender sweater, and once I think there was a full-length lavender winter coat, for her days in New York City, but I might be making this up, or remembering one my sister, Anne, wore in the same era, of a slightly different color.
Anne and I inevitably acquired the lavender habit ourselves. Like the lifelong trait of writing down impressions and insights, wearing lavender was something so characteristic of our mother that it must have seeped into her daughters' lives through heredity or by simple osmosis. I hardly noticed our color preference until one summer day here in Vermont. My sister arrived with her children at the public beach on Harvey's Lake, in West Barnet. (This is a body of water once explored by Jacques Cousteau, I've been told many times, and I believe it, but I have never found out when this happened, or why.) I was already at the lake with a close friend and our own young children, who were swimming and splashing together at the water's edge. My friend looked up as Anne arrived, then grinned at her and groaned, "Oh, no not another Lindbergh in lavender!"
I should also confess my disastrous youthful excursions into lavender eye shadow when I was twenty, but nothing will make me reveal what I looked like wearing the white lipstick I applied to my mouth at the same time. What was I thinking? I'm so glad I don't remember.
I don't do that anymore. I don't do anything, really, except for the pink stuff and the red stuff, and the toenail polish. I don't know whether I have truly shed my vanity or whether I have just acquired laziness along with the myopia, but life is very comfortable this way, whichever it is.
On my sixtieth birthday, however, it occurred to me that I don't even know what the vanity options are for people my age. I thought I should do a little research, so I went to our largest local pharmacy, bought a notebook and a pencil, and went up and down the aisles in the "beauty" section and took notes. I didn't actually purchase any products useful to my vanity or even to my wellbeing, but I did go home and write a little poem:
Promises, Promises...or, What I Did On My Sixtieth Birthday
When I turned sixty
I found in the store
A world of temptations
For girls of three score.
Definers for eyebrows
And liners for pants
And remedies made
From obscure jungle plants.
Pills for our ills,
For good moods, for good sex,
Supports for our feet
And our backs and our necks.
Glamorous hair dyes
Row upon row
To transform our tresses
To auburn from snow.
And oh, the cosmetics!
The powders! The creams!
They promise results
From our farthest-fetched dreams.
Here is what it says they'll do.
How can I resist this stuff? Can you?
They won't fade or cake or streak.
We'll look younger in a week.
With our Anti-Wrinkling Serum,
We who have Fine Lines won't fearum.
No, we'll be Regenerating:
Moistly, Actively Hydrating!
With these products we'll be using,
We won't age. We'll be Diffusing.
We'll be dancing, we'll be prancing
While De-Crinkling and Enhancing
(No one's footsteps could be dragging
While her face cream's Anti-Sagging).
A world of temptations,
Yet I could not choose
From all of these things
Even one I would use.
I declined to be eye-lined,
Supported for sex, or by socks,
Or in pants.
I left the store happy, though.
Isn't that funny?
I'm learning, at sixty,
How NOT to spend money.
I'm learning other things, too. I'm learning that however much I would like to be transformed into a saintly old woman, or a devilish one, I probably won't be. I'll remain the person I am, only older, and in getting older I will acquire some aches and ills along with some sorrows and yes! some joys, like the joy of watching my daughter try on her wedding dress, and the joy of holding grandchildren in my arms. I am learning that even though I might yearn to stay alive and vigorously healthy for another sixty years, that, too, is unlikely. The span of years I can look forward to is contracting as the days behind me accumulate, and maybe that is why old people are said to "live in the past." The past must seem so generous, with its rich accumulation of days and experiences, unlike the constrained and sometimes painful present, or the limited and unpromising future.
But doesn't the idea of limitation exist in the imagination, like the notion that purple eye shadow and white lipstick will really confer glamour and sophistication? Or the idea that face cream of any variety, at any price, will really prevent wrinkles? I know that aches and sorrows will come with old age, but I have had plenty of aches and sorrows already. It isn't a huge surprise to me that others are in store. Some of my own sorrows have been with me for so long, sweet and sad companions, that they are old friends. Like the wrinkles on my face. I live with them every day, and they don't scare me anymore.
There is no cosmetic remedy for the passing of time, but it is possible to stop now and then, physically and mentally, for just long enough to experience the world around me and the world within me at any given moment, to pause and acknowledge, even for a few seconds, exactly where I am and what I see and how it feels to be here, only that. It seems so simple it's almost ridiculous, but in such moments I find it is impossible to be afraid. I understand at the age of sixty, at least for a blessed instant now and then, that all I really can do with the rest of my life is to laugh at myself when laughter is called for, weep when I need to, and feel all of it, every bit of it, as much as I can for as long as I can. So that's what I think I'll do. Copyright © 2008 by Reeve Lindbergh