The Stories My Mirror Could Tell
–by Libby Hall
The mirror of my youth cruelly reminded me that I wasn’t ok the way I was.
Growing up as a short, plump girl with rough skin and thick curly hair, the rather plain but kind of cute daughter of a tall, very glamorous and beautiful mother who had a flawless complexion and good hair was difficult. When we were out, people would actually stop and ask her for her autograph believing she was Ava Gardner. She generously signed their books. Anything for the little people. Then she would grab my hand and off we’d go as she laughed and laughed about how gullible people are. It was fun but beauty and desirability were the currency of approval and acceptance in my home and I had insufficient funds.
I spent hours in front of the mirror learning make-up tricks, dyeing my hair, scrubbing my skin raw to rid it of blemishes, perfecting a mask. I wasn’t a beautiful woman but with enough make-up, hair straightener, different colors, and diet pills I could pose as one. I was always looking in the mirror, posing, examining, evaluating and rehearsing.
I have an aversion to mirrors. A hold-over from a relationship where my boyfriend installed mirrors, mirrors everywhere –walls, ceilings, doors, on any flat or level surface and he still does. However, my home has 3 mirrors – 2 are over bathroom sinks and one lives quietly, unnoticed at the end of a hallway.
It’s a curious phenomenon to study the face of someone I know so well but only from the inside. I don’t know what expressions cross my face. Do I look puzzled, tired, or angry when I frown? Do I look happy or manic when I laugh? What are the expressions that cause you to pause, to react, or get upset with me?
What do I see when I look in the mirror? What am I looking for? Food caught between my teeth. Stiff black and white hairs popping out on my chin or above my lips. Has gravity created an even more dramatic rendering while I slept? Sometimes I’m just grateful that bushy hairs have not sprouted in my nose or on my ears while I’ve slept. Who was I expecting to see? Me at 35 or even 50? Sometimes I am startled to see this white haired old woman returning my squinting gaze. Where did she come from? I’m not displeased with her but curious. It seems this transformation occurred when I was paying attention to something else.
My obsession with my looks began to dull a few years ago. Vanity has taken a step back but not disappeared. I began buzzing my now white hair about 7 years ago when it felt hip and edgy. Today, its just so easy. I cannot imagine going thru the trauma of growing it out again. Lipstick, oh God, I love lipstick. Glossy pinks and reds that cheer me up and make me smile. I must confess I do darken my white eyebrows and then worry that I have gotten carried away and look like a caricature of myself – a kind of Bette Davis in “Baby Jane” look. I still use a tinted moisturizer w/sunscreen to help even out those brown spots and blotchy areas.
“It’s just sun damage and old age.” my dermatologist cheerfully informs me.
I have loved getting older which is different from aging, but I will get to that. It has meant freedom, re-defining myself, becoming confident and really liking the woman I’ve become.
Aging is different. It’s a strange process but one I am now comfortable with. I am not the woman I was at 60 or even 65. I have faced my mortality in a more realistic way. I have limitations I once disdainfully observed in others. It’s a whole, new world.
It’s falls that just happen. It’s injuries that take too long to heal and never get quite right again. It’s when youthful problems return as serious situations. When colds and coughs become pneumonia and COPD. It’s when my previously strong, sturdy, healthy body begins to slow down and arthritis moves in where those old accidents and injuries occurred. It’s not being able to read anything without glasses. It’s those humming noises and muted musical sounds I hear when it’s quiet. It’s those sporadic yoga classes (which really help my balance and mobility) but leave my calf and hip muscles sore for days. It’s an intense reality check.
That trim, fit body I always fantasized about ain’t gonna happen. After years of being fat and losing a lot of weight in the last few years my body resembles an over-inflated balloon after someone let the air out. I have “good-by” arms – the flabby flesh of my upper arms waves good-by right along with my hand. My great grandmother had arms like mine and when I was a young girl I prayed and prayed that I would never, ever have arms like that. Oh well. My face is lined from years of sun worship, stress and laughter. Those fines lines of living that would fade after a good night’s sleep are now permanently etched crevasses carved into my face. I have wattles of skin hanging below my chin. On a good day my eyes still have that sparkle and other days they’re pale and tired. I’m always being surprised by the deep purple bruises that simply appear on my hands and arms.
“Oh, that’s just old age”, says the relentlessly cheerful dermatologist.
Bulging varicose veins, misshapen feet, teeth that break and on and on. Not such a pretty picture, you might say, but I am very accepting of it. Mostly, I enjoy myself as I am. I’m still kind of cute.
There are other funnier aspects of aging. Meditation which is more of a nap than an elevation of consciousness. Stepping into the shower wearing my glasses. Searching everywhere for the glasses resting on my head. Forgetting to put on my shoes and realizing I’m wearing my slippers as I enter the grocery store. I haven’t gone outside to chat with the neighbors wearing only a blouse as my mother did when dementia was taking over her life. Not yet anyway.
Each morning around 6 a.m. I grope my way into the bathroom, holding onto the sink, I lean towards the mirror squinting hard in the too bright light at that old, androgynous crone returning my stare.
There is a scene in the film “Milagro Beanfield War” where Amarante, the 90 year old farmer peers into the mirror above his wash basin. Scratching his chest, he mutters,
“Thank you, God, for another day.”
This scene delights me. Each morning I smile at my reflection and say,
“Thank you God, for another day”.
I don’t remind me of anyone else. Well, Amarante, maybe.
God, Libby, I love you! That was an incredible piece. So many great images “an over-inflated balloon after someone let the air out!!” “good by arms…” Such beauty in this lifelong struggle with the mirrroirs of our lives!!! I felt a deep kinship with this narrator as I’m sure anyone who reads this will!!! Excellent!!! You rock as a white-headed goddess!!! Thank you for posting that memorable piece!!
Awesome, Libby! Love the cheery dermatologist and the “goodbye arms” and your ending, “Thank you God for another day.” And by the way, you are still cute–beautiful photo here!
These lines of yours made me think: “It’s a curious phenomenon to study the face of someone I know so well but only from the inside.” And, “It seems this transformation occurred when I was paying attention to something else.” Yes, that’s aging, all right! Nice piece!
Aww, Meg, thank you!! I’m looking at the time you posted — where are you Australia or China??
fearless warrior of reflection that you are, a mighty read for all who dare, thanks!
ps. ’twas me
What a wonderfully affirming experience this has been – comments and emails from friends. I feel very loved and seen and heard and all that juicy stuff that makes life so tasty.
Great essay, Libby. You are kinda cute. What I’m interested in is how fatal something seems to be (like burning eyes become somehow connected to cancer), and then, I get used to the burning. It becomes a part of me and I go onward to the next pseudo tragedy. Slowly I move from the capable physical to the less capable, hoping that my brain won’t go too quickly. And being very thankful for the full and wonderful days that I am given each day!!! MJ
Oh boy, MJ, I do relate. My kids tell me that only real sign of aging they notice is that when I was younger if something happened to me I’d just say “oh, it’ll be ok in a couple of days” and now I wonder if it’s cancer.
Libby, you failed to mention your million megawat smile! When I think of you, that’s the first thing that comes to mind! You’re much more than kinda cute!
Libby, thank you for this, it is all so true. One more thing, how little time we actually have to worry about it, what with failing memory and the extra time required to actually negotiate our days, a process which used to be effortless and mindless. Perhaps old age is to make us more mindful.
This was beautifully written and contains so much wisdom.
Thanks Christa, I don’t get to see me smile.
Dian, I like the idea of becoming mindful before my mind becomes an alternate universe.
Love it, Libby! Might I add to the funnier side, I now pay attention to those commercials that deal with flatulence, constipation and heart burn . . . and OMG I’m having the conversations the adults had when I was a kid, so how many bowl movements did you have this week . . . shit, I’m talking about shit!
Yes, you went where I was loathe to go because I get so much shit from my family about this.