Sometime in the 1970s, when cosmetic surgery was first being discussed on the nightly news as an elective procedure for those who could afford its extravagant price tag, my sisters who were gathered around the black-and-white TV in the kitchen dismissed the idea completely.
“I’d never do that,” they scoffed, extolling the ’70s all-natural look, “when I grow old, I want to do it gracefully—like Lauren Bacall.” They always referenced someone like Lauren Bacall (who only would have been in her fifties at the time), never Aunt Bea or Granny from the Beverley Hillbillies or any of the other women that most of the population ages into resembling.
At that point in the conversation, my mother turned from the kitchen sink with a wistful smile. “I don’t know,” she interrupted, “look at this.” She then removed her rubber gloves and glasses, placed her thumb and two finger at points on either side of her face and gently lifted her temples, the corners of her eyes, and the sides of her jaw. She instantly looked ten years younger.
“If I could afford it, I wouldn’t mind taking a few years off my face,” she added, as we stared silently. I think we were more shocked by her attitude than by the way her gesture had transformed her face. “Nobody wants to look old, if they don’t feel old.”
I was, nevertheless, raised by old parents. My parents carried their age both physically and philosophically throughout my short years with them. Both of my parents were in their forties when I was born, which is not to say forty is old. But that meant they were in their fifties in my teens and their sixties in my twenties. Their age not only dictated their health, but also shaped their outlook on life, and in turn shaped mine. Mom, whose health declined quickly during her final decades and took her from us at the relatively early age of 77, developed a rather philosophic and straightforward take on aging, while my Dad, who lived to be one month shy of ninety, approached it with more of an impish George Burns shtick, combining a disarming gallows humor with a general gratitude to be kicking.
For me, I’d say my own aging began at 48. Bob will tell you that I’ve always thought of myself as older than I actually am, and that may be residual from my parents. But, at 48 I had to reckon with the first permanent losses to my body: my eyesight, which had been a sharp 20/20 to that point suddenly demanded reading glasses; and at the same moment, I began to grow hair on the tip of my nose. These two fait accompli descended on my psyche like the loss of a limb. I was suddenly confronted with knowing that for the rest of my life I would have unwanted face weeds and the inability to see or care for them without special gadgets. As I’ve said before, I concluded that this was one of nature’s tricks. After playing tricks on women for their whole lives, nature turns to men in our later years and casts this ridiculous spell on us, as if triggered to tell our cave-mother ancestors, “don’t mate with this. He won’t be around to pay for college.”
Since turning 48, my face has been in steady decline beyond my understanding. I go about my everyday activity telling stories, discussing work, managing my staff, catching eye-contact with people on the subway, and laughing with Bob and friends over dinner. And as I do so, in my head, I imagine I look as I did when I was in my thirties. That’s the face I have in my head, my thirties face, because that’s the voice in my head. I know I’m more experienced and sometimes wiser than I was in my thirties, but I imagine myself as looking like the same guy that I was in my thirties.
That is, of course, until I catch a glimpse of the old man in the mirror—until I catch sight of the wrinkles, and white hair, and sagging skin and freckles turning to age spots. I’m surprisingly thrown off guard every time. I think, “good lord, did I look like that when I was laughing with my staff? When I told that story? When I danced last night?” Every time, I’m surprised and chagrinned by the prospect of not having looked like the thirty-something-year-old guy in my head when I was just going about living.
Moments like those, I wish I had my parents around to muse over my experience. Dad would probably say something like, “getting old beats the alternative.” And mom would possibly add that, as time goes by more quickly, our years sort of combine in on themselves, and we are our thirty and sixty-year-old selves—and every age in between—all at once.*
As for me, as I approach turning sixty, I simply want to say, “be kind. I thought I looked a lot younger when I did that.”
One further thought on Lauren Bacall: she said of aging, “I think your whole life shows in your face and you should be proud of that.” Of course, she was naturally gorgeous enough that she could do just that gracefully, well into her old age. But the quote does reflect her general devil-may-care attitude about her looks and what others may think. Like so many New York women, she did not adopt the expected matronly attire and hairstyles that most women across the country accepted upon marriage or becoming mothers. New York women have always dressed fashionably, youthfully, playfully, and as edgy as they wished for as long as they wished (and as much as they could afford) without judgement. No questions asked. Differences celebrated. Naysayers can go f*ck themselves if they don’t like it. And the same holds true for New York men who have not settled into the ease of a corporate uniform or track clothes, and who like having a style of their own at whatever age they happen to be.
So, one redeeming part of turning sixty, is that I will be doing so in New York, where there’s still room and time to explore what’s next for this face of mine, and to do so more along the lines of the 30-year-old face I still imagine it to be.
*Note: my mother never read Ann Lamott, but she would have appreciated Lamott’s sentiment when she said, “I am all the ages I’ve ever been.” Thanks to my friend Dr. Jenn Lindsay for brining that quote to my attention. JK