Poems & Essays

17 Jul

Mothers, Daughters, Beauty, Aging, and the Sea: A Tragi-comedy in Five Acts

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Act I

Mothers: My Mother’s Silicone Breast Implants

When my mother was just three years older than I am now, she elected to have a double-mastectomy. She had fibroids and had been told by too many doctors, who looked into the far corners rather than matching her gaze, that it was likely her lumps and bumps would become tumors. They advised that she stop eating nuts and drinking Taster’s Choice, that she have a mammogram four times annually, and that she see a doctor as often as possible to follow the progress towards what would inevitably require serious intervention. So she opted to have her breasts removed. And then re-applied.

She had never liked her breasts, so she said. One was much longer than the other after breast-feeding three children. And she always wore a bra to make them symmetrical. Even as she eschewed pantyhose, high heels, and girdles, she did not burn her bra.

“Now that you can choose your breast size, get big ones,” I coaxed. Her vague serene smile gave way to clarity, “Oh, no. I never want to have to wear a bra again.” She was only sad to miss the sensation of her nipples. But declined to get small nipple-shaped tattoos in their place. “Silly.”

My mother has perfect, small, evenly-sized breasts with large purple scars and no nipples. She never wears a bra. She drinks coffee, tea, wine and a bit of gin, if offered. She eats lots of nuts and will only visit doctors who promise not to do tests fishing for illness. She would rather not know. She and her younger sister skinny-dip evenings in the iridescent sea. The sea salt dries their hair stiff as they slip puzzle pieces into place and re-read mysteries, drugstore glasses propped on noses, sipping a finger of gin, until the sun fades and the light is gone.

 

Act II

Daughters: When My Daughter Stole My Cigarettes Makeup

When my daughter was nine or ten, she started asking why she could not wear makeup:

“Because you are beautiful without it.”

“Are you saying that you are not beautiful without makeup?” Yes. That is exactly what I was saying.

I have always used cover-up under my eyes and on any red splotches. And mascara. My lashes match my skin and are invisible without mascara. I need it.

Now my daughter, my fierce and wise girl, was learning my sad tale. I remember watching my own mother apply her rosy tones in the burnt-umber bathroom. “You are so lucky your lips are red and full. You don’t need makeup. My lips are colorless and thin.” Lesson learned: youth is beauty and age mimics youth, yet pales in its presence.

I told my daughter that I would try to wear makeup less often.

One day, my cover-up and mascara, my balms of safety, my full potential, were missing. I looked and looked. I was frantic. I hunted her down. When my daughter breezily confessed to hiding them, I flew into a rage and demanded their return. I knew I sounded ludicrous and was reminded of the time I hid my father’s cigarettes. He had talked about quitting and even though it was the 70s, he knew it was killing him. So I hid them. Expecting his thanks!

Now, I promised her, my daughter, that I would stop wearing makeup. Most days. Unless I have a job. Or a party.

I’ve always hated wearing bras so now I wake, rinse my face, and consider: is this a bra and makeup day? Or can I be free?

Amazingly, nobody seems to notice! Not one friend, not my husband, not one person treats me differently or looks askance. I was certain my unpainted canvas would elicit questioning pity and slight disgust.

I want to live up to the story I tell my daughter, the story I truly believe, that all people are beautiful, that soft stomachs and papery, translucent skin are beautiful, that being a woman, no matter what age or size or skin color, is beautiful. That my mother, in her thrift-shop black wardrobe, self-pixied haircut, and softly etched face, is the paragon of beauty. I want my daughter to love herself the way that Stieglitz’ gaze caught Georgia O’Keefe, her unfettered lashes and stern brow, from young beauty to wizened glory.

And suddenly, I feel so simply beautiful, unadorned and beloved.

 

Act III

Beauty: Eyelashes Like Tammy Fay

I have two smashing friends who, I noticed recently, have equally smashing eyelashes: glossy, black, thick. They say to me, “You, too, deserve smashing lashes!” And they can be bought and applied and will remain for weeks! Like natural ones! Only unnatural!

I am on my way to the tropics. What better time to adorn my eyes with the ease and beauty of dark lashes? No smudgy mascara, no lash-less photos on Facebook!

I ask the beautician with porcelain skin and lashes the length of Daddy Long Legs’ legs, “Will these look natural?” I mean, more natural than yours. She understands. “Of course, yours will be the shortest we do and will look just like great mascara.” Perfect.

When she is done, I look in the mirror. Oh god. OK, so maybe they take a moment to get used to. I decide not to look in the mirror again.

I go straight to a business meeting—with academics! There is not a lined lip or a curled lash in the building! Nobody gasps, though I can swear they are trying to figure out why they feel an odd clutch in their stomachs while looking at me.

When I arrive home, my husband says nothing about my transvestite chic lashes (I am grateful that he forgets his glasses most days), but my daughter takes one look, walks directly over, puts her serious face right in front of mine and says, “What!” I shake my head and whisper something about, “It’s nothing. I’ll tell you later.” Her eyes and mouth become wide circles of shock.

My father had Sunday matinee tickets for the LA Phil. We walked around at intermission to look at the swooping drama of the Gehry building. I found myself arrested, fascinated, and slightly panicked by the faces around me. Old? They must be ancient. Men with tan hides stretched tight, women with paper thin skin showing blue veins on perfectly still faces, only their eyes wandering slowly left and right while their heads followed a few beats behind. We sit and I turn to my father. My body relaxes taking in his perfectly perfect, eighty-something year-old face. My father was vain, no doubt—he still tanned on his deck and took great pride in his full head of silver hair. But his face moved when he spoke, his eyes sparkled blue and wise. I bathed in the wholeness of his presence. Relieved.

We go to the island. I think wearily of the beauty of the earth before we littered her with Styrofoam cups and rubber shoe soles. I think wearily of the loss of my own simple, aging eyes, knowing I elicit a feeling from others, something they may not be able to place, a feeling of anxiety looking at my fifty-two-year-old face with new freckles, old laugh lines, and plastic fronds lining my lids.

 

Act IV

Aging: How I Got My Bikini Body in Spain

When we first arrived in the Costa del Sol for a three-month sojourn, we walked the steep donkey path up to the hilltop town, took the bus into the dirty and bleached beach-side village, and walked to the sea. The glorious sea! There I watched my children bound into the waves, then walk, hunched and serious, along the water’s edge searching for shells. I brought a book and kept my cover-up on over my burka-bathing suit complete with internal sheep’s gut Spanx. A corseted, sweaty, middle-aged mother. Gone were the days when beaches meant bikinis and boys. Gone were the days spent in pursuit of an even tan on my freckled skin. And before that? Before the beach became a test? I could barely remember the lost pleasures of the buffeting waves and the melt of the sun, the beauty of the ancient and perfect shells.

Around me, women of all ages, all sizes, all nationalities, walked, swam, sat luxuriantly, enjoying the breezes, the soft sand, and the thawing sun. None of them were blanketed and bound. They casually took off their shirts, braless and open, but somehow not sexual or, perhaps, not sexualized. Older women sat, slathered in grease with cigarettes burning, turning their rented chaises like a sundial to catch each ray. They were women of a certain age, maybe German or Swedish, many Spanish, some topless, some in tiny bikinis, with their post-menopausal stomachs stretched and pouched with the bloat of bearing children, cheeks nicely tanned and wrinkled with expression. No apologies. No need for a purpose. Only enjoying the lovely gift of sitting freely and enjoying the purely sensual delight of the sun, the sand, and the sea.

Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten the pure bliss of a day by the seaside. Swimming in the burka-bathing suit offered no pleasure—I was weighted down like an accused witch struggling to surface amid petticoats and whalebone stays.

Not long after we arrived, I walked my children to the bikini shop and bought a soft swath of sweet fabric. From then on, I joined my children bobbing in the deep blue, I released my body into the heat of the sand, with no other purpose than the pure elation of the touch of the sun and the thrill of the sea.

 

 

Act V

The Sea: Beautiful Turquoise Plastic on the Beach

When my grandmother was alive, we stayed at the Blue Ruin on the bayside with a pool and a cook who made rum cake dripping with syrupy sweetness. There was one record album, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, which I played endlessly. We had grand guests including an elegant bachelor from Canada, my great-aunt from England, and my aunt’s fancy car repair man who arrived in his private plane.

After my grandmother’s death, we took houses on the beach side, shopped at the Pigly Wigly on credit, and cooked the black-eyed peas and rice ourselves. We slept with the sound of the murmuring waves and bathed nude in the waning sun of the coral beach.

There were shells in the soft pink sand–white scalloped, wound spirals with pink innards, orange coral.

My mother emailed the week before we arrived this Spring marveling at the price of bread (7.00 a loaf) and advising us to bring a suitcase of Costco cashews and pre-cooked bacon.

She wrote:

“Why are there no seashells anymore on the beach?

Used to be birds, hermit crabs, skittering crabs.

Nice colors though…a lot of turquoise rope, bright blue tops from water bottles, and balloons from a cruise ship b’day party.”

We set up camp in the old lavender house facing the azure sea. Every mood of this ocean is too beautiful to believe. In our house, the interior walls stop like a stage set leaving the barn roof and its inhabitants exposed. We used to take two houses side-by-side to fit the cousins, visiting friends and occasional charter pilot. The house next door was owned by the stylish French woman and everything was blue and white. She sold it after her divorce so now there is a small tasteful resort (my mother says it looks like a Cheesecake Factory). Old Bahamian men rake their plot of sand every morning, marking their beach by removing any sign of seaweed and the man-made confetti of chemical magic that will never, ever truly disappear.

I grew up with a mother who would stop by the roadside to pick up trash, who would stoop to pick up empty Coke bottles and beer cans, stuffing them into her purse. I was, of course, horrified.

Now, I walk the pink sand beach hoping for shells and picking up bags and bags of garish, turquoise detritus, instead.

One day soon, I know my eyes will be free of this Phyllis Diller, spidery blight.

As far into the future as I can imagine, I know the sea will continue to spit up our filth.

Always, I know the earth longs for the day when we are gone and she can age, unadorned and free.

 

 

 

Kate Bennis is an actor, writer, speaker and communication coach who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her family of inspiring co-conspirators. @katebennis

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