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Facing It

by Julia Sneden

Yesterday I went to the dermatologist to talk about a small red dot that had appeared on my skin. Today I have a huge, red blister the size of a dime just above the end of my nose, where the doctor froze off whatever it was (or was threatening to become). I have been told (a) not to cover it and (b) not to get it wet for three days. After that, they say I'll have a big, ugly scab for at least two weeks. I am hiding out at home. With a nose like this, I don't fancy meeting anyone I know!

All of this is penance for the high school and college years when I earned my spending money as a lifeguard under the bright California sun. I always burned during the first week of summer, but after that I developed a great tan. I thought it was a win-win proposition. Not only did I earn money while I turned a lovely shade of brown, but my blonde hair which had grown winter-dark lightened up again, too, and all without touching the bottle of Lite'n'Brite (remember Lite'n'Brite?) that many of my friends used. Little did I know that down the road apiece I'd pay dearly for my healthy glow. Yesterday's session with the dermatologist wasn't the first time I've had suspicious spots frozen off, but so far it's the one that has left me with the most conspicuous, albeit temporary, damage.

I did run to the grocery store this morning, a brief and very early visit to my favorite Green Market. I kept my dark glasses on (the ostrich theory) and wore a hat with a wide brim, which of course did nothing to hide my nose, but at least made me feel incognita. Fortunately, I didn't run into anyone I know.... except for Chandra, the cheery checker. She looked at my nose. Embarrassed, I explained briefly that I'd had cryosurgery.

"Your family calling you Rudolph yet?" she replied.

I loved it. I envy Chandra her in-your-face (or up-your-nose) sense of humor. She wouldn't dream of explaining or apologizing for anything. Obviously, she never had to deal with a grandmother who considered it one's duty to look one's best at all times. It's not that my grandmother was vain; she simply considered caring about one's appearance to be a matter of consideration for others ("After all, other people have to look at you"). She never commented on whether or not she found me pretty, but she did check assiduously for cleanliness and neatness. If I passed muster, her sole compliment was a complex and challenging remark: "If you behave as well as you look, you'll do just fine."

The concept of other people looking at me no longer makes me uncomfortable, except when there's something as unpleasant as the blister/scab now on my nose, but such bravado has been hard-won. For many years, I was achingly self-conscious, painfully aware of my shortcomings, and I didn't let up on myself until I was well into middle age. That's when I finally looked around and realized I was reassuringly normal even if I wasn't beautiful. I daresay it's only human to look at others and compare one's appearance to theirs. There may be many whose beauty is positively depressing (who can forgive Sophia Loren?), but there are sufficient numbers of us ordinary folk to keep us from despair. In this world, it's reassuring at times to look to the right and left.

I had a co-worker who shall remain anonymous, who served as my personal introduction to the process of ageing. She is a lovely woman, about 6 months older than I, and I am embarrassed to admit that I felt a little smug when I first noticed that she was beginning to show signs of her age. That is, I felt smug until I looked in the mirror. The first time I noticed that the skin on her neck had begun to crepe up, I thought: "Well, at least I'm not having that problem yet." And then, when I got home, I looked closely in my mirror and cried: "Yipes!" There they were: the same tiny wrinkles and slightly sagging skin.

A few months later, I noticed the backs of her hands. The veins were standing up slightly, and age spots had begun to spread. "Well," I thought, "at least my....uh...oh, dear!" There they were, veins, age spots and all, folded neatly in my lap, unnoticed until that moment.

When my friend wore a sleeveless blouse, I suddenly saw that her upper arms had developed the "granny swing" of loose flesh. "At least I don't have that," I told myself. I'm a swimmer, and pride myself on my firm arms. And then, that night, as I brushed my hair, I discovered that more than my hair was swinging. We all know that gravity wins, but sometimes it sneaks up and takes us by surprise. Why is it that we are so often the last to realize that our turn has come?

Another friend told me that when she came across an ad for a miracle oil to combat those "premature wrinkles and signs of ageing," she was ready to send for the product until it hit her that there was nothing premature about her wrinkles. "At 75," she said, "there OUGHT to be wrinkles!"

My mother-in-law had a dear friend who had obviously been the belle of the ball when she was young. She was still pretty in her 70's and 80's, or rather she would have been pretty had she not worn bright red lipstick and drawn on eyebrows of an incredible length and density with a heavy, black pencil. She continued to do so even after she quit coloring her hair.

Her problem, I think, was one that can be blamed on ageing eyes. They just don't perceive color as well as they used to, especially in indoor lighting. My mother, in her eighties, fell in love with a lipstick of a particularly virulent shade of green. "It changes color when you put it on," she said, "to suit your own skin." What it did was turn a ghastly shade of screaming pink, but Mother, who was due for a cataract operation, couldn't see it. When I described the color to her, she relinquished the offending tube.

"Thank goodness I have a daughter," she said. "Only a daughter would be honest enough to tell me when I look foolish." I felt a rush of relief and appreciation that she took my advice so easily. "Of course," she said with a wicked gleam in her eye, "you have no daughter, so you won't ever know. After all, do you think a daughter-in-law will tell you something like that?" Well, yes, I hope so. But then, having learned by example, I won't be wearing lipstick at 80.

It's certainly no one else's business if you care to do elaborate makeup or play with your hair color, but it might not be a bad idea to go outside in the bright sunlight with a hand mirror, just in case your eyes and the indoor lighting are playing tricks on you. I had an eye-opening (literally) experience when I decided to repair my makeup at a picnic, in bright sunlight. That's why now I use only lip-gloss and a dusting of powder. It may not cover as many flaws, but it's a lot safer. At my age, less is indeed more

Hair, of course, is another matter altogether. Am I the only one who finds humor in women of a certain age whose hair is either an improbable caramel color, or a glistening blonde or an utter, relentless black? One of the good things about those popular "retirement communities" is that they have made going gray much more acceptable. I've noticed that in the dining rooms of such places one sees every conceivable shade and gradation of gray, white, or salt and pepper, but very few black or blonde heads.

Long ago, I toyed with the idea of lightening my hair, to match my towheaded first-born son. By the time he was born, my hair had darkened to light brown, and I missed the old, blonde me. However, when I considered the expense and nuisance of coloring, I decided to let nature take its course. I knew myself well enough to be sure I'd never manage to keep up with dark roots. At this point, (almost 40 years later) my hair is about half brown and half gray. My hairdresser assures me that the gray reads like highlights. Do I believe her? I do not. Nor do I care.

Actually, I have only to remember the faces of my family's elderly members to remind myself that smooth skin and firm muscles aren't everything. My grandmothers' beautiful faces, lined and age-spotted as they were, were dearer (and far more interesting) to me than the faces of any models or movie stars. And now that I, too, am a grandmother, I feel very settled into this old face. I'm fond of it. I don't draw whistles or second glances, but there are still occasional comments that warm the heart.

Last month I was in California, visiting my grandchildren. The three of them have varying shades of brown eyes, as do their parents. At one point, the three-year-old suddenly looked at me intently. "Grandma!" she cried in a voice of startled discovery. "You have blue eyes. Just like Alice In Wonderland!"

It doesn't get much better than that.

Nonetheless, I'm glad she won't see me again until this gosh-awful scab is off my nose. Vanity may lie quiet these days, but it dies hard.



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