ARE YOU EVER TOO OLD TO BE VAIN?

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Southampton, New York: August 2013

Illustrative photo: Southampton, New York, August 2013.

(Now that it’s time in the Northern Hemisphere to pack away the woolens that not only keep us warm in winter but also cover us up, those of us who gave away our bikinis many decades ago must once again confront the pesky question that keeps coming up every year like a perennial:  How much of ourselves should we show?

Since I considered this question last spring in this very blog and have nothing new to add, why try to re-invent the wheel? Those of you who were reading TGOB that long ago may find what follows familiar, although I’ve edited it a bit;  the original version appeared here on April 20, 2014 (minus illustrative photo) under the title “Vanity and the Older Woman.”  Anyone still young and firm of flesh can skip it without great loss.  Go out and frolic in your skimpy next-to-nothings while you can.)

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VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am. Which means she was about seventy-one when she called. It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed. But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked. However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind. Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery. Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.) “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed. “It’s, um, about your arms,” she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more. The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before. Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin. And the last time I had seen her softening upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world.

Wow! Didn’t think I could be so judgmental? You sure thought wrong. I make judgments all the time (including about myself). However, I mostly keep mum about them. As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill. Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh? Awnings of loose skin beginning to hang below when the arms are raised? A wrinkling surface? “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question. ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really? Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go. You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully. “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up. Or if it’s a sleeveless dress — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly. “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to. You can still look good. A different sort of good. And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.” But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could. I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie. Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly. My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up. Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby. But then I never did my post-partum exercises. Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes. You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out. I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness. Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young. Even Diane Keeton, who at 68 still looks great, came out with a new book last year that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.” Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments. If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen, go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons. It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.” It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much. All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his. But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead. If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!

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A GLORIOUS DAY GUESS WHERE

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Yes, it was another trip to New York by bus last Saturday  — to see Un Ballo in Maschera (by Verdi), the last of the three opera matinees  at the Met to which I proactively subscribed last spring.  The caption of this post is not in any way sarcastic. The weather was spectacular.

Ballo in Maschera (Verdi). That's Dimitri ______ threatening to kill his wife for a presumed adultery with the king and Sondra_______ (the blameless wife) pleading in her long slip for her life. If you try very hard, you can also see me reflected in the glass, trying to photograph them for you.

 That’s Dimitri Hvorostovsky, as Count Anckarstrom, threatening to kill his wife Amelia for a presumed adultery with King Gustav III of Sweden (not seen in the poster).  Sondra Radvanovsky, as his blameless wife, is pleading in her ankle-length slip for her life. (He’s already ripped off her dress in a rage.)  If you squint, you can also see part of me unavoidably reflected in the glass, photographing this highly charged situation for your viewing pleasure. 

In contrast to the delights of the weather, I did not at all appreciate the “modernized” production we saw. What is the merit of dressing singers in an opera set in the late eighteenth century, and involving swords, prophecy and witchcraft, in mid-twentieth century dress, and against starkly minimalist abstract sets?  Why was almost every scene “enhanced” by a painted Icarus falling from the sky?  For me, such questions distracted from the richness of the beautiful singing to the point that the part of the day not involving the opera was more interesting than what was on the stage. Therefore once I show you the two glassed-in posters in front of the opera house advertising Ballo (above and below), we’re just going to enjoy being outside today. (With exceptions, of course, for bathroom and lunch and looking around at the opera audience.)

The masked ball itself. (Act III.)  What's all this with black wings sprouting everywhere?

The masked ball itself. (Act III.) See the black wings? (Only one set of wings in the poster, but many more, plus one white set, on stage.) What was that all about? Also don’t miss Icarus dangling above the singers.  In one large pictorial form or another, this inapt metaphoric reference dominated every scene. How was King Gustav’s love for the wife of his best friend without letting her know (adultery in the heart, as it were) — because of which the best friend stabbed him on entirely circumstantial evidence — in any way comparable to flying with wax wings too close to the sun?  Note too, near the bottom, my hands and iPhone, ever at work for you.

There were two free hours before curtain time.  Rather than run to the Time-Warner building on Columbus Circle for quick but high-priced new-clothes shopping, I decided to hang out in the sun instead. After so long and difficult a winter, certain parts of New York, such as Lincoln Center, can be quite lovely when the heavens (rarely) consent to smile.

Map. So -- if interested -- you can get your bearings as we stroll around.

Map of the area, to get your bearings if so inclined.

Here’s the Met itself (middle left on the map above), seen from Broadway at 11 a.m., several hours before the performance began:

Metropolitan Opera House, at the center of Lincoln Plaza.

Metropolitan Opera House, in the center of Lincoln Center.

As you walk closer, you get a better view of the fountain:

If I were still agile enough, I might have hopped up and perched myself!

If I were still agile enough, I might have hopped up myself!

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Hearst Plaza, featuring nicely designed black wrought iron chairs to sit in under the trees. This is looking north with the Met to my back, Avery Fisher Hall (soon to be renamed David Geffen Hall in return for a ten million dollar “gift” from David Geffen) to my right, and a very expensive Italian restaurant called (what else?) “Ristorante” directly in front. For $39 you can have a two-course lunch there, plus additional charges for dessert, beverages of any kind, tax and tip. I know this because I read the menu outside, not because I’ve ever crossed “Ristorante’s” threshold.

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Looking west at the New York Library for the Performing Arts, with the Met on the left, Hearst Plaza on the right, and a very blue sky above.

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Turning north again.

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The Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

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Reversing direction to look south from Hearst Plaza past the Met on the right, David Koch Theater (formerly New York Ballet Theater) on the left, and between them (across the street), Fordham School of Law.

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Preview of new opera productions to debut in the 2015-16 season. I was wearing a dress (as you can see in the reflection) because I was going out to dinner with New York friends after the opera and I have very few opportunities to wear dresses any more, so this was going to be one of them.  (In case you were wondering.)

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The American Ballet Theater (“ABT”) also has a spring season at Lincoln Center, and therefore gets its own poster behind glass.

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Skyline of costly apartments (in center of the shot). Met on the left, Avery Fisher Hall on the right.

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Looking towards Broadway with the Met at my back.

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Vanity, thy name is woman.  Unfortunately, glass doors are not really mirrors. Still it’s an interesting failure of a shot, don’t you think?

If at first you don’t succeed, try again.  I had to go to the bathroom anyway, where there are real mirrors.  The three photos below were taken in the Avery Fisher Hall ladies room, much more accessible than the Met’s (which in any event wasn’t open yet). After tending to business, I did first look around to be sure I was alone before engaging in this continued vanity project. Just as I was memorializing the shot, someone emerged from the last stall.  However, she doesn’t seem to have noticed me. I therefore left her in the picture, to preserve the verisimilitude of the occasion.

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I always look absolutely terrible in selfies. Taking one’s picture in a mirror seems to produce somewhat kinder results, perhaps because of the dim lighting. I do look rather pleased with what I see in the viewfinder, don’t I? When you’re nearly 84, it’s quite rare to find an image of yourself that doesn’t make you cringe. This one probably passes the blush test.

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Closeup. Still okay.

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Even closer. Now the wrinkles show. Smiling helps, though.

Men: please do feel free to skip the next few paragraphs, which consist entirely of fashion notes inspired by a comment to a previous post suggesting I do a piece on what I buy when I next go shopping for new clothes. I haven’t actually bought anything new yet, but as none of you has ever seen anything not new from my closet, we could start with what I had on in these pictures last Saturday.

The tote sitting on the sink in bone and black leather was from Eileen Fisher last summer. (Bought full price online and by now worth every one of the many many pennies I paid. I liked it so much I didn’t put it away when winter came, and now here it’s in season again, never having spent a single day off my shoulder.)  The watch with the red leather strap is from Alessi (Italian) but bought years ago at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) shop. The sunglass frames on my head and the frames of the prescription glasses to see with on my nose (which sometimes hang from the ring on the cord around my neck) were both hand-made in France but have no manufacturer name on them.  I bought them, seriatim, from an optometrist in Princeton at least five years ago.

Moving right along, the red cardigan sweater-jacket was acquired on sale and online, also from Eileen Fisher; I rarely wear it because it doesn’t look right by itself with pants or jeans and it doesn’t look right over skirts or dresses under winter coats. But the weather Saturday was too warm for a coat, and I couldn’t stay out through the evening in just a dress, so the red number got an outing. Bill is the only person who really likes it, but I guess it was all right for a wandering photographer to wear while taking pictures of herself.

The dress underneath the sweater (barely glimpsed in the photos) is black viscose jersey with long narrow sleeves; it spoke to me online at midnight four years ago from (you guessed it!) the Eileen Fisher web page. “Buy me!” it cried. (You can tell from the confessed provenance of most of my more presentable clothes that I consider this label a best friend to older women who still care how they look and are willing to spend some money to look that way.) The dress has no waistline or belt, but follows the body (not immodestly) all the way down to the hips, where it flares slightly. Too bad you can’t see the neckline, which is a loose infinity loop that looks as if it might be a scarf but isn’t; it’s part of the dress.

I will skip the source of the black tights. as I can’t remember where I got them.  The black leather loafers are Italian; their purchase took place in Boston, which I left nine years ago, from a shoe store on Boylston Street, opposite the Boston Garden. But that sort of vague and dated information is useless, so let’s forget it.  All this does go to show, however, that I keep things I like for a very long time — if that in any way justifies what I spend for them in the first place.

Okay, men.  You can come back now.  It’s chow time.  Aka lunch.

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American Table is on the ground floor of Alice Tully Hall, just across 65th Street and facing Broadway. I favor it when I’m in the neighborhood because it opens early, serves all day, and closes late. Moreover, as long as you order something, even if just coffee, you can sit and sit, without being hovered over by a waitperson wanting to clear the table.

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I also very much like the fact that the wall facing Broadway is all glass, which permits you to people watch while you’re inside.

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You can see small children (guarded by their careful parents) playing on the tower of steps outside .

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Or you can simply snoop at the passing scene without being noticed yourself.

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It’s also a very pleasant place to meet a friend for lunch or a drink.

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Here’s the menu.

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You place your order with the man at the right, and pay. Then you go sit down. A waiter will bring your order to your table.

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I had the market salad with smoked salmon. When you unroll the pink rosette sitting on the sliced radishes and greens, it becomes four long strips of salmon.

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By the time I got back to Lincoln Center, the crowds in front of the Met were beginning to gather.

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But there were still about twenty minutes till curtain time, and it was too nice to go in just yet.

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I sat and looked up at the spring sky for a while longer.

Once in my seat at the Met, I did observe that some of the younger patrons may have over-welcomed the arrival of spring. There was a noticeably reckless casting aside of garments to display as much flesh as could be considered minimally decent in such a cultured venue.

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This young person, for instance, appears to be cold. She may have overdone it.

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Oh, those very short summer sundresses! Oh, such expanse of youthful thigh! Bill loved this picture when I showed it to him Saturday night.

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By contrast, other young women, less favorably endowed, were not so eager to put aside their coverings. My mother, were she still alive, would have strongly disapproved of the horizontal stripes on so broad a backside as this. But she’s not, so I’ll leave it alone.

After King Gustav had been stabbed, had pardoned everyone, had assured Amelia’s husband (in fine voice) that she was innocent of wrongdoing, and then had collapsed stage front, quite dead, as the curtain fell — I hurried out and managed to flag down a cab to take me north and east to the Upper East Side, where the 1% live. New York is beautiful there.

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A view of Central Park from across Fifth Avenue at East 95th Street. You may not be able to quite make it out, but just above the white SUV is a charming playground for little ones where my New York grandchildren used to dig, climb and swing before they were old enough to go to school.

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Looking north on Fifth Avenue from 95th Street. This part of the city is called Carnegie Hill.

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East 95th Street, seen from Fifth Avenue.

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Flower gardens, New York City style. Here I put away my camera, walked down the street, and met my friends at Tre Otto (Three Eight), a relatively new neighborhood Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue between 97th and 98th, where the waitress explained (when asked) that it’s called “Three Eight(s)” because the owner’s grandmother was born on the 8th of August in 1908 — eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the century — and many of the recipes used in the restaurant came from her.  I took the train home at 9 p.m. — after a long but delicious day.  I hope you enjoyed it, too.

WHO WOULD I BE FOOLING?

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For many years, whenever what I saw developing in the bathroom mirror displeased me I would think: “Oh well, I can always make all that disappear with plastic surgery.”

Somehow that didn’t happen.  I hate pain, even if temporary. I also hate the pain of writing any check containing the word “thousand” after a single or double digit number, a pain that isn’t so temporary. The sum of money indicated on the check vanishes from your possession forever and then you can never again think about spending it, if you really wanted to, for something you normally would never spend money on.

In my early sixties, when I was once more between husbands, I did consult a plastic surgeon in Boston about something unrelated to my face.  (The consultation was free.)  He seemed not only a well-trained fellow with unusually attractive patients in his waiting room, but also turned out to be sensible and realistic. He was easily able to persuade me of what I had suspected all along:  what I had sought counsel about was neither feasible or necessary.  However, he was so nice I was sorry to part with him.  “So isn’t there anything you could do for me?” I asked.

He regarded me thoughtfully for a moment and suggested perhaps a partial “procedure” to restore my youth from nostril to neck. (That’s not exactly how he put it.)  But he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. After a moment he also added:  “It isn’t necessary either, you know.  A man who really loves you won’t care about the firmness of your chin.”  I did wonder how he kept his waiting room filled if he shared that wisdom with other prospective patients.

Fast forward to my eightieth year, when a brownish three-dimensional  “thing” began to sprout from my upper left cheek.  Wrinkles and sag I had learned to live with. But not this intruder (extruder?), if I could help it.  Again I sought professional help. This time she was a woman here in Princeton, accredited up the wazoo, who assured me she could remove the “thing” and at the same time smooth out the surface of my skin with a “deep peel” as well.  This appeared to be a package deal. It was summer and I was both lazy and innocent in the ways of dermatologists and plastic surgeons.  I said okay.  But then, since it was another of those free consultations, I asked how much a one-time, first and last, face lift might cost. I know, I know: nobody asks such questions without harboring a secret yearning to look young again.

Her face lit up.  (Now for the profitable stuff. ) She whisked me over to a seat in front of a mirrored wall and stood behind the chair. Then she lifted upwards with both her knowing gentle hands. Voila!  The face of my thirties greeted me.  In my real thirties, I had kept finding fault with this face.  Let me tell you, it looked pretty good to me now.

“O, what cheekbones!” she rhapsodized.  (Really?)

I left not only with an appointment scheduled for “thing” removal and a deep peel, but also with pricing for facial surgery alone, facial surgery plus eye lift, cost of hospital stay, cost of anesthetist for four hours general anesthesia, the memory of the face in the mirror and  — pain be damned! — a trembling desire,  as the copywriter in me would put it, “to roll back the years.”

Bill, the man who eventually loved me despite my unfirm chin, sat up with a start at the news and remembered his years in medical school sixty years before.  “Four hours under general anesthesia for elective surgery?  At your age? Absolutely not!”

My internist agreed.  At eighty? Not wise.

Several acquaintances whose opinion I sought had heard there was a slight risk of loss of mental acuity.  Meaning I might lose some smarts.  (Some of what’s left, that is. There’s plenty gone already.)

I lost faith in the doctor over the next few months anyway. She did get the “thing” off. But let me tell you a deep peel h-u-r-t-s, no matter how expensive it is. (She never mentioned that, or that I would have to spend the summer smeared in Eucerin — greasy! — under widely brimmed hats.) I never went back for a yearly re-do, as recommended if you wish to retain your supposedly fresh and dewy look.

So if the subject of facelifts had come up after that in any dialogue, real or virtual, you would have found me almost entirely on the side of being oneself.  In moderation, of course.  What I don’t spend on Manolos or Louboutins (because I’d fall on my face if I tried to walk in them) goes to my hairdresser, who owns his own eponymous shop and therefore costs more. (Although no tip because he’s the owner.) There —  pain-free and hence without general anesthetic — I get Keratin straightening twice a year, and coloring my roots every eight weeks, and partial “highlighting” every sixteen weeks, and the obligatory double cheek-kissing at the end of every visit.  (He’s Moroccan, French-speaking and Paris-trained.)  I also have a bathroom full of Bobbi Brown products, which somewhat mask the absence of continued dewy facial freshness, and I smell (if I may use the word) of Hermes. (On Perfume.com it seems it’s nearly always 15% off.)  Which fragrances? Caleche for day, 24 Faubourg for evening and specials. (Don’t ask what the specials are; I know one when I see it coming.)

But deep down, have I still yearned to look young(er)?  Um, yes. It would be great to look the way one sometimes feels.  Then sappy young waiters wouldn’t dare be patronizing, and maybe medical assistants who never saw me before would stop with the kindly, reassuring first-name business,  and  — here we’re really getting to the nitty gritty — I could still flirt with strangers, which used to be one of the major fun parts of everyday life.

Don’t be too concerned, though. The yearning has always stayed deep down.  Until a few weeks ago, when it may finally have gone away for good!  I recently took a commuter bus instead of the train to New York (just to see what it was like) and went to the rear, hoping if it didn’t fill it might be quiet enough back there to read.  It did fill, though, and three ladies who got on north of New Brunswick sat down in the row in front of mine. The two directly in front of me were likely in their early sixties. I could give you a wicked description of their haircuts and what they had on (I can be truly evil when the spirit so moves), but will leave them in peace because they had smile lines around their mouths and little crinkles around their eyes and the kind of chin lines the men who love them — and I’d be willing to bet they each have such a man — don’t care about.

But the third lady, sitting one row in front of me and across the aisle, immediately attracted my attention for the dewy white unblemished freshness of her complexion.  She couldn’t have been young — she came with the other two and her straight hair was that of an aging woman, the sort of hair a hairdresser can only cut short and then color a desperate shade of straw, to try to conceal its wispy thinness. Despite the hair, however, her skin had not a single line at all,  anywhere, and it couldn’t have been just Botox.

Moreover, her blue eyes were open very wide throughout the entire seventy-five minute ride, as if she had just seen something that startled her and her eyelids had frozen high in the eye sockets. There was no indentation at all between her nostrils and mouth; that part of her face had been stretched so wide it was absolutely flat. The stretching had thinned her lips into a long straight line, as if if she were perhaps about to smile but had thought better of it.  No smile lines framing the mouth, though.  But what was most startling was her chin and jaw — both sharp and clean and raised up as if she couldn’t lower them. And perhaps she couldn’t.  I took my gloves off and pulled my own face and throat back with thumbs and fingers as tightly as I could and then, without letting go, tried to lower my chin.  I couldn’t.

Was it a terribly botched job?  A third or fourth or fifth facelift? Somehow I think it was repeated, and intentional.  Perhaps the unbelievably babylike texture of her skin made her feel young. This lady was at least in her seventies. She wore a black Persian lamb coat, and who wears those anymore? Her hands were bony and had some brown spots; there was a slight osteoporotic hump beneath the back of her Chanel-copy jacket; she took a sucking candy out of her handbag and sucked it in the front of her mouth with closed (stretched) lips, the way old ladies often do.  (Except her chin stayed jaunty as she sucked.)  Occasionally she made a comment to her friends across the aisle; she had what my eight-year-old grandson would, with the blunt outspokenness of childhood, call an “old lady” voice.

So who did she think she was fooling? Who would I be fooling if I had insisted on tinkering with the passage of time? I don’t have the hump, or the coat, or the sucking candies, but my hands are a dead giveaway and when I have phlegm my voice cracks.  With her jaunty chin and startled eyes, she slowly made her way down the aisle of the bus in front of me, her feet set wide apart to keep her balance, her pocket book full of those candies dangling from her Persian lamb-covered arm. The driver gave her a hand off the bus. Despite the dewy freshness of her complexion, he knew she’d need his help.

THE GIRL WHO BECAME MY MOTHER (PART VI)

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[Continued from five previous posts: “My mother was born on or about July 16, 1904 in or near what was then Vilna, Russia, to Vladimir Vainschtain and Berta Isaakovna Vainschtain (nee Shulman)….” When she was ten, her father died and her mother took her and her five-year-old brother to Baku, where she was sent to live with a married half-sister.]

IMG_0563LIFE IN BAKU.  This is what I know about my mother’s life in Baku:

School.  She said she had not been a remarkable student, and did not especially like school. Her best subject was mathematics. On a scale of 0 to 5, her marks — I am using her term — were always 5 in mathematics, usually 4 in everything else. (Mathematics probably meant arithmetic, at least at first, although later it would also have had to include algebra, geometry, and maybe even calculus.)  However, her academic performance was good enough to win her one of the few places reserved for Jewish girls in a “gymnasium” — one of the official schools in Tsarist Russia from which a diploma was necessary for entry to any institution of higher education.  Admittance to a gymnasium — for everyone — was by examination, but  the competition for the few Jewish places was fierce, especially where the Jewish population was large. According to a memorandum my father wrote of his own early life in Russia, the Jewish quota for all officially approved schools was ten percent of the student population. My father added that when his brother, five years older than he was, took the examination, there were not many Jewish families in Baku, and even fewer Jewish children, so it was relatively easy to win a place. But when the time came for him to apply, it was a different story!  A flood of people had come south, fleeing first the war, then the Communist takeover in the north — and of course among them many more Jewish families. My mother was two years younger than my father; her own disclaimers about her scholastic achievement to the contrary, her performance on the entrance examination must therefore have been very good indeed.

Piano.  She had wanted to learn to play the piano, perhaps because cousin Lisa had played. Lessons were available to her, but her half-sister had no piano on which she could practice. For a short while she tried to practice on the school piano after hours, when it was not in use. But this seems not to have worked out, and she soon gave up. When I was seven and she was thirty-four, my father bought a Steinway baby grand on time (monthly payments) and arranged for me to have lessons. My mother was very proud of that piano; it had the place of honor in our living room. Every day she dusted it lovingly and carefully wiped down the ivory keys one by one. But when I — the helpful seven-year-old — suggested that now we had a piano she could take lessons too and practice while I was in school, she shook her head. “No, it’s too late,” she said.

Crushes. As she entered adolescence, she lavished love on famous women opera singers and actresses. She even brought the cardboard-backed photograph of one of them to America — her favorite, I suppose.IMG_0541 It shows a  svelte woman in a floor-length dress and a long looped string of pearls looking up at the ceiling dramatically. The photograph is signed (in Cyrillic lettering) Vera Kholodnaya; I have no idea who the woman was.  Perhaps a silent film star? A renowned soprano? I remember my mother singing snatches of arias from Tchaikovsky’s Eugen Onegin while she did her housework when I was little.  [As a result, I can sing them, too:  “Shto-tyi, Lenski, nyi tansooi-ish?” Why, Lenski? Why aren’t you dancing?]

Appearances. One summer, she said, she had only two dresses, both white. But every day, she would wash and iron one and wear the other, so that she was always clean and neat.

Dieting. She also dieted, allowing herself every day only one small bunch of grapes and one piece of bread. [Here she would draw with her two forefingers on the kitchen table the outline of the square of bread which had been her self-imposed allotment.] She must have had iron self control. As for the length of time she maintained this spartan program, she never said. Telling me about it, when I myself was trying to slim down for college, was supposed to be inspirational. But by then I recognized a recipe for certain failure when I heard it, and did not seek further detail. My generation counted calories.

Vanity. She squeezed her feet into shoes that were too small for her because small feet, she said, were fashionable in Russia and she was vain. (It may also have been that during wartime and afterwards, pretty shoes were hard to find and you took what there was.) When I was growing up, she wore a 6 ½ and then a 7. She said that in Russia she had sometimes tried to get into a 4. As a result, she developed enormous red bunions that distorted the shape of her feet and later gave her much pain and many visits to chiropodists. It was not until she was nearly eighty that she gave up wearing stylish shoes and consented to become an old lady in sneakers.

Starvation. After the Red Army arrived in Baku in 1920, food became scarce. Soon there were no more potatoes. No more grapes. Bread was rationed. And what bread was available was so adulterated with sand she developed canker sores from malnutrition.

Romance.  At seventeen, she had a boyfriend. He was blond, with light-colored eyes; his oddly combed hair featured a wave at the upper left temple. He appears at the right side of the front row of a group photograph of university students, sitting on the ground and wearing a jacket with some kind of medal hanging on it.  My mother, unsmiling and plump (despite the diet), with long brown hair loosely heaped up beneath a large hat, is seated near the center of the second row.

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Although they’re not sitting near each other, I know the blond one with the wave is the boyfriend because among the photographs she brought with her from Russia is a separate small photo of the same young man; the hair, wave and medal are identical.

IMG_0550On the back of the small photo, in pale violet writing so faint it would be illegible even if I could read Russian, is a personal message to my mother from the subject of the photograph.  They saw each other for about six months, she said. Once she also told me they were engaged. I now think this means she slept with him, a confidence she would never have shared with me at the time in so many words. [After becoming a mother, she put her own past conduct behind her and adopted the two principles on which American mothers were then allegedly raising their daughters: (1) Men want only one thing; and (2) No man will marry used goods.]

Another loss.  This fiancé was not my father. So how did they break up?  (At last, a juicy part of the story!)  My mother pursed her lips and smoothed the sleeve of one of my father’s dress shirts on the ironing board before sprinkling it with water from a glass. “His family was connected to the nobility,” she said. “So they arrested him.”  And? The hot iron made a sizzling sound on the damp shirt. “We went every day to the prison.” She didn’t explain who “we” was. “Until we found his name on the list.” “What list?” I asked. “The list of those who had been shot. ” My mother turned my father’s shirt over on the ironing board to do the back.

MY FATHER.  Not long afterwards, my mother met my father, an engineering student at the Technology Institute in Baku –probably during the summer she turned eighteen, or just before.  “How did you meet?” I asked.  “At university,” she answered.  My father was more specific.  They had mutual friends, who introduced them on the esplanade running along the shore of the Caspian Sea.  Four or five months later, he managed to bring her out of Communist Russia with him. They made this exodus sound simple when I first heard of it.  He asked if she wanted to come.  She went to ask her mother if she should go.  Her mother’s response is the only thing she ever told me Berta Isaakovna said to her.  There was no equivocation:  “If you can get out, get out.  There’s nothing for you here.”  My grandmother also sold a featherbed and a pair of pearl earrings to give my mother the money to pay her passage.

But it wasn’t simple.  “Getting out” was far from easy.  However, I have already written that story elsewhere. It appeared in an online magazine called Persimmontree. You can read it here, if you like. This may therefore be a good place to stop, before my mother and father reach America, speaking no English, but leaving war, hunger, and executions behind them forever.

When they were both in their early eighties and my father happy to reminiscence, I asked him once why he had invited my mother,  met so recently, to come with him to America. He thought about it for a moment, smiled, and said, “I wanted sex.”  I looked at my mother — that staunch advocate in my girlhood of “Men don’t marry used goods.”

“Mama, was this true?”  She nodded sheepishly, and lowered her head.  And never mentioned it again.  But who’s to say she was wrong to succumb so quickly, and so soon after the execution of the first fiancé?  I have to be glad she did, or I wouldn’t be here to tell you about it.

My mother’s experiences in America may well have further shaped the girl of eighteen who arrived on Ellis Island.  But what she experienced in those first eighteen years — the repeated losses, deprivations, dislocations, fear (whether or not I have got the details quite right) — was formative.  They crippled her as a person, a woman, a mother.  Until she died she was afraid of “them” and what “they” might do.  (You couldn’t ask who “they” were.  She didn’t know.)  She placed excessive value on “money,” both overly respecting and also envying those who had the security and comforts it could buy.  She thought you were nothing without a man, you must do all you could as a young woman to attract one, and then once you had him devote yourself to him and his needs for the rest of your life so as not to lose him  — irrespective of the cost to your own needs and happiness.  She thought it was safest to stay home, it was bad to be Jewish, it was good to be beautiful.  Once I was no longer a little girl, it was never easy to be her daughter.  But that’s another story.

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So I will leave you with one last photograph of my mother and father on the streets of New York, six months after they arrived in America.  It was the summer of 1923, when she was nineteen and he was twenty-one and their whole grown-up life in a new country was still to come.

 

VANITY AND THE OLDER WOMAN

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A year ago last November I had a phone call from an acquaintance who’s ten younger than I am.  Which means she was about seventy-one when she called.  It was a peculiar conversation. You may not even believe two mature, extremely well educated women would actually be discussing what we discussed.  But it’s true: Charming, intelligent older ladies can be reading Lydia Davis or War and Peace one minute — as a matter of fact, this acquaintance and I met in a James Joyce class — and still have a seemingly nonsensical exchange the next.

The purpose of her call was ostensibly to “touch base,” since it had been a while since we’d met or talked.  However, it soon appeared there was something more on her mind.  Although we were then heading into winter, she and her husband were going to Florida for three or four weeks while he recovered from surgery.  Florida in winter may offer cool evenings, but the days are usually not bundle-up weather. (Unless you spend your time in overly air-conditioned restaurants.)  “May I ask you a personal question?” she suddenly blurted out, a propos of nothing at all.

Well, sure.

She seemed almost embarrassed.  “It’s, um, about your arms,”  she said. “Mine aren’t looking so good any more.  The upper part. How do you deal with that?”

Actually, I was surprised she hadn’t brought this up before.  Although she was a fiend for exercise — the gym at least four times a week, a personal trainer once a week, bike-riding along the Jersey shore every weekend when weather permitted, golf all summer long — she was short and not thin.  And the last time I had seen her upper arms sleeveless, I had privately thought that perhaps there was rather too much of them to be shown so openly to all the world, especially as they had curious cellulite-like indentations in their probably softening flesh that I have never seen on the arms of a young woman, no matter how plump.

Wow!  Didn’t think I could be so judgmental?  Then you sure thought wrong.  I make judgments all the time (including about myself).  However, I mostly keep mum about them.  As I had with respect to the acquaintance’s upper arms. Didn’t even mention it to Bill.  Of course, I had also privately admired her for displaying an age-related cosmetic flaw without a trace of self-consciousness. Especially as she’s still a pretty woman, if somewhat round, who could usually pass for sixty, and therefore might be expected to be vain about presenting herself in the best light possible.

But now, apparently, she was concerned. So what was it, if not merely over-dimpled buttery flesh?  Awnings of loose skin hanging below when the arms are raised?  A generally wrinkled surface?   “What do you do?” she repeated.

Well, that was an easy question.  ” I cover them up,” I said.

“Really?  Even in summer?”

“Have you ever seen my upper arms?” I asked.

“Come to think of it, no,” she replied.

“There you go.  You have no idea what they look like.”

“That’s true,” she observed, thoughtfully.  “So what do you wear?”

“Three-quarter or long-sleeved tee shirts with the sleeves pushed up. Or else linen or cotton shirts with the sleeves slightly rolled up.  Or if it’s a sleeveless dress  — and it’s hard to find great summer dresses that aren’t, although there are some — always a light jacket or shirt-jacket over it.”

“Oh,” she said.

“You’d have figured it out for yourself,” I said, encouragingly.  “You just have to start thinking a little differently than you used to.  You can still look good.  A different sort of good.  And you’ll have so much fun stocking up on new summer tops!”

She didn’t exactly say, “Gee, thanks.”  But I did feel I had been as helpful as I could.  I don’t know what her other older friends told her, if she asked them, but I don’t know what they look like, either. And it was my sense she called me first. So that tells you something, doesn’t it?

We did not discuss beachwear in this particular conversation because she didn’t bring it up. That’s just as well; what to wear at the beach is a difficult topic at any age unless you look like Barbie.  Obviously you have to swim sleevelessly.  My rule would be to get in fast if you’re getting on in years, do what you have to do, get out, and cover up.  Old skin shouldn’t have too much sun, anyway. I personally never really liked big salty waves, and stopped liking generous displays of self on sand and shore somewhere around forty — after the second baby.  But then I never did my post-partum exercises.  Others may have a somewhat longer beach shelf life. However, there comes a time for all of us ladies — and gentlemen, too, but that’s an entirely different subject — to bow to the inevitable.

There’s an ethical component to how you comport yourself when that time comes.  You can spare other people too intimate a look at the inroads time is making on your body, or proudly let it all hang out.  I suppose the second path is the one that leads to righteousness.  Indeed, there are quite a few older-woman blogs which declaim that we should be proud of our wrinkles, our receding hairlines (if that’s how age afflicts us), and all the other visual signs that our bodies are slowly shutting down and giving up, now that we’ve done our reproducing and finished raising our young.  Even Diane Keeton, who at 67 still looks great, has just come out with a new book that declares the beauty of the wisdom that shines from the aging face. (Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen her prancing around sleevelessly in movies for quite some time.)

The thing is, though, most other, younger, people don’t have eyes for that kind of “beauty.”  Although the very very young make no judgments about what they see, people who are no longer children but are still quite far from getting “old” themselves, do make judgments.  If you look too much older than they are, they may disregard and/or discount what you say, and be impatient for you to finish. You may be invisible on crowded streets; people — busy men, especially — may walk right into you. You begin to feel no longer entirely a full-fledged member of the human race.

So you can take the high ground, let what happens just happen,  go on dressing the way you always dressed, doing your hair and face the way you always did, and spend the years and energy you have left trying to change group-think about what “getting old” means — hoping someone will listen to you as you look older, and older and older.

Or you can forget about trying to change how the world thinks about “old” (especially if you were somewhat impatient with “old” people yourself in days gone by) and instead try to look as attractive as your years permit. Which, by the way, does not mean face lifts. They fool nobody, and also expose your aging body to the real risk of general anesthesia for four hours or so, for entirely elective and frivolous reasons.  It does mean considering how to adapt to what you now have to work with in order to present a pleasantly acceptable self to the world.

Which is why I still go to the best hairdresser I can afford, for a good haircut and color for my hair. It’s why I watch my weight, and wear some makeup, and throw away clothing that shouts “I am twenty years out of date and nobody wears pants like this anymore.”  It’s why when I’m not in jeans or black yoga pants, I wear very classic well-cut pieces that fit perfectly (even if they need tailoring to get there), in black and grey and brown and white and ivory, with a few punches of red (or sometimes pink or violet), and once in a while something with edge, but not too much.  All of this costs, which means I buy less and wear it more often — and that’s good, too.

Call me superficial or vain if you like. I don’t expect anyone to fall to his knees anymore, clasp my ankles and beg me to be his.  But I also don’t expect to be walked into on the street when I go to New York, and nobody does. I do expect that when I smile at strangers, they will smile back, and most of them do. I expect to feel like a somewhat older, but not too-old, member of the human race until I have to pack it in — and I will do whatever I can do to ensure that that happens.

Anyone inclined to argue that this is the wrong approach for a woman with both feet in her eighties, go right ahead.  If you want any cred, though, you’d better have really flabby upper arms!