I’ve spent the last month remembering youthful hours in the sun, glorious hours—bikini-clad, canoeing the Wisconsin River, and later wearing hip sunglasses as I backpacked, over a span of years, in the Utah mountains. Those memories now rise up with less luster as I’ve found myself treating wonky spots of skin on my nose, spots with the potential to become cancerous. Every night before bed, I’ve coated them with a “chemo” cream and in the morning washed it off. As the cream began its work, I met with creeping dismay the frightening person who suddenly gazed back from the mirror. Nose harshly red, scabbed, angry—she would scare a child. My mother used to say, when I was still at home and would make some sort of ugly face, “Keep it up and it’ll stay that way.” I’ve now completed the treatment, but at its height, I’d look at my nose in the mirror and think, What if it stays this way? It’s been a time of wrestling with who I am, why I am, and whether to be embarrassed about either. There’s a saying: “Vanity, thy name is woman.” I’ve pondered that idea mightily over the last thirty days. I’ve also been thinking, more importantly, about my grandmother Hilda.
She was my mother’s mother, and she’s the young woman in this photo.
I’ll get to the story of the picture. But first, let’s talk vanity. Since going into isolation over the state of my nose, I’ve alternately languished and danced semi-crazed around the house for lack of people, lamenting aloud the wreck that was my face. My husband Bruce would catch me up, laughing, in his arms and say, “I didn’t know you were this vain!”
“And you’re a good one to talk,” I’d say as we laughed the freeing laugh of last resort.
He was coincidentally undergoing the same treatment on his face and scalp. Approaching seventy, we’ve both been getting annual skin checks for years, and this year we got the same recommendation: “Treat the sketchy-looking skin.” Marital devotion takes funny turns as a marriage matures. I administered the cream to Bruce’s scalp—it’s hard for him to see the top of his own head. Truth is, he too was bothered by the forest fire on his face but approached it with a “damn the torpedoes” attitude. Not happy, but “who gives a flip.” He resumed his social life sooner than I did, going off with his still painful, blotchy face. I had to admire him.
I lamented to my sister over the phone, “I’m feeling vain. Am I vain?”
If I’m searingly honest, I have to say that I am. I am—and I may be female—but I’m more generally human, and humans judge one another. Growing up, I had a long ugly-duckling phase, skinny as a stick, and because of it, shy. The worst of it was when I was thirteen. I grew out of it, of course, but other kids had taunted me unmercifully at times, and the hurt of it is stored in my bones.
Worse than simply being human, I’m human in a consumer- and youth-oriented culture. Turn on the TV, and you’re soaked with waves of electronic competition and judgment. Both women and men are held to standards of beauty unique to their place and time. Of course, it’s a matter of more than beauty—it’s about connection. People meet one another through their faces, where emotions can be intimately read. They also judge one another through faces. Having a painful wreck of a face, over the last weeks, flung my psyche back to age thirteen.
At my age, I’ve stood alongside a growing list of people close to me who have dealt with or are dealing with serious health problems. I’ve empathized from afar with others. There’s no comparing my last month to their experiences. But my recent angst has been personally valuable—when a blotchy nose becomes a small crisis, coming from somewhere inside me, it makes me see how fortunate and untroubled my physical life has actually been.
Maybe I’m thinking too hard about vanity. Is it true? “Vanity, thy name is woman?”
I started thinking about where the saying comes from. The Bible? Proverbs? It took but a moment’s look on the Internet to discover it’s from Shakespeare—or rather, it’s a twisting of a Shakespearean line found in Act I of Hamlet.
Hamlet’s father, the king, dies suddenly, and a month later, his mother marries the dead king’s brother, Hamlet’s uncle. Hamlet is unhappy about what he sees as his mother’s betrayal of her dead husband and says, “Frailty, thy name is woman!” He’s not referring to physical frailty, but to a weakness of character. Adding insult to the injury he feels, Hamlet learns later that his father’s death had not been a natural one. His uncle, now on the throne, had murdered Hamlet’s father by pouring poison into his ears as he slept.
How later generations went from “frailty” to “vanity” as they brought the saying into current culture, I don’t know. But I don’t find it surprising. Even now, a woman walks a tightrope between two poles: the Victorian ideal of The Angel in the House (from the title of a poem by Coventry Patmore, celebrating his wife as the perfect, selfless woman) and the ageless trope of The Fallen Woman. Ask any woman—if she’s brave and she trusts you, she’ll tell you stories.
That brings me back to Hilda, my grandmother.
Hilda was a pioneer—physically and mentally brave. After she and my grandfather married, they built a farm out of acreage that a lumber company had logged, taking the trees and leaving the stumps. My grandparents spent months blasting and digging out rocks and stumps by hand. Hilda delighted in telling stories about her youth and the first years of her marriage. Many of them are funny stories, and she’d laugh so hard, remembering, that her dentures would fly out of her mouth.
I like to weave details from my own life into the fiction I write. I put the nugget about Grandma Hilda’s dentures into a play, The Rock Farm. The characters pass a stormy evening telling stories from their family’s history, and they like to tell the same denture story about their late mother and grandmother.
Both Hilda, my grandmother, and the make-believe grandma in the play would just pop their dentures back in and keep talking. One of Grandma Hilda’s favorite stories was the story of her own birth, not long after her parents had emigrated from Finland. Baby Hilda arrived into the world during a blustery, cold March—the scene of the delivery, a cabin in the Wisconsin woods. Her mother told her that, as she cradled Hilda next to her in bed on the morning after she’d been born, a layer of snow covered the blankets. The log walls were chinked so poorly, the snow blew right in.
Hilda grew up to marry Väinö, and in their house was a tall wooden chest. It might be called a secretary cabinet. I remember it being half desk, half dresser. In its lower drawers were hundreds of photographs, old black and white ones. Sometimes, Grandma Hilda and I would go through the photos in the cabinet, and she’d tell me about each one. I was fascinated by the picture at the top of this post, fascinated by the scene itself and also by my grandmother’s explanation of what she’d been feeling as the picture was taken. I never forgot what she told me. Years later, when I was in my twenties and studying poetry, I wrote about the photograph.
Here’s the poem; here’s what I remember.
The girl is young, maybe seventeen,
and her friends have come to call.
They appeared suddenly, leaning
from the windows of an old car.
Someone has brought along
a camera, has trained its eye on her.
The girl’s flustered hands,
holding a pitch fork, are in her lap
as she turns her face for the picture.
Kneeling along the fence-line
rock pile, she is hiding the rough boots
she wears to work in the garden.
She has tucked her dress around them
with a winsome smile.
Grandma Hilda was comfortable to be with. She put on no airs. In telling me that story, sharing her embarrassment and chagrin over her friends’ having caught her in her everyday clothes and her shoddy boots, she was very naturally teaching me about life, about the human condition—wanting other people, needing other people, seeking a place and a purpose despite our human fears and frailty. Yes, frailty—not Hamlet’s “frailty,” but vulnerability. There’s no gain without risk.
Over these last weeks, as I’ve watched the skin on my nose progress from devastation toward renewal, I’ve reached an epiphany: what I’ve been feeling is deeper than vanity. My shallow angst over my disfigured nose sprang out of the deeper angst I feel about aging. And that’s an angst that plagues us all, whatever our gender, as Shakespeare knew.
It’s hard to be philosophical about the way a joint aches with protest—hard to ignore that my skin, now in my late sixties, will never, on its best days, be the velvet I was born with. My stage of life permeates everything I do, even what I write. Last summer, at dinner with a close group of women, we talked of how, since menopause, we miss the rhythmic surging of estrogen, the soothing of progesterone. We miss our young bodies and minds, but not how naïve we were.
There’s nothing incompatible about being a strong, brave woman and being open about what we lose by aging. An older man that I’ve looked up to my whole life, a well accomplished man, told me some years ago that he’d reached the age where he was inconsequential—no one, he said, wants to listen to an old man. It’s no stretch to observe that a woman reaches that inconsequential time of life earlier. It’s not hip to write, as I do now, about an aging woman’s loss and regret. To admit to not being immune from the pains of the flesh or pains in the mind isn’t fashionable or politically correct. It’s not comfortable for people to think about. But it’s real.
I’m grateful for my years of writing—the long training in sustaining focus, in getting the thoughts ordered and the stories right. My brain has to work harder now to access my memory—my tongue stalls occasionally mid-sentence, sometimes mid-word. It’s a challenge to my vanity and makes it a relief to sit at my desk and let my mind do its work unhurried and unencumbered. I expect the thirteen-year-old in me, the twenty-year-old, too, are dismayed by what they see now. And there’s the rub. I don’t look the same or move as quickly, but I am the same “creature” I was on the day of my birth.
After Grandma Hilda died, my mother caught a glimpse of her in a dream one night, alive in some unknown, beautiful place. Mom described it like this: There was a stream, smooth flowing, clear, and a vibrant green landscape spread all around—shimmering trees, whispering grasses running down to the stream’s edge. Grandma Hilda was there, kneeling in the shallows of the stream. She was her young adult self, wearing an achingly blue dress, and she was singing. She was singing and scooping her cupped hands repeatedly down into the stream and then lifting the water and splashing it over her face, her breasts, her arms. She was happy—nothing to mourn over, nothing to be feared.
Water—symbol and giver of life.
When my mother told me about her dream, I immediately saw Grandma Hilda kneeling in the water just as she kneels along the rock fence in the old photograph above. This last, sweet picture is of Hilda in her later years. You’ll notice she’s wearing blue. I share her childlike vanity—stirred up over shoddy boots, a scabbed nose. It’s human, and I will not be embarrassed about it. I find comfort in the hope I’ll meet Grandma Hilda at the edge of that stream someday. Until then, I think of her with every handful of water I gather and splash, washing this old face.