My mother is a beautiful girl, smiling out from a faded photograph. Dad always claimed he fell in love with her at first sight. She was just seventeen then, in awe of the handsome businessman who’d driven out to her father’s farm. My father—confirmed bachelor, practical to the core—always struck me as an unlikely target for Cupid’s arrow.
But there’s proof: a photo Dad took that very day. I look at it and see a fresh-faced farm girl, beautiful and impossibly young, perched on the front fender of Dad’s shiny new Buick. Barely a year after that shutter snapped, the girl was a married woman.
Mom had a beautiful heart as well. But I wonder if she ever truly believed in her beauty. She came of age in the era of Ingrid, Greta, and Lana. She’d seen the post-war rise of Madison Avenue. She’d gaped at perfect bodies splashed across covers and centerfolds. Is it any wonder she absorbed the basic truth of twentieth century mathematics? Love equals beauty equals youth.
As a child, I watched Mom try to reverse-engineer the equation. If she could somehow stay young, she’d remain beautiful and, therefore, loved. My mother naturally looked younger than her years. She augmented this blessing of genetics with careful attention to clothes, make-up, and hair dye. But she despaired of the weight six pregnancies had deposited on her once-lithe body. She lamented each line that appeared in the mirror, every gray hair that showed when her roots grew out. Age was her enemy.
She fought the good fight with no hope of winning, and the knowledge of her advancing years created a kind of low-level panic. It wasn’t vanity driving her fear. Not really. It was the deep-seated cultural brainwashing that says age cancels love in the formula of life.
I was the late baby with the fortunate task of making Mom seem younger than she was. I was born to her at forty, but somehow she maintained the age of thirty-nine all through my childhood. She laughed with the younger mothers in the schoolyard. As long as she had a child, she thought, old age couldn’t come knocking.
I reached puberty just as Mom entered the rip currents of menopause. I remember her fiftieth birthday as a particular trauma, a milestone rejected with tears and gloom. The years that followed were filled with painful awkwardness for me, hot flashes for her, mood swings and drama for both of us. Poor Dad.
Mom’s youth was not to be vanquished by a mere numbering of years, however. She refused to succumb to the half-century mark. With grace and charm, she remained forty-nine until well past the day of my wedding. By this time she was a widow, without the assurance of the man who had, every day for forty years, looked at her and seen his young farm girl. With her husband dead and her baby married off, what was left?
A few years later, my daughter was born on Mom’s seventy-second fifty-ninth birthday. My little girl was a lot like her grandmother—outgoing and charming, and possessed of a beautiful zest for life. Mom had already welcomed a full dozen grandbabies, but her love expanded effortlessly to include this new life that was her most precious birthday present.
Age and youth shared smiles, hugs, kisses, and songs. They read picture books and baked cookies. My daughter loved to dress up in hats and pretty jewelry, because that’s what Mom-Mom wore.
Every fall, they shared a big birthday cake.
For a child, each year is an accomplishment. We all knew, though, not to mention my mother’s age. Mom liked parties, she liked cake, she loved presents and flowers and kisses and attention. But she hated, hated, hated the number that revealed how old she really was.
Two candles, three candles, four candles on the cake… During those years, my mother turned sixty-nine over and over and over again.
“How old is Mom-Mom really?” my daughter asked me one day.
“Oh,” I replied vaguely, “she doesn’t like anyone to know.”
“Well…” I struggled for words a five-year-old would understand. “I guess because some people don’t think older women are pretty.”
“What?!” My daughter’s little body began to quiver with the kind of indignation only a small child can produce. “Who thinks Mom-Mom isn’t pretty? Who? Who? That’s not true! Mom-Mom is pretty! She’s very pretty! She’s the prettiest person I know!”
I laughed and agreed that yes, Mom-Mom was very pretty, and people were really very silly. When I told Mom about it later, her face lit up. And that was a beautiful sight indeed.
The shared birthday cakes are a memory now. My daughter’s a young woman and her birthday belongs to her alone. My mother died at age eight-five. Or seventy-nine, for anyone counting by Mom’s own calendar. She denied her years until they ran out.
Time’s passed since that day, age and years marching relentlessly onward. Even so, there are minutes, hours, days, months when it’s hard to believe my mother’s love and beauty—and yes, her eternal youth—is really gone. In my heart and in my memory, her love will always be young and strong and vibrant. I’ve passed that love to my daughter, and we stand now sheltered under its beautiful, timeless arch.
Mom’s math was wrong. Love does not equal beauty does not equal youth. Age does not equal a diminishment of female worth.
Love equals love.