Children, especially our own, seem especially competent at guilelessly pointing out our flaws and insecurities. “From the mouths of babes,” is, after all, a proverb for a reason.
For a few months not long ago, my four-year-old took to drawing portrait after portrait of her loved ones—stick-figured, crazy-haired, one giant black eye staring right at you and one slightly smaller eye staring off the page, a demonic Cookie Monster of sorts. And always, always: a purple dog, a red ice cream cone, and a brown blob of poop floating between the person’s legs. I once asked my daughter why she insisted on the poop. “I need to use the brown marker,” she informed me matter-of-factly.
She papered the walls of her room, floor-to-ceiling, with these pictures—an unsettling gallery that will surely be recalled by friends and family should she ever end up on the wrong end of of a 20/20 investigation. And, although each picture looked almost exactly the same as the one on either side, she could tell you at first glance which one was Mommy, which was Daddy, Uncle Matt, a bear, a unicorn, whomever. As long as my portrait had me also looking like Uncle Matt or a bear or a unicorn, I took no offense. I was, like any mom, proud to accept my child’s artwork and display it for all the world to see, future psychological profiling be damned.
Then she got more sophisticated. The poop, mercifully, went away. The images started to have distinct characteristics. “What is that?” I asked one day, pointing to the large, wobbly oval bisecting the trunk of my latest stick-figure likeness.
Her: Those are your hips.
Me (gulping): And what about those little circles sitting on top of the hips?
Her: Those are your boobies.
Me (voice pitched an octave or two above normal): Shouldn’t they go up a little higher, closer to my head?
Her (irritated, as if I’m crazy): No.
My eight-year-old’s artistic abilities are more advanced, but she is nonetheless similarly skilled at innocently highlighting one’s insecurities. This morning, eating breakfast, I noticed my eldest staring intently at my face.
“Did you have stitches? You look like you have a scar here,” she asked, gingerly pointing to the corner of my right eye.
She is stitches-and-scar-obsessed these days, coming off a deep gash in her knee that resulted in a trip to the emergency room and an army of stitches marching like ants across her puckered skin. I see her sometimes, fingering the purple line that now bisects her kneecap. “Will I always have it?” she asks me, but not with trepidation. With hope. I think I understand such wistful attachment. Her body is unleashed, bones stretching seemingly overnight, so that a pair of pants that fit last week don’t cover her knobby ankles today. Her tiny, pearlesque baby teeth have been pushed out by aggressively serrated permanent teeth that shift around in her mouth, searching for a place to settle.
And vaguely, she seems to sense what is just around the corner, a body curving into womanhood, adhering like some ancient mystic to the rhythms of the moon. It must be a confounding state of impermanence, constant flux for which she is just along for the ride. I can understand, then, this affection for something that is enduring and singularly hers.
Or maybe she just thinks it makes her look bad-ass, like a Ninja Warrior.
No, no stitches, I informed my daughter, with a dose of defensiveness her question didn’t really deserve. Fortunately, the Soduku on the back of the cereal box had captured her attention in a way my not-scar failed to do.
Later, just out of the shower, I wipe away a square of mist from the mirror to study my reflection. The crease isn’t hard to miss. It’s not a scar, it’s a Grand Canyon-esque wrinkle. I have always thought of myself as someone who would “grow old gracefully” as the Olay ads of my youth encouraged.
I think I, more than most people my age, understand the great gift of old age, the harsh reality of the alternative. I knew only one grandparent. My father passed away when I was in my early twenties, my roommate died in hers. My son celebrated a single birthday.
I will embrace this wrinkle, I silently command myself. It is a physical badge of honor, a laugh line that marks the joy I have had in my life. I arrange my face into a smile, but the wrinkle is untouched, not activated even a tiny bit by my deranged grin.
Well…I’ve had a lot of sadness, too. I pantomime a frown, then full-on crying. Nothing.
Standing before the mirror, I run through a panoply of emotions: surprise, fear, anger, consternation, befuddlement. The wrinkle is stoic, unstirred. I am, however, deeply impressed by the acrobatic abilities of my eyebrows.
As I turn to leave, a final possibility seizes me…I sandwich my face between my hands, recreating the effects of lying on my side in bed, right cheek smashed against the pillow. The wrinkle deepens like the San Andreas fault. No, it’s not a laugh line, or a cry line, or any other emotionally-earned line. It’s a pillow smush line.
The foggy mirror has started to clear, revealing a clearer and regrettably more troubling view of the landscape of my body.
Oh, God, I think. I’m getting jowly. Like Churchill, but without a World War to my credit.
I note a stomach gone soft and doughy from carrying three babies, the three skin tags lined up like soldiers at the crease of my arm, a wiry hair that springs from my chin. (“Are you a billy goat,” my brother exclaimed once, in front of all our friends, as he reached across a table to pluck a rogue whisker.)
I am, it seems, slowly ceding parts of my body to the passage of time.
My bravado withers. I reach under the sink for the free-gift Clinique bag filled with free-gift moisturizing creams of varying shapes, sizes, and potencies. I select a tiny glass tub of “Moisture Surge” and apply it more than generously to the wrinkle and its brethren, all of whom have churlishly carved themselves into my face sometime while I wasn’t looking in the past eight years.
A knock on the door stops me just as I am circling the drain of self pity.
“Mommy?” calls a tiny voice from the other side.
“Whaaaattt?” I answer in the breathy growl my kids are no doubt used to hearing when they disturb me in the bathroom.
“I want to show you something.”
I throw open the door, my face glistening like a madman’s under a desperate sheen of Clinique-branded hope. My daughter is holding an orange piece of construction paper, another drawing scrawled in crayon on the back.
“It’s you!” she cries with glee. And there I am: one huge, gaping black eye, one slightly smaller, googly eye. A mohawk of orange hair, hands that look like catchers’ mitts. But no poop and—here I breathe a sigh of relief—no boobies.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she sings as she twirls round and round, holding the picture to her chest. Then she stops suddenly, walks over and wraps her arms around my leg. “A beautiful picture of my beautiful mommy.”
I feel her curled around me, cheek pressed into my soft belly. Can you believe that you once lived in my tummy? I have whispered to her time and again, watching the wonder bloom in her eyes. My body grew you.
I think of her birth, laughing and crying as I pushed her into this world, the doctors and nurses laughing and crying, too, for they knew that I had buried my son not eight months before. This child, the one I never thought I’d have, this great gift bestowed on me during the darkest hour of my life, she thinks I am beautiful. I will choose to believe her…From the mouths of babes, after all.
But I’m holding on to that moisturizer.