Learning to See Story
“For most women, to let die is not against their natures, it is only against their training.”Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves, 120
When I was young, I examined the blue veins that spread under my grandmother’s pink, brown, and white splotched skin and traced her exposed metacarpal bones with my index finger. Those old hands rubbed my back while she sang love songs to me in her shaking voice. I would play with the folds of velvety skin on her cheeks and neck; that beautiful old woman.
My grandmother’s hands are colorful: pink, purple, blue, white, red, black, and brown. Her white hairs glisten in the sun and her gentle hands cling to someone’s arm as she slowly walks. She used to be young with fewer colors and wrinkles on her skin. More flesh on her bones. But I don’t know that woman, that girl she remembers, all I know is my wrinkly, wise, wonderful Grandma.
Paradoxically, I’m afraid of looking old. I buy hopeful adjectives that are magically infused into serums, toners, and creams that I know don’t work: illuminating, resurfacing, age-defying. When I smile, my eyes crinkle and when I concentrate, my eyebrows squeeze together – no number of adjectives will resurface my wrinkles. I’ve been young, now I’m growing old and shaving my lip and peeing my pants; chasing my mom through time like she chases her mother, my colorful grandmother.
Wrinkles are the writings of time, teaching us to let things die; teaching us to see our stories and let our younger selves die. I remember my mom pulling her skin back to her scalp, smoothing out her wrinkles, or saying “you’re giving me grey hairs,” like it was a bad thing. But I loved how her white strands reflected the sunlight like diamonds hidden in her muddy hair. It meant she was still alive.
Plump skin rolls around my daughter’s thighs and neck as she skips and twirls through life. My greatest hope for her is to live, to grow, to become old and wrinkled and slow. She already traces the purple veins that bulge from my dry-skinned hand like a map of the desert and knows the wrinkles on my face when I smile. The wrinkles that teach her about life and story and death. She wants to grow old with me, too. Aging doesn’t happen to everyone, but death does. My daughter’s smile reminds me that I do want to get old and my grandmother’s smile reminds me of that too.
My grandmother had just returned from Cambodia, her third senior service mission, when she laid back in a dentist’s chair for the first time in 18 months and accidentally forgot who she was.
“Good news, you don’t have any cavities,” the dentist said before adding, “I’m curious why you haven’t ever had braces?”
“Oh,” my grandmother said, “I just never thought about it, I guess.”
“I don’t see teeth this terrible anymore,” the stranger said, “You should have gotten braces sooner, but I will recommend some really great orthodontists to you.”
When my grandfather drove her home, my grandmother was unsmiling and small. Surprised, my grandfather assumed she had cavities that needed filling. But she said no. Pain? No, she said. For days my grandmother didn’t smile. Her usual sunshine self was snuffed with humiliation.
Finally, my grandmother wept the story into the room as she hid her mouth from her spouse of fifty years.
“Why have I never thought about my teeth?” she cried, “I should have gotten braces years ago. I’m so embarrassed.”
My grandpa reached across the bed and held his old wife in his aged arms.
“Your smile is beautiful,” he said.
“No. It’s not. My teeth are so crooked. The dentist was right,” she said.
Holding my grandmother’s face in his hands, forcing her to look him in the eyes, he said, “No. He was not.” Tears traced the wrinkles down his face, too. “Everyone looks at your smile and sees your love. Think of the way our grandchildren’s faces light up when they see you. All they see is you, their grandmother, who smiles every time she sees them. All they want is you. Your teeth are crooked, and I love them. All I want is you.”
All I want is wrinkly, saggy, crooked teethed you. Because there is more to being human than attempting to erase time and stories from our bodies. So much more.
That dentist was wrong – my grandma’s smile is the most beautiful, old, imperfect thing that lights up the faces of those who know her. That dentist, like myself so often, was distracted by the artificial and aesthetic current ideal. He didn’t see the cleft palate she was born with, the years of occupational therapy that taught her to talk when she was five, the life within her glowing crooked smile. The dentist was distracted by cultural perfection and missed the deep history of her overlapping teeth; “fix it,” he thought, instead of witnessing the story written on her body.
My daughter is young with her fleshy plumpness, my grandmother is old with her saggy exposed colorfulness, and my mom and I are sliding somewhere in between – all of us imprinting our lives onto our bodies. Mary Oliver, in her poem “The Summer Day,” asks, tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? My grandmother chooses to smile. I long to hold the stories of women in my hands; not with the regimen of distracting participial adjectives, but with flesh and wrinkles and veins, with my body just the way it is right now because it will change tomorrow – teaching me to accept what is coming.