Age Is the Great Leveler

When I was in my 30s and early 40s, I was still moderately invested in reading those “how to look your best” articles in women’s magazines. One of these I’ve never forgotten, chiefly because I never made it past the first few paragraphs.  The writer described an interview with a young woman who, having been to the gym, hopped out of the pool and was strolling back to the lockers when, as she described it, she noticed a young man “checking her out”.  This circumstance occurred a few more times as she wended her way to the locker room, and she was mightily pleased with herself until the changing room mirrors provided her the truth: she’d forgotten to wear waterproof mascara, and the evidence was streaming in two great, black runnels from her raccoon eyes.

Those young men had been staring all right – but not in approbation.

I was dumbfounded, not at the young woman’s mascara mistake, but at the confidence that led her to believe she was proving interesting to several young men. In her place, at her age, being glanced at repeatedly by anyone, man or woman, would have sent me scurrying as fast as I could to that locker room to find out what was wrong.

And that, I realized, is the difference in consciousness between a pretty, confident young woman and one such as myself, who was always plain. Plain women – plain people – do not expect anyone to glance at them with immediate approval.  Ever aware of our physical defects, we know that the first, assessing glance when we encounter someone new will almost always slide over us quickly and then look away, finding us wanting.

Although terribly painful to endure in one’s early youth, this unintentional disregard isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not once one comes to terms with it. Confidence steeps into the soul in a number of other ways; true self-esteem is slowly built not on a sliding scale of personal appearance, but on a sense of individual competence and effort, self-knowledge and personal evolution. The bricks of pride are slowly mortared  into place with a firm certainty that worth is based not on individual appearance, but one’s behavior; that kindness and courtesy and compassion are worth a thousand times more than a pretty face which will, after all, eventually fade.

And in that lies the next basic truth: Age is the great leveler. No matter how many face lifts and tummy tucks one has, no matter the beauty creams and Botox shots – we all age. Those of us who began the race plain have very little to lose, and so slip comfortably into old age. Sometimes middle and old age even provide us with a presence and dignity that we never had in youth.  But I cannot even imagine the angst of a once-beautiful person who sees that beauty slipping away each time they glance into a mirror. Sometimes (although certainly not always) they have spent most of their youth concentrated upon that reflection in the glass, and haven’t even begun to take the time for building personal pride from the genuine components of self-worth.  Doing so can be a difficult task when begun too late in life.

Having little beauty to lose can be a blessing.

Not that any of this means I’ve given up caring for my personal appearance – far from it. Loreal is my friend; monthly, I fight every strand of my whitening hair. I dab lotions on the lines around my eyes to lessen their appearance; I still put on (waterproof) mascara and lipstick and eyeliner and, occasionally, a few other cosmetics when I want to look my best.  But I am always aware that the face and body reflecting back at me as I dress and make up are just a shell.  I am enhancing the “me” that others will see at first glance only in the hope that they might take the time to know the person who lies beneath.  I acknowledge the somewhat sad reality that everyone, myself included, makes an immediate judgment about a person based on that initial glance.  (And if you do not believe this, take note of your own reaction the next time you see a homeless person on the street.)

If being plain has not been a blessing, it has also not been the curse that I thought it in my teenage years.

Yet I will always wonder what it might have felt like to be the woman who believed each young man she passed thought her lovely.

Saving Things For Good

My mother died in November, 2010. Following her passing, it took months — quite literally months — for my Dad and I to go through all her hoarded possessions and decide what to do with them.

One of the last things we sorted through was her china cabinet. The shelves were packed with her best china — lovely, thin, translucent white dishes with gold rims. There was expensive glassware, too,  and silver and crystal salt shakers, many of them.  Sadly, although unbroken, everything was in dreadful condition.  Each piece was covered with a pasty, thick film comprised of yellowed nicotine residue and grey dust.  The two prettiest salt shakers, exquisite cut crystal from the former country of Czechoslovakia,  were capped by ruined lids, the silver badly corroded because the seasonings put into them years before had never been removed. Nothing, not one of these lovely pieces of china or crystal, had been used in over twenty years.  They hadn’t even been visible, hidden behind the closed doors of cabinets, slowly gathering dust and grime.

For hours I carefully washed each piece, using a heavy mixture of nose-and-eye searing ammonia blended into scalding water; it was the only way to remove the thick film. Then I rinsed them multiple times and dried them gently until they shone once more, and took the dishes home with me.

A few mornings later, as I prepared my breakfast, serving myself on the pretty white-and-gold china, salting my eggs from the glistening Czechoslovakian crystal shakers, (newly capped with replacement lids that I’d hunted down at a flea market), it struck me forcibly that my mother had lived with these beautiful things all her life, and never enjoyed them.  It wasn’t just that they weren’t used — they weren’t enjoyed.   She took no pleasure in them; she merely owned them. They weren’t cherished, but accumulated.  They weren’t treasures, maintained and conserved; they were merely possessions.

A dear friend told me of a proverb she’d one heard, from another country, another age: that when something precious breaks, like a piece of valued china or a crystal cup, it is taking upon itself the harm that would otherwise have come to a loved one.  Therefore, when some precious possession shatters, one should rejoice, for now a loved one is safe.  In consequence, there is no point in packing precious things away or refusing to use them, for if they are destroyed, they have served even a greater purpose than the sheer pleasure of appreciating them.

So I use my mother’s fine china every day, and salt my food using her crystal shakers from a vanished country. Most of her plates are chipped now, touched with the “chigger bites” that indicate long use, their gold rims fading. Many have been broken. And often, too, I now use my own personal fine china and lovely pink Depression glass teacups — admiring them, holding them before my eyes and drinking in their beauty with my tea — taking pleasure in them, because no matter how precious they may be, they are valuable only if they are appreciated.  And if, as sometimes happens, one shatters and breaks, then I rejoice, knowing that my loved ones, my true treasures, have been kept safe from harm.

Hoard nothing.  Treasure everything.  And save nothing “for good”, for our good is right now.