Rearranging My Face

Whenever I allow myself to conjure my mother, who died in Memphis on Christmas Day 2013, I think of Pond’s cold cream. I say “allow” because her absence is still so wrenching that I cannot linger there. When I feel the need for a “visit,” I hole up alone in my private space—one of my children’s old bedrooms that I converted into a Room of My Own, complete with Mother’s mahogany, leather-topped desk and pictures of our young family, circa 1955. I sit there in silence, letting memories wash over me.

I often remember her bedtime ritual. After brushing her teeth, she cleaned her face elaborately with a cotton pad and Pond’s cold cream, then wiped her forehead with alcohol before applying these sticky, band-aid-like triangles to her forehead just above her nose, between her eyes. Three prominent, deep wrinkles—her worry lines—marred her otherwise smooth face. She bought boxes of these questionable wrinkle-aids at Wiles Drug Store, our neighborhood pharmacy, which was most famous for its soda fountain and homemade, hand-packed ice cream. There was not a night I remember that she failed to engage in this compelling practice. Naturally, as a child, I joined her: dipping my fingers into the jar of velvety cold cream and, in kind, smearing it all over my make-up-less face.

I can’t say that her frown lines ever improved, but the sticky triangles definitely had a placebo effect, which was more to the point. In the morning, I often joined her in the bathroom I shared with my parents as she peeled them off delicately, inspecting her face in the mirror before rinsing with warm water and applying powder and lipstick. When her lipstick was down to a nub, she spent weeks wielding a small brush, digging deeply into the tube, to salvage the remnants. I felt privileged to witness these private, feminine ablutions. To me she was lovely, wrinkles and all. The lines gave her character. She wouldn’t have been “Mother” without them.

Unlike my older siblings, I inherited her worry lines. I lived with them for years, a slave to my heredity, before addressing them. As time marched on, I began to notice in family snapshots that they were becoming more and more pronounced and that furthermore, I often wore the same dour expression that Mother generally exhibited in pictures. I was, in a word, becoming my mother. She was terribly camera-shy and believed, in keeping with her unacknowledged beauty, that vanity was ignoble. She had a horror of calling attention to herself and strategically kept the focus on others. Even her best friends complained that she never talked about herself, or her family. And I have yet to find a photo of her that captured her essence.

As she grew old, having finally moved from our home on Rozelle Street into the Trezevant Manor, I began to grieve her. Not only had I chosen to leave home, and Memphis, at 18, but I had chosen to distance myself otherwise. I did not understand her—why she had neglected to explore her talents and capitalize on her intelligence, why she had not, in a more empowering manner, stepped into her life. And I took it as a personal affront that she was hidden, unknowable, even with me.

So after she died, I began rearranging my face. I tried not to frown. I practiced smiling, or keeping my expression pleasant when I was driving, working, reading or grocery shopping. When someone aimed a camera, I became conscious to appear alive and engaged. I tried to erase that shy, somber expression, that non-ownership of self—on behalf of both my mother and myself.

Eventually, I took the ultimate step. I made an appointment with my skin doctor for Botox. “This is for you, Mother,” I mumbled under my breath as the toxin did its work. And yet…whenever I look in the mirror, there she is, still.