Tag Archives: search for self

The Study of Faces

A face reflects differently under each new light.  It seems to me that faces are holograms.  To compare them with still photos or even other faces is a futile task.  One day I look like one relative and my mother like a relative from another branch of the family.  The next day someone will see my mother’s face in mine, although I look nothing like her aunt who seems to have cloned Mom.

Certain people think I am the female image of my father who, with his vaguely southern European looks, could never be confused with my mother’s Dutch relatives.

I didn’t start to think about faces and relationships until a day in 1976 when my grandparents entered the front door of my father’s store and I wandered up from the backroom to greet them.

Grandpa approached the glass case of men’s leather goods.  “Here ta get me a wallet,” he said.  “Got a good deal?”

Grandma smiled at me with her sparkly eyes and timid grin.  “Hi, Lu.”  She rolled out my name as if she didn’t want to stop saying it.  “How is school?”

“It’s fine.  I have an exam next week, though.”  I grimaced and walked behind the case, slid open the door, and pulled out a wooden tray of $10 billfolds.  I was a senior, a double major in marketing and history at WMU, the same school where my parents and grandmother before me had graduated.  When Grandma attended, the big university had been a little teaching school.

Grandpa took hold of a Moroccan leather, stiff and durable as iron, with a surface like grains of sand.  He examined the price tag, then opened it up and checked out the pockets.

I wished they had picked a different day to come in.  My headache was paired with nausea because the night before Marshal and I had gone to a party and I’d gotten completely plastered.  I hadn’t shampooed my hair that morning as I was running late and had to take the bus to work, so I’d pulled it back into a crocheted snood on the back of my head.

Handing me the first billfold he examined (“Ring this one up”), Grandpa looked down from his 6’1 height to peer into my face.  His blue eye bored into me as he did so, while the blind green eye wavered uncertainly.

“Man alive.  You look just like my mother.”  He looked at me with more interest than usual.  “I never saw that before.”

The person I’d grown up compared with was my mother, a pretty brown-haired, blue-eyed Jeanne Crain look-alike.  I knew I wasn’t as pretty as she, but the association based on our hair and eye color was made often.  When I was in kindergarten, she bought us matching baby blue and white gingham dresses.  Her mother and sister wore dresses made from the same fabric, and the four of us went to the Mother-Daughter Banquet at the church downtown.  We won a prize for our matching outfits, but I never believed that I looked like my mother.

Two weeks after Grandpa bought the wallet, I was at their house, examining a box of 75-year-old family photographs and glass negatives.  Grandpa handed me a black and white professional portrait of his mother:  blonde, austere.  Not brown-haired me, the girl people said reminded them alternatively of Susan Dey, Barbie Benton-sans-bustline, and the anonymous girl in the new bra commercial (unfortunately, accentuating my flat chest).  I said, “Oh, I don’t look like her.

Grandpa set another photograph in front of me; in this one, her hair isn’t pulled back as tightly.  Now I could see it–the long slender neck and arms, narrow chest, and her face, tipped down and looking at her lap, is long with good bones and just short of being too ascetic or prairie-wife-ish.  This could be me dressed in a stiff Victorian dress with puffy sleeves.  Me sitting on the front steps of the brick house built by Cora’s father in his signature style, with the light brick line breaking up the dark brown exterior walls.

I felt as if I were seeing my own body from afar, objectively.  We were both young and thin.  I imagined her with the same blue veins at her translucent temples.  Pretty enough, but not physical, a bit detached from the world.

It’s hard to believe that great-grandmother Cora was the woman who heard a man beating his horse in front of her house and rushed outside where she grabbed his whip and hit him with the handle.  Or the woman who, besieged with leukemia which had begun a vicious attack on her mind, threw all the books in the house out the windows, then gathered them into a bonfire.

That day Grandpa hauled the box of photos and negatives out to my car, said that I should keep them for the family.  I still pull out the images of Cora, to remind myself and to look for anything I’ve missed.  Now I see that in the 2nd photo her dog Bobby is with her.  In many of her pictures, she is with one or two of her dogs.  There’s another similarity as I, too, spend a lot of time with my animals.  I notice that she holds her body tightly, as a shield against the world.  She appears more gentle than fragile.

Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t worry about my resemblance to an ancestor whose history and health seem plagued by problems.  Now that I am the same age she was when she died, I realize things could have gone differently, that I have so far been spared much of what she endured.

I pull out another photo, one I haven’t noticed before.  She’s standing near a shed in the yard, wearing an apron over her dress.  Little bangs curl over her forehead, her hair certainly brown, and she’s smiling.  Here, I see a diaphanous mask of my mother’s face floating across her-my features.  Another slight shift of the hologram.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir