My mother used to tell me not to be flattered when my Aunt Jenny said I was pretty. I supposed she should know. She tried to fix herself physically to meet the beauty standards of her time, but none of those efforts brought her the fulfillment she sought.
But I bristled at my mother’s words. As a teenager, I didn’t feel beautiful. My nose was too big, my hair fought the lines of its Sassoon cut, I had bad skin, my arms had dark hair while everyone else’s was golden, I developed earlier than my peers. Why couldn’t my mother just let me enjoy my aunt’s compliment?
Yes, in a certain light, Jenny could seem silly and superficial with her subscription to Women’s Wear Daily, the need to have the perfect blouse, the sheer black hose, heels, and cashmere wrap she wore to my father’s rustic home in the middle of a New Hampshire forest, the cosmetics she placed her faith in from a young age. But she also made her whole environment her canvas. She arranged even the most basic food on decorative platters so her table looked like a curated exhibit. She changed the color of her throw pillows based on the season. She decanted shampoo and dish soap into glass bottles despite the fact that slick soap and glass aren’t the most practical combination.
Jenny reminded me of Miss Rumphius, the title character in the children’s book who longed to make the world more beautiful as a gift to others. She did it by planting lupines. She scattered seeds and let them be blown by the wind so that blue and lavender and pink flowers bloomed all over the countryside for others to admire and be uplifted by the magnificent sight.
I spent the summer with Jenny at her home on Cape Cod in between my freshman and sophomore years of college. We needed each other. Her husband had just died, and I was to keep her company. I had been debilitated by homesickness during my year at college, and Jenny’s was to be my halfway house, a place to reclaim some sense of independence without trying to crawl back into my mother’s womb.
During the day I taught flute at the Cape Cod Conservatory. When I got home, and after I took a swim in her lake and washed my hair, Jenny and I would gather to watch the sunset. Seeing the red glow reflected on my nearly black, waist-length hair, Jenny would tell me how beautiful I was. This was a balm. Not the solution to the depression and anxiety engulfing me, but Jenny’s words were an island in the middle of what felt like an infinite sea. A place where I could stop and rest.
Despite my mother’s attitude toward superficial appearances, she also sought beauty. Her love of the ocean, the sound of the human voice in song, her work in her garden, even her not always successful adventures in cooking were all examples of her claiming cures for her own soul.
So college was a shock. I found nothing to thrill my senses there. Encased in my cinderblock-walled dorm room, eating off trays in featureless cafeterias, removed from the natural world that had always been my place of refuge, I turned on myself. I lost weight, my hair dulled, I paid less attention to grooming, and, as always, compared myself to those around me who seemed so confident in their bodies and trusted their looks.
Those of you who have looked in a mirror and interpreted what you saw through a warped lens can probably guess that I wasn’t as unappealing as I saw myself. But in the absence of lenses that can correct for such distortions, I relied on others to paint my image for me.
My mother never told me I wasn’t beautiful. In fact, coming home from a high school dance crying because no one asked me out onto the floor, she said the boys were just too intimidated because I was so pretty.
What she knew at the time that I didn’t was that my tears had nothing to do with how I looked. Even if I had been chosen to grace the cover of Seventeen, I wouldn’t have believed her, because what I lacked was a sense of who I was, what I could offer besides my feminine appeal which, in a catch-22, I couldn’t recognize because I had no confidence. But I wanted to believe her, and that was enough to dry my tears.
In the same way that I wasn’t flattered by my mother’s words, I wasn’t flattered by Jenny’s either. I felt loved. Jenny was an artist who spent most of her life as the cashier for her husband’s restaurant, so creating beauty for herself and others became her love language. She wasn’t just seeing the sun on my hair, she was seeing a person she was charged with healing, and she used her artist’s sensibility to do so. And I saw my aunt through the filter of my own eyes rather than my mother’s, and saw a woman who was bereft at not being able to make the world a jewel for her husband, but could do so for me.
It would be years before I felt attractive, not in terms of what I saw in the mirror but how I viewed myself, and the possibility that I, too, could bring beauty to others — through the flute that I play, the words that I write and scatter, and the stories I help others tell. And if I tell you you are beautiful, I am really saying I love you.