My husband’s grandmother looked like a movie star when she was young. You should see the pictures! There’s one of her perched on a rock in her bathing suit, and it looks like she was posed there by a famous photographer. Everyone always comments on it. “Wow!” we say, “You were such a beauty!” And she sort of chuckles and looks away.
The story goes -- she got selected as the prettiest girl at the local fair. I always imagine a dour panel of older male judges, shuffling through the cotton-candy eating crowd, hands behind their backs, in gray linen suits, sizing up the young women, looking for the prettiest one. They must have known immediately, when they saw her. Maybe she was laughing with her head thrown back, her hair lustrous in the sun.
“She was so beautiful!” we exclaim, looking over the old photos. Now she’s 95 -- a pert, tiny, stooped woman with a ready grin who thought Obama was cool long before the rest of us knew his name. She laughs a lot, reads a lot, and grows a wild garden in her backyard. I sometimes wish that I were beautiful just so that it could be my legacy. How cool, for my great-granddaughters to be able to find the photos of me tucked into some ancient hard-drive and ooh and ahh over how stunning I was? They would be proud to come from me.
I sometimes wish that I were beautiful so that it could be a part of my family’s story. Beautiful women always seem to get a mention. There is a certain familial boasting that happens. We have good blood. Good genes. We make strong men, pretty women.
Looking at the pictures of my husband’s grandmother as a young woman, it’s easy to get caught up in her loveliness and fail to notice that she is hardly ever dressed up. She is wearing hiking clothes and a bandana. She is getting her hands dirty. She is busy, active, always outdoors. She went to college at a time when women didn’t, and she studied biology until they wouldn’t let her anymore because women weren’t supposed to do lab work.
It’s easy to think that every woman wants to be told she is beautiful, or was beautiful when she was young, before she was a 95-year-old matriarch. But when you look closer, my husband’s grandmother doesn’t seem that interested in the compliments. She brushes them off, a little awkward. She wants to talk about something else. She likes to tell the story of her climb up the mountain, instead of the one about the fair.
And I wonder if maybe it’s annoying to have everyone want to talk about the same thing. About how you look. Even when they’re saying, “You were SO gorgeous!” I wonder if it’s a little frustrating sometimes, for people to comment on your appearance when you’ve worked hard to live such a robust, thorough, brave life. When there’s a lot more going on.
It’s so automatic for me to long to be better-looking. Wouldn’t everything be better then?
It’s a lazy desire, really.
We get distracted by beauty so often, and that makes sense, but it would be a waste to let it make us miss the point: You should try to live an awesome life.
You only get one.
And maybe you are beautiful, and maybe you aren’t. Maybe you are just fine looking. Maybe you are not beautiful to most people and stunning to some. Maybe you are pretty to most people and gorgeous to one or two. Maybe you like what you see in the mirror some days, and others you are totally exasperated, because, give me a friggin’ break, here! No one’s hair should be legally allowed to do that! Or you just get annoyed at how weird your chin is. Or whatever. But ultimately, your legacy should be about what you do. What you made of your life. The path that you bushwhacked and the epic journey you took.
I’m glad I’m a writer. I want to leave my own story behind, not the one people decide for me later, off-handedly. Oh, yeah, she was a little crazy…Not the prettiest, either…
I look at the photos of my husband’s grandmother, and she is truly beautiful, but when I listen to the way she talks about her life, I am reminded to re-focus. To work hard. To make my own story about myself. And when I mention her to other people, I tell them that she has a sharp, scientific mind, and she always has. That’s an unusual trait in a person. Sort of like striking beauty. But potentially even more fun.
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