By Daisy Alpert Florin
I look in the mirror and see my mother’s face staring back at me, the same sharp jawline, deep set eyes, high forehead, sloping nose. She’s been dead for fourteen years, so seeing her is both eerie and comforting, a kind of visitation. I never thought I looked much like her when I was growing up but now, at 41, as the softness drops away and age takes hold, what’s left behind is my mother’s face.
My new glasses, thick, brown tortoiseshell frames, add to the illusion. My mother always wore glasses. For a brief period in her forties, around the same time she got braces (don’t ask), she wore contact lenses, but the consensus was that she should go back to glasses. Glasses suited her; without them, she looked naked, her eyes slightly too large, her nose a touch too long. I rarely saw her without them. Severely nearsighted, she put them on as soon as she woke up and took them off only to go to bed. She even went swimming with them. I can still see her bespectacled face bobbing above the waves as she cut through the water with her dainty breaststroke, her curly red hair pinned on top of her head.
And she always had a stylish pair. My father would shudder at how much she would spend on a pair of glasses. “They’re the one thing you wear all the time,” she would tell me. “And right in the middle of your face!” She traveled to Europe several times a year for her work in the fashion business, and would often return home with a new pair, one that no one else stateside would have, which pleased her. The styles and shapes swung wildly, from chunky to wiry, square to round, retro to modern. As a child, it always took me a few days to get used to a new pair. When she died, suddenly, from cancer at the age of 56, a young resident returned her glasses to my brother and me in a plastic bag along with unfinished bottles of medications and the lip gloss she kept by her bedside. Seeing her glasses lying there, a brown oval-shaped pair so new I’d barely had time to get used to them, I burst into tears in the middle of the hospital lobby.
I was born when my mother was thirty and remember her best when she was in her forties, around the age I am now. I never saw her as anything less than magical, but perhaps she saw something different when she looked into her sleek compact mirror. Her red hair was going gray at the roots and fine lines were beginning to lay tracks across her face. Did she see a diminished version of herself? Did she wonder where the time had gone? “When people say you look tired, Daisy, what they really mean is you look old,” she told me once while powdering her nose.
I would stare at her as she got ready for work in the morning, watching her familiar routine: moisturizing, concealing, plucking. I soaked in every part of her, her long fingers and sharp collarbone, her straight teeth. “I know what you’re thinking,” she said one day when she caught me staring. “I used to look at my mother the same way, always thinking how old and ugly she was and I couldn’t imagine I would ever look like that.” I wasn’t thinking that at all, I wanted to say but didn’t.
As I move through life without her, I remember things I thought I had forgotten. How she curled her eyelashes so they wouldn’t hit the lenses of her glasses. The way she smoothed out her forehead with her fingers in an effort to iron out the vertical indentation between her brows. I see myself doing them too as my features shift and morph into a version of hers. I wear my new glasses on busy days as a way to camouflage the dark circles beneath my eyes. I realize now that she did the same, and imagine that was the reason people preferred her with her glasses. I understand many things now that I didn’t then.
When my children were born, children she never had a chance to meet, I searched their features for a sign of her. Did Sam have her nose? Oliver, her hair? And what about Ellie, her namesake, who, at 8, already sports her own pair of stylish purple frames? She’s in them all, for sure. But when I look in the mirror, I see that she lives on most strongly in me, not just in appearance, but in the steady way she moved through life and in the gentle way she guided her children, nurturing our independence and, yes, our style. I put on my glasses and see the world she missed.
Daisy Alpert Florin is a Staff Editor at Brain, Child.