What will my later years be like? I am gaining weight, my body is changing gradually and so is my face. I have the thin drawndown mouth of my father's family, which makes me look like I am perpetually frowning. The wrinkles on my forehead are shaded by a few grey hairs. I am experiencing the hereditary problems found in the women of my family: thyroid condition, vertigo, and lumps in my breasts. At regular intervals I view sonograms of my breasts in which the cysts appear like black holes in a nylon stocking, threatening to run throughout the entire tissue.
Both of my grandmothers lived to be eighty-nine years old, outlasting their husbands by many years. It seemed Jessie would never be a mother. She was thirty when her only child was born. When his father died suddenly at his desk, Jessie sent the frail boy off to military school for his whole childhood. She was photographed at age forty-eight when her son had returned to Florida to graduate from high school. Moving in with him permanently as soon as he married, she never worked or helped my mother. I can't remember her taking an interest in anything but sweeping the sidewalk while she waited for the evening paper. She stayed strong, and when we could no longer keep her from wandering off and getting lost, she was moved to a nearby nursing home where she eventually died of old age.
Fewer pictures exist of Beatrice Noble, my mother's mom. In this one of her holding her first grandson she was fifty-two, heavy and white haired. She had serious interests in sewing and painting and she hated housework. She cared little for her looks and even less for dustballs lurking under the furniture. In her eighties she lived in an apartment complex for older people, cooked, and had visitors. Her favorite companion was a robin she saved from the neighborhood cat one spring, a tattered looking bird that would sit on her shoulder while she knitted afghans for her grandchildren. She died quickly when a blood clot in her leg reached her heart. This is probably how she would have wanted it to happen.
My best glimpse into the future comes by watching my mother Grace. She doesn't dwell on aging, nor does she complain much. When pressed to talk about growing old she can be philosophical and practical as well. She never sits down except to soak her sore foot. Remarkably active, she believes that hard work literally keeps her alive. She's probably right. In searching for photographs of my mother at my age, I am again struck by the fact that very few exist. By this point in her life three of her five children were in college, the two youngest were adolescent girls. She had begun a career as a college English teacher. Her long hair was cut and curled. In sharp contrast to her own mother, she continues to be careful about her looks.
I've been told that I resemble my mother. I don't really think I do, but would be pleased if I did. As high school seniors we looked older than our years. Excellent students and strong young women, we were well liked, but neither of us felt "popular." Mom was never allowed to forget that she was a Yankee transplant. I was marked by my stubborn refusal to cut my long hair in the days of hairspray and flips. After those high school years, we both eventually became college teachers. We aged slowly from our twenties on. If it is true that I take after my mother, then I will look younger than my true age well into my sixties. She helped me feel content about myself, my looks included, which has continued to serve me well. I thank her for that.
High school is a very different story for my daughter today. More than ever, girls are judged by their looks. The media's representation of women is unrealistic and sexually charged. Satisfaction with one's life and body may be difficult for my generation to maintain, but it is even harder for our daughters to attain. Walking the halls of our local high school during class breaks, I've been stunned and intimidated by the foul language and the aggressively charged atmosphere.
My daughter is exhausted from a combination of fear and anger, her natural response to this environment. I am haunted by thoughts of what's in store for the next generation of innocent and bright little girls.
Over my years at Penland, the tree in front of Horner Hall has been a focal point. Actually it is the vine growing up that tree that I have watched age. Unlike poison ivy, this wisteria vine must have been deliberately planted there years ago in front of this building that has gone through many transformations from its origins as an Appalachian boarding school, to a haunted dorm, to a studio, and now to a visitor's center. The vine has grown stronger all these years, quietly winding round and round the tree, proving the theory that wisterias thrive in soil that is not too rich and are happiest when left alone. I had never seen it in the spring. This May I saw it in bloom, gloriously purple in its advanced age and importance.