“When did my hair get so long?” I ask myself, as I look in the mirror. “And I look so OLD!”
I am 63. We are winding up Month Four of the pandemic.
No. I’m not 63. I am seven, and I am winding up two weeks of being home sick with the mumps. I’m standing in front of the full-length mirror that hangs inside my parents’ bedroom closet door. When the door is open, there is plenty of light on the mirror, so it’s ideal for getting a good look at yourself, which I haven’t done in many days. One of my cheeks is puffed out like a popover. But almost more fascinating to seven-year-old me is how long my hair looks. Can it have grown so much since I last took a look at myself?
I am also admiring my new pale blue, pearl-buttoned bathrobe, with its fake-fur collar. How did I, the third of six children (five at the time), acquire such a fancy robe? Was it a gift from my elegant grandmother, given to me because I had the mumps? Was I the only one of us who had the mumps? I don’t remember. What I do remember is what a novelty it was to look in the mirror and see only me: my brother and sisters were at school; my baby brother was taking a nap, or maybe he was with Grandma.
And I didn’t look like me, pre-mumps. Never mind the puffy cheek: this was the second one to pop out, so I knew it wouldn’t last. No, what intrigued me was that I looked older, with my newly long hair and my sky-colored robe, its collar resting under my chin like a lovely cloud. I felt a bit like a cloud, myself, whisping through the stillness of the house, smoothing my cloud-hand on my parents’ orange and brown brocade bed spread, taking in the leather and sweat smells of their shoes and the perfume and after-shave smells of their clothes and wishing it could always be like this: just me floating through these quiet rooms and Mom singing “I Feel Pretty” from the basement while she did the laundry, and the rest of the family, with all their big, noisy voices, not home.
What was so awful about having the mumps if it meant quiet, and Mom, and a new bathrobe, and long hair?
Just as I’ve thought, more than a few times during these pandemic months: this quiet is not all bad. The reasons for it are bad. But not the quiet itself.
But. There’s a big difference between the only authority figures you know—parents, grandparents, teachers—telling you your mumps will all be over in two weeks; you’ll be out of that bathrobe and back in your pedal pushers before you know it! –and where we are now. With every authority figure saying something different. With the most honest ones, the scientists, telling us that we truly don’t know how long this is going to go on. That it might have been, no it was, a big mistake to “open things up.” That many more people are going to get sick, and some are going to die.
When I was seven, my goal in life was to be as old, and therefore as cool, as my older sister and brother. I understood that this wasn’t possible, that I would never actually catch up, though that didn’t make my forever-younger situation any less exasperating. But the long pause of having the mumps gave me a chance to see myself with new eyes: Oh look, my hair has grown. The half of my face that isn’t puffy looks older. And now I know I can spend all day inside my own thoughts, just being my own self. I get to see what I look like without people all around me. And what the house looks like. And what Mom looks like.
One of my pandemic projects is recording an audio version of my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain. So far, what I’m enjoying most about it is hanging out with my memories of Mom. Yes, it makes me sad; yes, I miss her and wish Alzheimer’s disease hadn’t been so determined to take her from us. But it doesn’t surprise me at all that, though it’s not in my book, the mumps-memory of me and Mom alone in the house was what popped up when I took a writing class last week, and the teacher urged us to reach back in time and recall the first scene from childhood that came to mind.
There was my face in the writing class Zoom-grid; hair strangely long, neck strategically shawled. But the minute the teacher said “scene from childhood,” the me I saw was seven years old, looking back from Mom’s mirror, full of a sense of self that felt like it had a new dignity to it. Popover cheek and all. Like maybe there was a chance that if I just kept trying to learn new things, I might grow up. I’d never be as old as my brother and sister, but I might someday be an older version of me.
As our pandemic spring shifts into pandemic summer, I know I’m not alone in feeling a whole lot older than I did four months ago. And after the death of George Floyd and all that has happened since, I know I’m not alone in feeling like I need to keep on learning new things, with the hope of growing up, and getting older, in the best sense of the word; the way a seven-year-old means it.
2020 is a good year to look in the mirror: to ponder who we are and how we have changed. And how much more change lies ahead. As we keep on growing ourselves up.
Here’s more about my audio book project, which benefits the Alzheimer’s Association. I’m grateful to the Washington State chapter for their inspiration. And speaking of Zoom classes: I’m teaching at Hugo House on July 12 (as part of Write-o-Rama), August 8 and August 22.