Tuesday, December 7, 2010
The Vanity of Memory
Somewhere deep in my memory, there is a carved mahogany vanity.
Do they even make vanities anymore? I wonder.
The name of the furniture presupposes its use and describes one of the attributes of all of the women who’ve sat before it, gazing into beveled mirrors, rubbing their faces gently, trying to erase lines real and imagined.
There are always other vain items on a vanity: a mother of pearl comb, brush and mirror set - the comb standing erect, its teeth tucked between the brushes bristles, carefully placed next to the oval mirror always face down, showing off the beauty of the delicately carved edges and graceful handle.
And no vanity would be complete without the silver filigree tray, filled with crystal perfume atomizers of varied shapes and sizes, ready to be squeezed gently into the air by perfectly manicured fingers.
In this memory I can see my mother -- no – look again, it’s my grandmother - before her gums became diseased, her teeth rotted, her jowls sagged, before her breasts dropped to meet her navel, before she developed an allergy to dye and could no longer restore the bright red luster to the beautiful hair of her youth – before she was Bubby. Before she was old.
When I knew her, she was already Rae, but before that she was Rebecca. She had changed her name herself, Americanized it, sometime after 8th grade, which was the highest level of school she’d attended. And the only reason I know that is because I once found her 8th grade diploma while rooting through the bottom drawers of her vanity. There it was – her name in proud black calligraphy: Rebecca Feinstein.
If it’s hard for a child to imagine her mother as a girl, it is even harder to conjure the image of her grandmother, brimming with life and possibility, bouncing on the knee of a man she once lovingly called Papa, known to me only as a name on the family tree - an ancestor for whom I was named.
In this memory, I tentatively take hold of the pearl hand mirror and turn it on an angle towards the one before me atop the vanity. A line of reflections appear, starting with me and stretching back to Shirley my mother, to Rae, hers, to Fanny, hers - before history stop us cold in our tracks.
“You look just like Aunt Rae,” my mother’s cousin Jerry tells me every time he sees me.
And I wonder. What does he see in my face that looks to him like hers? No matter how we fight it, our genes will hold sway on our faces. One day, we turn towards the mirror and we’re startled to catch a glimpse of a strange version of ourselves - noses thickened, eyes down turned, chins gone slack.
I wonder what Jerry sees in my face that recalls my long deceased grandmother, his favorite aunt from his youth. She was always an old woman to me, though she must have only been in her late forties when I was a child.
Today, I am fifty-eight.
So another memory.
When I was a girl, I would sit before my Bubby’s vanity. I would try on all of her costume jewelry, brush my hair with her mother of pearl brush, and if I were sure she wouldn’t catch me, smear my face with her pancake and rim my mouth with her bright red lipstick. At age 6 or 7, I was searching for the resemblance that today I try so hard not to see.
I think I remember a photograph - maybe it was in the same drawer as Bubby’s diploma, or maybe it was in my mother’s old cedar chest, another place I would spend hours rummaging through yellowing letters, and photo albums searching for my family history, my life story.
Four generations of women: Fanny, large, grey, solid and foreboding in her broadcloth coat; Rebecca, now Rae, her hair still red, her breasts still high in her wool gabardine dress, and her teeth askew as she smiles unabashedly into the camera; Shirley, beaming with black lustrous hair and Bette Davis eyes wearing a tight-fitting white cardigan with rhinestone button, holding a round faced chubby infant in her arms.
I am nothing if not linked to these women whether I want to be or not. Their stories intertwine with mine, and at times provide the counter- narrative for the one I try to compose of my life .
That picture is gone, if it ever existed outside of my memory. I have another, this one sans Fanny, three generations, the fourth one already gone.
Sitting here, holding up the mirror to the vanity of memory, I see the lines on their faces, working their way right through the blood onto my own.