The Habits of Her Face
The day was the way you’d paint it, with Gauguin blue for sky, sweet dianthus in the air and the future floating all of us right off the chinky concrete of Riverside Road. Even a table by the water where my daughter, the graduate, sat with cousins and aunts and friends around her on this day, her day, her splendid summer sunshine day.
Start your singing here, Sara. Sing the one you did at Tanglewood, how excited you were when you heard you could go. Belt it out. Order lobster, make it two, French champagne, anything, it’s your day. This is the widest it gets. There will never be a more possible day.
My mother, her grandmother, sat next to Sara. They were the picture of before and after, my daughter and her grandmother. One a face of all the time in the world and the other of time run out no matter the years left to live.
Our waitress had the hard life of carrying heavy trays well past social security, of spending her flirty years in comfortable shoes and counting coins and singles at the end of every day, of getting home long past the bedtime of the more solvent elderly.
She said, “Have you decided what you’d like?”
My mother did not look up from her menu, she didn’t look at our waitress’s face in the same way she never looked at waitresses’ faces. And because she didn’t look, she didn’t see the creases that fanned out like cat whiskers from the outside corners of the woman’s eyes. The small smile that didn’t seem to use any muscle to hold it up. These were the habits of her face, the choices our waitress made when she still had a choice, when there was still time to decide which face lines would set and how deep. They said this is where my face comes to rest.
“Not quite yet,” I said.
Everyone talked at Sara across the table and she talked and listened and laughed and twisted her black satin hair into a knot on her head, her face spinning through joy worry surprise, so fickle it never landed in one place long enough to cut a groove.
My mother pulled her hand down the length of Sara’s hair and tucked it behind the parade of piercings. My mother’s was a face that always fell back to sour with a smile that never made it all the way to her eyes. She looked at me and what she said was, “You should be very proud of yourself.” This was a dog-eared place in the script. The edge of demand in my mother’s voice and her eyes intent on my mouth cueing my next line. What she wanted me to say was: You too, mama, you should be proud. All the good in me I owe to you. Every day is your good housekeeping, Betty Crocker, Oscar-winning mother of the millennium day.
“I’m proud of her,” I said.
The waitress asked, “Do you have any questions?”
Questions, yes I did, I did have questions: Do you miss your mother? Do your children love you? Are your grandbabies afraid you will die?
Behind Sara in the restaurant window glass my face was all flat planes and corners turning down. Wait, I have one more question. What is the moment when it’s too late to decide?
Our raised champagne flutes held an open space for wonderful Sara words. There were amber flecks in her nearly black eyes, life of the party sparks singing the sunshine. What’s the most wonderful thing to say, that’s what we were all scheming. What will lift her even higher. My mother spoke first just as the glasses clinked over the center of the graduation table. She said, “You certainly have the brains, Sara, you could have been anything, a doctor maybe.”
It was in the slump of Sara’s shoulders, my girl who still didn’t know how to guard her body. How sharp my voice was surprised even me. “She told you what she wants,” I said.
There were lines on Sara’s face searching for purchase across her forehead, for a foothold between her eyes.
Don’t stay too long at that spot, my little one. They’re right, those old wives, it’ll freeze that way. Just look at your grandmother. Just look at me.