I was around 7 or 8 years old when I first asked my grandmother, “Nana, when you look in the mirror, what do you see?”
We were standing in her kitchen on a Saturday afternoon as I watched her put the last batch of sugar cookies into the oven. I now realize that baking cookies was more of a bonding activity than a real necessity, since we wrapped and froze most of them after they cooled (with the exception of me grabbing a few too soon and burning the tips of my fingers and tongue). I blithely accepted Nana’s explanation, “We need to hide them away so we won’t get fat,” even though I craved the sweetness of more than the few I was allowed to eat.
Nana’s light red hair was loosely tied back with a colorful printed silk scarf, and catching a glimpse of some gray hairs peeking out from underneath momentarily startled me. It suddenly struck me that Nana was growing older, and one day I would lose her.
I wondered if she saw it that way, too.
“What do you see when you look in the mirror, Nana?”
She closed the oven, slowly stood, then turned and looked at me quizzically, brushing away a stray hair that had fallen over her eyes. “Well … when I look in the mirror, I see … my face, of course,” she said matter-of-factly.
Frustrated by not getting the response I was after, I wanted to say more. But being so young, I lacked the ability to fully convert my thoughts into the right words.
If Nana were still alive—she died back in 2013, just shy of her 93rd birthday and just a few years after tearing up the dance floor at my younger son’s bar mitzvah—I think I’d have the words to elaborate.
Here’s what I would have asked: “Nana, when you look in the mirror, do you notice yourself aging? Do you actually see a different face over the years? Do you see yourself the way the world sees you … or do you see the same, unchanged face year after year after year?”
It was hard for me to comprehend looking into a mirror and peering into a face different than the one I’d seen the moment, the day, or the year before.
My grandmother was beautiful, fun, and vibrant; playful and pulsing with energy. I suppose to me, as a young girl, grandmothers were not “supposed” to act that way. She certainly did not fit the mold of an immigrant grandmotherly type; instead, she put herself through college, worked until she was forced to retire at 62, and let me play in her collection of costumes and wigs she wore when performing in community theater.
She worked hard to look and feel young and she rocked her age—at every age.