I was sitting next to my 92-year-old mother while she ate lunch in the dining room of her assisted living facility. She sat in her wheelchair smiling, pleased that I was there, while I made conversation with the three other ladies at the table.
Since her recent health troubles, my mother\’s English has all but deserted her, but that doesn\’t keep her from addressing those around her in a hybrid of English, Spanish and Catalan. The ladies at her lunch table find her mysterious, to say the least, so they were taking advantage of my presence to get some context that would help them make sense of my mother.
I was doing my best, enunciating in case they were hard of hearing, making eye contact with each lady in turn, explaining how things were, when my mother put her hand to my hair and brushed it away from my face.
I pushed her hand away.
My mother has been pushing my hair off my face for as long as I can remember. She has pushed the hair off her grandchildren\’s face. And, if she had access to them, she would do the same to her great-grandchildren.
For this, she offers vaguely phrenological explanations about the significance of a \”wide forehead,\” which supposedly bespeaks intelligence, nobility of character, and beauty as Aristotle conceived it. She never did accept my protestations that intelligence and nobility of character aren\’t necessarily cute or sexy. She remained adamant on the virtues of the \”frente despejada,\” the unencumbered brow.
The only explanation I can find for this is that the movie stars of her adolescence, Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner, boldly bared their desert-like expanses of forehead to the world. But I belong to the school of Colette, who said that a face, like a fruit, needs foliage around it to set it off to advantage.
But still. Here was my mother, 92. Here was I, not all that much younger. Furthermore, I was on an errand of kindness and mercy, determined to be utterly sweet and compliant and non-confrontational for the 48-hours I would spend in her presence. And the minute her hand touched my hair–well, I didn\’t exactly swat it away, but the swatting feeling was there.
Why didn\’t I let her brush back my hair? Why didn\’t I let her dazzle her tablemates with the sight of my broad and noble forehead? Why did I deny her that microgram of happiness?
I learned in Catholic school that a sin requires an act of the will. So I can hardly call that quasi-swat a sin–it was more a spinal reflex. But it was a reflex born of a lifetime of daughterly opposition, rebellion, resentment.
I don\’t even blame myself for those, really, for without them I would never have become a person.
But I am disappointed that, despite the years and experience that I drag behind me like those carry-on bags on wheels, I saw my mother\’s liver-spotted, knobby, blue-veined hand reach towards my hair, and I pushed it away.