My mother, Lee, named me Bonnie Lee because, she said, she hoped I’d grow up to be a prettier version of herself. The name Bonnie, from the Scottish adjective bonny(like the Spanish Linda), means pretty, and pretty is what my mother had always wanted to be. She was, she believed, too thin and flat-chested; she thought her nose was too large for her face and her bleach-blond hair too dry and unruly. Nevertheless, she possessed—as I observed throughout my childhood—a coquettish charm, a fifties’ I-Love-Lucy dumb-blond attractiveness, that made men, especially, take note. The way she turned her head slightly, smiled shyly, lowered her jaw, and looked out of the top of her eyes seemed to work wonders for her. She had “it,” and she knew how to play it, pretty or not.
When I became a model overseas in my mid-twenties, Lee was elated. “My beautiful Bonnie!” she enthused in her letters, as if her own hopes and dreams had been fulfilled. I sent her clippings of the newspaper and magazine ads in which my “pretty” self appeared, modeling the latest bell-bottom fashions, sipping the local brand of coffee, or representing that foreign city’s most chic department store. In one full-page photo of my face—with carefully applied model makeup (meant to highlight bone structure and sink cheeks), false eyelashes, and true-blond hair falling sultrily over one eye—I looked like someone I didn’t know. Who are you? I privately asked my model photo when it appeared in glossy women’s magazines. My mother knew her, though: This image was the person she had always wanted to be.
For me, modeling was a lark, something I did part-time for diversion and extra income, the end result of which I knew would make my mother happy. “If I only hadyour face,” she had often said to me longingly when I was growing up, “I would know what to do with it!” implying, accurately, that I did not. The truth was that throughout my earlier years, when Youth and Beauty was a card Fate had accidentally dealt me, a card I could have played to the hilt, I didn’t. The person whom I knew as me lived inside that outer “pretty” shell; she was earnest, bookish, shy, and always older than her years.
“I recognize you!” someone would say to me on a New York sidewalk. “You’re in ‘General Hospital’ on TV!” I would be taken aback, quickly deny it, and dart away. Handsome men, strangers on street corners waiting for the light, would beg me for a kiss. “Are you a dancer?” they’d add, eyeing me up and down. “You look like a dancer.” Women my age would glare at me competitively and hiss. I didn’t enjoy this. I didn’t have the personality for it. Unlike Lee, I didn’t have “it.”
“Put a smile on your face, Bonnie,” my mother used to tell me repeatedly when I was young. “You always look like somebody you loved just died.” But Lee didn’t grow up watching her mother being battered by her father in a drunken rage, as I did. Her parents, eager German immigrants, knew only how to work and make a stable home. They didn’t drink. And my mother, a daddy’s girl in a frilly dress, with a big satin ribbon in her plain, straight hair, knew only love and laughter from her father.
From an early age, I wondered why she stayed with my father. I wondered why she lied to neighbors about the cause of her black eyes. “Oh, I bumped into a cupboard,” she’d say to them light-heartedly, as if they hadn’t heard the fight the night before, “I’m so clumsy!” I wondered when I’d have to phone the police again to “come quick!” to our house and stop him from punching her in the face, knocking her down, and kicking her almost to death. GET RID OF HIM! I shouted at her sternly in my mind. But I said nothing. I was too young to understand that she stayed “for the sake of the children.” I could only walk heavily, head down, wearing a frown.
“He’s here!” I announced to my mother when the boxy, chocolate-brown UPS truck pulled up in front of our house. I was at the front window, a guard dog ever on the lookout for my father’s drunken arrival, but this was another man altogether.
My mother dashed to the round mirror at the bottom of the stairs. She pinched her cheeks and fluffed her freshly permed hair. Untying her apron, she hurriedly threw it into the hall coat closet, as though to hide this clear evidence of her housewifery.
The handsome, uniformed deliveryman strode up our steep driveway victoriously, like a young soldier returning from a war he’d helped to win. He had slim hips and a flat stomach—so unlike my father’s ugly beer belly—and his arms in his crisp, short-sleeved khaki shirt were muscular and tanned. He held the boxes of things my mother had ordered from Montgomery Ward under one arm, as though they weighed nothing.
As he climbed the three steps of our front porch, my mother’s breath caught in an excited “oh.” She fumbled as she opened our front door. I left my lookout station at the window and hid behind my mother’s skirt, clutching her legs, which seemed to be trembling.
“Oh, hello again,” she said to the handsome man, affecting cool composure. I peeked from behind my mother’s skirt to study his reaction.
His hair was shiny black and slicked back, and he smelled of spicy after-shave and mint gum. He was bending toward me, leaning in close, smiling a movie-star-bright smile. “Well, hello, pretty little lady!” he said to me, in a happy, young-manly tone. “Why, thank you,” my mother said, accepting the flattery for herself, since I was her creation. Or maybe this was the way these two communicated, through a third party. “What have we got for you today?” he asked me.
My mother fluttered as she took the packages from his strong hands, and I held on tightly to her legs. I knew even then how tempted she might be to leave. Just a few steps, out the front door and into the arms of this sweet charmer who didn’t look at all like a mean wife-beater and didn’t smell a bit like a drunk. I imagined him taking her slender hand in his and guiding her down the driveway, then whisking her off in his chocolate-brown, box-shaped truck. She would sail away like a happy little boat on a big blue lake, and I would never see her again. What then? Who would bake such good pies, or laugh so loudly at Uncle Milty on TV, or draw pencil sketches of our sleeping dog curled like a comma on the kitchen linoleum, “justforthehellofit,” as she would always say? No, I couldn’t let that happen, so I held on to her legs like an anchor.
After the UPS man drove off, even before she opened the packages he’d brought, Lee would sit on the sofa to catch her breath and leaf through the newest Montgomery Ward catalog he also delivered. Religiously, she turned the Bible-thin pages and studied each one. “Look, honey-bunny,” she said to me dreamily, tapping a pretty, manicured finger on one page. “Do you like this little candy-cane-striped dress? It would look so pretty on you!” I knew this was the way she would guarantee his quick return.
She stayed. “For the sake of the children.” Four of us, in all. But she told me once, confidentially, that if she had it to do over again, she would much rather have raised show dogs. She loved dogs. “So much easier,” she said.
When I was in high school and the war between my parents reached apocalyptic proportions at home, I found solace in a local church. Jesus became my savior from it all—the rage and hatred, violence and screams, sleepless nights and high anxiety. With the sweetly naive, kind-and-gentle members of that church’s congregation, I sang, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear . . .” and I clicked into a higher gear. I became more studious and earnest than ever. Normal teenage interests, such as fashion, makeup, parties, and popularity, meant nothing to me. I was living, it seemed, in another realm.
When I tried to share my newfound good news of God’s love with Lee, she cut these conversations short. “Honey-bunny,” she said, patting my hand, “whatever makes you happy is fine with me. Personally, I don’t want to go to heaven, if there is such a place. I wouldn’t know a soul there. I’d feel so out of place. Ha! No, really, here’s my philosophy: When you’re alive, you live; and when you die, you’re dead. That’s the long and the short of it.”
But my mother was clearly terrified of aging. She wore poodle skirts, padded bras, and puffy hair well beyond her prime. (I vowed, as I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed in their master bedroom, which always seemed so hot and steamy, and watched my mother apply bright red lipstick, leaning her face in close to her vanity mirror, that when I got old I wouldn’t try to hide my age.) Lee lied about her age flagrantly and convincingly. She even went so far as to falsify her birth date on her driver’s license. “Isn’t that against the law?” I asked her. I must have been about ten and she nearing forty. “Who’s going to know?” she answered blithely.
Every year on her birthday, September 24, she claimed she was thirty-six. “Again?” I’d interrogate her, ever the killjoy. “Forever,” she’d insist.
And she got away with this Academy-Award-winning performance, because, despite the weight of her private heartache and the dark corners in her domestic life, her public persona was young and light. “You must lighten up,” she’d admonish me regularly. “It’s not all that bad—considering the alternative.” But Heaven seemed like a fine alternative to me.
When I was young and considered beautiful, men pursued me, as if playing a competitive sport for which I was a winning trophy. They asked me on dates, they confessed (as if I wanted to hear this), in order to be seen with me. In those days, before the women’s movement succeeded in raising quite a few consciousnesses, it was almost universally believed that a young woman could be smart or pretty (never both), so none of these young men listened to anything I had to say.
One date made me take my glasses off when I was with him, because, he said, “You look prettier without your glasses on.”
“But I can’t see,” I protested weakly. “I can’t read the menu.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll read it to you.”
And, worst of all, was the rich, professional, older man who, when I was still a naive, church-going virgin, professed love for me and pressed for a hasty wedding. He had a preconceived plan, I learned too late: that I would produce for him a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed baby whom he would abduct and raise as his own. I was merely the means to an end—DNA. Today a man with these designs might readily hire a surrogate to bear his child, but that option wasn’t feasible then. This man had to resort to thievery, criminal behavior, and cruel and enduring lies.
Not so long ago, when I was still in my fifties, I lived in West Africa, in a place where older women are revered. There, in Mali, it is the older women, wearing the most elaborate and colorful dresses, who lead the women’s long, snake-like line dances. Younger women follow in the older women’s footsteps, imitating their every dip, every stomp, every clap. There, too, as a woman ages she does fewer and fewer household tasks. Instead she becomes a kind of queen, and younger underlings do her bidding. She sits, royally, in a central chair, giving instructions, offering advice, and dispensing wisdom gained from her accumulated years. Seeing this made me wish I’d been born African. I never wanted to leave.
But, ultimately, I did return to the States, to a place where, unlike the way it is in this country’s youth-and-beauty-obsessed dominant culture, elders are honored. My students, mostly Hispanic and Native American from traditional cultures, respect older people, including older women. “My grandma rules!” Sarah Cordova, one of my first students here, said in class one day, and to my happy surprise, many of her classmates nodded. I had found a place to be me.
The face I see in the mirror—now that I’ve reached my sixties—is the face of the older woman I’ve always been. At last I feel whole, connected to this now-weathered outer shell. The past is so blissfully far away, receding in my memory like the shoreline of a war-torn land I’ve managed to escape. I want to don my most colorful dress, dance like an African woman, and sing. I feel, finally, light and free. To men, I’ve become invisible; from other women my age, I no longer sense jealousy. But to me, quite honestly, I’ve never looked more beautiful. And I like to think that Lee, now busy entertaining the angels, is looking down and agreeing.