Season 2, 003: What we see in the mirror - tell me a true story of a time when you saw yourself in a new way, or confronted uncomfortable truths
Scanning the numbers on the doors down the corridor, I harboured no feelings of dread, no feelings that I would find anything untoward or unexpected. I expected to see my mother, in a hospital gown in a hospital bed. Pulling back the curtain divider in her room, I saw my grandmother’s face swimming out of my mothers’s, calling out to me and admonishing me for making the trip down to see her in hospital. I was thrust out of myself. The years swam. I lost my steadiness. And then, when I looked again, it was my mother and it was her face that was chastising me.
I was no longer in my body. I staggered down the corridor with nothing like the steady considered steps of those patients diligently walking their laps around the ward. Collapsing into the green plasticky lounge in the visitor’s room, I put my head between my knees until I returned to myself. I opened my eyes and saw my face mirrored on the blank screen on the wall opposite. It was a face that I could not seem to recognise. The years swam. I lost my steadiness.
Now the practice of looking through old photographs for the faces I saw that day in the hospital room has become a search for the right face attached to the right person. The fluidity, the distinct lack of fixed-ness, of features formed through years of familial living, astound me. Is it possible to see my face in the mirror as mine and not as a fusion of all the women I am the result of? Will my daughter see her grandmother’s face in mine one day? Does she see me when she looks into the mirror? Does she see herself?
- Emily Tamas
What we see and what don’t see in the mirror. They are so close aren’t they? There in our face and also beyond making some things weirdly distant and others sharper than they’ve ever been.
I look in the mirror on this grey Tuesday morning and there’s my mums neck; suddenly and rudely more wrinkled than I’ve noticed before.
“I hate my neck” I remember mum saying exactly that 20 odd years ago now; she was about the age I am now.I had peered at her then and examined her skin and found it unremarkable under a face I felt was aging amazingly well. Indeed I heard this echoed in the compliments she received especially in relation to me and my big sister; could she really be old enough to be our mum? Familiarity and love too making my judgement so much more favourable than her own.
I also always received flattery from friends as well as strangers back then;but these were often misperceived if I think about it now. I didn't really want to look like a schoolgirl. We want to look grown up enough to be at the mother of our own child, dancing at that club, drinking at that bar, hanging out with that crowd; I needed to see myself as of an age that could cope and manage with all that life seemed to hurl my way. I didn’t want to see the fear, panic, pain and confusion on my face any more than I wanted to see mums wrinkles.
As I had sat on the 73 bus travelling across London with my 10 month old on my lap, my face with its girl like appearance , passers by would say
“ You must’ve had him young”
Not so I thought , 27 was the average age for having your first child;I was average then. I felt anything but that. I felt panic at times.So much so that I called social services one day, distraught.
“What do I do if I can’t cope with my child?” The question I just managed to relay to the person who had picked up the phone. I can’t recall their exact reply. I can recall the way the question landed, was there immediate danger? Did I have support? They just didn't get me. No-one did.Why would they? I didn’t get myself either and I really couldn’t explain this.Put the phone down. Cry and hurt alone some more.
I didn’t get what to do when I wanted to run out the door; when I needed my mum but not how to ask; when I wanted my big sister to step in and scoop me up and look after me.When I just wanted my dad to see how brilliant I could be at being grown up.My head was full of chaos and sadness and joy all in one big scramble. Yes, thats what it was, a scramble, like eggs mixed so each one was now part of the other. Where did one emotion start and another end? What even were these emotions? I just felt alone; unable to express myself except after wine and dancing but then it seemed to come out strange and urgent and somehow more frightening than ever. But there was joy too. A lot of pure love and joy.
So now, when I see my neck and my face and the wrinkles I don’t like I also see beauty and experience and someone who has made it through, through the toughest of times.
I sit on the sofa and look at you.
“Now then,” says L, “do you know who this is, she’s come a long way to see you?”
Your brows gather fleetingly as you look at me, eyes sweep my face, up and down. You look away, uninterested, then stand up and leave the room. My heart cracks. No, you don’t know me, your youngest daughter, do not remember my face.
Your face. After half a century, yours is the face I see every morning when I look in the mirror. When I was younger I saw my father’s face there in the glass, but now all signs of him are gone. There is only you. I see the tilt of your nose, the curve of your lip, the arch of your brow. I see our face and think of your soft, velvety skin, know exactly how it would feel it under my fingertips.
As you drift along the corridors, uttering amorphous complaints, I wonder how you do not recall yourself in my face, even if my own identity eludes you. But even that memory is gone, eaten away by this cruellest of diseases.
You walk past the doorway, then back into the room, but as we turn to you, you walk out again. I try to hold back the tears, and cannot.
But years after you are gone, we still meet in that mirror. Mutual, poignant recognition. Heartbreak. And joy.
Your love. On loan, metered and mercurial, bags packed, calls severed, words splintered, provisions bargained. My complicity, my hand thrown in, decided to play, learnt to dance and bend to get the love I thought was due and for the rest I sought my comforts where I could - in fancies far and cosy nooks. As the years slid on, those rules remained though changed their looks and language for the time. Should I have seen that what I feared to lose I never had, a fool’s endeavour, to think we win when we cheat ourselves. And now, I am a paper girl, so light of substance and so unshaped, I am, so often, at a loss. And you, so riven by your brain’s decay you show me all your hands at once without veneer. The rage, the jealousy, the guilt, the lack and I am forced to relive it all again without the time to fix and chose a different path, whilst your demons dance a jig around me still.
I know I must seek peace and pity to temper rage. To see that you never had to give what I thought you surely must, and you suffer for that too.
And now with wisdom and in later years I have such love to give but no child to gift and prove I have defied the odds. This paper girl must seek her sense and meaning in other lands – though the winds are strong and coax and tempt me still to the shape of others wants.
The Woman in the Mirror
Had she ‘ let herself go’ ?
I think she had, the woman in the mirror, looking back at me.
But whether that was a bad thing depended on how the phrase was interpreted.
Was she she unkempt in appearance?
Had she stopped caring about standards or had she stopped caring about standards?
She had stopped caring about standards
The inner critic and the outer judges no longer held sway.
Her mother would have noticed her undyed hair, her lack of a girdle to keep it all in!
The late hour at which she rose after nights filled with, well not sleep anyway
Her limited wardrobe, black, blue, grey or white with the occasional flash of hand crafted scarf.
Yes she had let herself go.
She had stopped trying.
She didn’t want to be, couldn’t be action granny. Her health put a stop to that.
Ruined by attempts to be supermum in another life, she limped towards pension age in a game where the state kept most unfairly moving the goalposts.
We could do anything, have it all, break down the stereotypes stopping us.
For some this meant doing it all, dragging along the baggage of unevolved relationships, until it all collapsed in a messy heap leaving us feeling bewildered and betrayed without the resources to recover. Counting the cost of it all.
And the irony of being rescued by her fathers money ( inclusive of her mothers secret running away fund)
So now finally she had let herself go and the sky hadn’t fallen.
Retirement a growing speck on the horizon promising a truce to the monitoring of her ability to be of financial worth. Because apparently that is all that ever matters.
Then she could really let herself go.
To Let oneself go.
To relax and enjoy oneself without restraint.
I have become a woman who doesn't look in mirrors. I don't see myself there - I see someone else, as if a spell has been cast. I was the fairest of them all, now I'm a saggy, tired old crone.
My hair has become a symbol of that. I started life with brown hair. Straight, thick, shiny. In my early twenties, I had a lot of fun with my hair - red and black checks, multi-coloured sunbursts, asymmetry. In my late twenties, I settled on a low maintenance bob of varying lengths. We got on together, me and my hair.
When I started my first chemo, I had it cut short. And then I had it shaved off. The hairdresser cried as she shaved my head. A sweet little old lady in the next chair patted my arm and told me it suited me. It was OK. Better than the constant drift of hair loss, the blocked drain in the shower, the scattering of hairs on the pillow. After chemo it came back silver. The perfect canvas.
This time round, I haven't lost it all. My eyebrows are gone. I have a total of 6 eyelashes - four on one side, two on the other. But I still have hair - just about. It won't grow more than 3 cm, and it's thin. So thin. But it's there. I have grieved for my hair this time round. "I don't want to die bald", I tell people. I mean I don't want to be chasing treatments until the end. I want to know when to stop.
One of my dearest friends is now my hairdresser. Last night, in her kitchen, she tidied me up. She has made such a difference. I'm embracing this crop, this short-back-and-sides. I've mourned enough, time to leave that behind. There's enough grief to come.
There is a mirror in my childhood bedroom, where I have seen my reflection grow from 7 year old baby to 40 something old mother. Through childhood dancing and singing with a hairbrush, teenage awkwardness, through a variety of unsuitable boyfriends, then the one suitable boyfriend that became a husband, bumps then babies, toddlers and now young people.
When I was 7 we went to see the original Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom appears at first in a full length mirror and pulls the heroine through into his lair. It looked just like the one in my bedroom. I was frightened of the mirror in my bedroom after that, that a malevolent spirit was lurking behind and might reach through and snatch me away.
But looking back - that idea that a strange and odd man with a disfigured face who lived in the sewers and might GET me, well that was just a symptom of my over anxious and over imaginative mind, fearing danger at every corner. I see now that the mirror refracts different personalities that I have tried on through my life, who is the real me? Do I still belong in that bedroom in my childhood mental constraints? Or have I blasted through the looking glass to find the true me?
From proof to possibility.
I thought we looked alike, me and another girl in my class at primary school. Her eyes were large, and brown and her skin much paler than mine. But it was the similarities I noticed (and still do). Secretly checking off shared life experiences. Seeking connection – and the possibility of not really being alone. It was the height that caught my attention since adults would comment that I was tall or tall for a girl. Sophie and I were the same height. Had the same brown ponytail length hair. And the same outfit: floral lilac culottes and a mint green t-shirt tied in the middle; coordinated dressing on non-uniform day.
After a few weeks of revelling in our similarities I asked Dad a question that had been on my mind for some time. Gazing into the tall, narrow mirror in the bedroom I shared with my sister, I wondered… Was there a way I could become Sophie and yet still be me? Was there a way in which my thoughts could be inside of her head, so I could look out from her eyes and see and feel her body yet know I was still me. It was an uncertain, hesitant commitment to my becoming her. Because if I was her, how could I be me? Could I experience being her while still being myself? Might that be possible?
“No.” said Dad. Though something in the tone showed an understanding of my desire to experience being through another.
A few years later, as a young teen, being talked about by my classmates I would wonder again about how my face, my thoughts and my being were connected. Self-conscious about how I appeared to the world left me staring at myself for hours in the mirror. Hoping I would somehow learn to be both inside and outside of myself. To be able to look at myself as another, as an outsider and see how I appeared. What did these harsh external judges, who had no idea what was happening inside, see? What did they want? Could this watchful guarding of myself keep me safe, help me second-guess the criticisms that would come my way? For a time, I could bring my face still and staring up in my mind’s eye. No need for a mirror.
And now, in the mirror? Can I meet my ever-vigilant eye? Can space for dreams open up if the watchfulness recedes?
Can I open up for the possibilities to begin?
As I stare at my face in the mirror I realise how comforted I am by what I see.
I see me. This is me. Here I am in my sixth decade and I am still here and still me.
Not here as in alive, although I am alive of course, but here as in I, Me, the same me, well almost the same me, is still here. I haven’t lost myself in the hullabaloo of life. I have survived it all and here I am, still the same. I am still me, still recognisable as me. Same mop of curly hair, although maybe thinner and definitely greyer. Same sage green cat’s eyes, still sparkling with the knowing that life is indeed magical, if you believe it is, if you don't give up. That same full mouth that either said too much or not enough. That same mouth that appeared every night in dreams for many moons, trying to scream but failing miserably; but that found the sound in the end though, and the dream was drowned once and for all.
I look different on the inside of course, but I see those changes reflected on the outside, in the softness of my gaze and in the warmth of my smile. My smile, my talisman, my smile that is always full of the hope of happy endings.
The mirror comforts me in a way it never once could.
All I saw was what wasn’t there, what wasn’t quite right, what wasn’t enough. Now all I see is that it is all perfect, just as it is.
I was always fascinated by my mother's dressing table. Three mirrors. One central that you could swivel backward and forward. Two side mirrors that you could angle to see the back of your hair. Contorting my head at impossible angles, I would swivel and adjust for the perfect view. Coiled on top, combed to the left, then the right, brushed forward hippy-style. I was Olivia Newton-John, Joni Mitchell, but always Daddy's Jeannie-with-the-light-brown-hair.
I didn't learn to love myself well with gazing in the mirror. I was a twinkle in your eye. I found my reflection in your deep love. I miss my reflection there.
There she did it. She threw out the beans. All of them. Dumped them on the ground and watched the chickens come running. She usually doesn’t mess up in the kitchen like that: why did she think she could soften dried garbanzos and black beans in the pot together without turning the garbanzos gray. She tried to salvage the beans, separate the black ones, have something besides anger left from this pot of beans, anger that he invited people over for dinner that she doesn’t really like. She thinks they are boring and that the husband dumps his wife on her and that is mean but it is her truth. What was he thinking? He’s not here in the kitchen, he’s working again. And now she’s cooking and throwing out beans and opening cans of beans that she keeps on hand for emergencies. What woman has emergency beans? Someone who is always responsible for all the meals, that’s who. Other women throw out beans, too, she thinks. They yell and let it all out, dump good beans, bad beans, baked, boiled, buttered, pickled beans, stupid beans, stupid, stupid stupid beans, women throw them in the yard, against the wall, into the woods, into the garbage, down the disposal. They must do this, she can’t be alone in this. She usually just cries, ruminates, writes, moves on, walks away, shuts down, there are always more beans, other beans to think about. But these beans, she wants to hurl them, every last bean, heave them hard, against trees, against the ground, against it all, just out and away from her.
Even so, she still doesn’t want him to know about these beans.
Every woman keeps her secrets.
It's all started with a routine argument. I wasn’t cautious enough, wasn’t sufficiently vigilant and on and on it went. So, I tried to defend myself and habitually pacify him but then some red mist blinded me momentarily. Enough! I’ve done nothing wrong. I screamed back and he froze. His only working eye burning with hatred, not love - “You cannot see through to my soul, and you never will! Never!”. But I’ve seen it then. A fear of a trapped animal and aloneness, the depth of which I couldn’t yet comprehend. And there were resentment and regret and more fear. I could not unsee it any longer. All those years wanting to be like him, hanging on his every word, feeling so small without him and terrified to lose his love. The glass pedestal got cracked.
The years passed. The time came when I couldn’t look into a mirror without stabbing pain right in my core. How many times I had to pretend to be someone else to feel accepted and to chase imaginary status. I thought I got away from my past by building a new future as a wife and a mother. I do that for my kids, I used to tell myself. But in the mirror the past was staring back at me, judging silently, reminding me that one can never get away from one’s roots, and responsibilities to them. “You have forgotten your filial duties and for that you will be punished” – the mirror hissed back at me in his voice, reminding me how long I carried on seeing the world through his lens. The only way forward was to rely on myself and stop judging my reflections. I won’t let a piece of glass to steal my soul. I have the duty to myself, and I knew it mattered now…. Because I owe that to my children too… I have to find my way so that they could too.
The bathroom cabinet mirrors hold my gaze: a silvered altarpiece that needs no kneeling. A thousand of me stares back, front back and sides; nowhere to hide. I switch off my eyes and escape from view, but there is no cut and run, moonlight flit or vanishing trick. I am the act, the performer inside and outside of my head. The mirror gives me age; I give me a road less travelled.
The mirror is a cruel thing, it empties out my face and entombs me in a space. The mirror neither loves me nor dislikes me. It maintains a neutral stance. A lifetime of my faces have stared back at me searching for answers; narcissistic impulses have tempted me, tried to catch me off guard; even lied to my face. I have erred and misjudged my way through many different mirrors.
Whatever I see in the mirror I slug it down; I cannot restrain nor repress it like uncomfortable memories. Decades of sunlight have scratched my retina, leaving an impression of a life well lived; I close my eyes, but the mirror sees all.
Looking at old photographs links me to a narrative of past golden moments; a lifetime of my smiling faces packaged in the past, but my "now" face unwraps them with caution. I have looked at the world with all of these different faces. My inside hall of mirrors re-create and re-structure my image of me. Corridors of masks hang there waiting to be worn, waiting for the right moment to face the world.
My eyes have fed me the world; with pie in the sky, castles in the air, cloud cuckoo land and a glimpse of bliss; all in the blink of an eye. Steve.
I stand in front of the bathroom window where the light is good, tilt my chin slightly upwards before the magnifying glass, and pick up the tweezers. Brace a little, pull in my lip. Ouch ouch ouch. A tiny hit of release as each wiry intruder leaves its pore. I know every little cluster, every stretch of the skin. After the big lockdown, I stopped paying a beautician to perform this service.
Well, I won’t have to worry about this in a few weeks’ time, I think, as I have done every day this week. Ouch, ouch, ouch.
Between Cycle 1 and Cycle 2, that’s when it begins for most ladies, they say. There are classes you can go to at Maggies, they teach you clever ways of folding scarves. Or you can get a voucher for a wig. But everyone knows it’s a wig, well everyone who knows you, who sees you in the clinic waiting to be called for your bloods week after weeks, because hair is meant to change in all kinds of subtle ways, and certain people’s - you need to take care with words like ladies nowadays - certain people’s, don’t.
Do they offer the men scarf-tying workshops, I wonder? Or wigs? I saw a bloke in the coffee shop who’d had an eye taken away last week. It makes you realise how lucky you are. He looked sort of okay with it, he’s alive, for the moment, after all, and anything is better than that.
The day it actually starts, the day your hands fill with it in the shower, unless you’ve already called your hairdresser who probably won’t charge you for that particular cut - and will certainly understand if you cry - will you stop looking in the mirror? WIll you have to force yourself from the house? Will you wear that defiant, colourful hat you bought weeks ago?
I don’t know, you say. I honestly don’t know.
I couldn't write this until today. It was too uncomfortable. Maybe I should have just taken it on, but it was too hard. I have been brooding on it, though, and I think that brooding has been helpful and has been one of the things propelling me forward, so thank you for that, Tanya. Also, having met you at that little hut, this piece is really special to me!
Hi Tanya, how wonderful this is, and how generous you are. I have accepted your invitation this month. In fact, at your prompt the memory leapt into my mind, so I had no choice really.