Memory and the Secrets of a Face

When I was seven years old and hard to contain, my father sat me in front of a big box of pictures. We were cleaning out his mother’s mother’s house after she’d died at a ripe old age. The distraction was magic for both my father (I was absorbed) and me. After sifting through the images for an hour, I suddenly found a picture of myself. But it was strange. I remember lifting it high and calling, “Dad! Come here!” He came over and leaned down, his face beside mine. “I think I found a picture of myself…That’s me, right?” I’ll never forget the sound that he made, something between a soft snort and a laugh. “No, Karen, that’s your grandmother. But you do look like her.” “Can I keep it?’ He nodded, and then I went back to my rummaging and he to his packing. I kept a few photos tucked in the frame of my bedroom mirror (hers, black and white next to my own at about the same age, in color), and then moved them to my wallet when I left for college. How precious that picture was to me. I believed it held some key to my identity. To my destiny.

What secrets, what quiet whispers does a face hold? I’m not talking about what makes a face beautiful, but rather what stories it embraces–its own and the generations etched within it. As I grow older–because, as a physician friend recently quipped, “if you aren’t growing up, you’re growing older every day”–I’m torn whether or not to lament the loss of the innocence on my face. The crinkles around my eyes are laughter personified, my mind knows that, and I think they get smaller and squintier every day. This is natural. I know that too. Do I rejoice at the life I see reflected or do I inject it, slather it with cream, hoping to smooth away any evidence of wisdom? Oh, I know what my strong woman head would tell me, the same advice I would give any woman, friend or foe, but the fear of “gee, she’s aging,” is petrifying some days.

I’ve come far enough down the alleys in my life to know I don’t want to turn back one step. Not any more. That is something new for me. And it took a decade to not want to peel back whole chapters of my life stitched with regret. Now, I can say I would not veer from the steps and missteps that caused pain or now seem blatantly wrong in retrospect. I can’t anyway. I simply didn’t have the wisdom or knowledge of my own fallibility, which I have now because of some of those decisions.

What would I erase anyway? A child? A friend made in the most unlikely of circumstance? Two decades of time in a region I would never have chosen for myself apart from a decision to marry long ago? Or maybe, some nugget of Truth that dug in deep while I spent years trying to digest my regret?

Regret is like a splinter that’s broken off despite all delicate and desperate efforts to have it removed. It’s like a great big tangle of roots seeking fertilizer in the soil—most likely our own sewer tank. Once Regret finds something to feed on, it balloons and festers until the thing must be removed or allowed to dissolve, along with anything else clinging to it.

For a very long time, I used to think that regret could be avoided by simply weighing and measuring every single decision in front of me (and some of you may argue with me here, which you are free to do), and by golly, by age 17, I was going to live with as minimal regret as possible. I used to think there were two choices: one that led to regret and one that led to quiet happiness—or at least, contentment. I would say now, with all my beat-up, saved-up sagacity, that sometimes both choices lead to regret and it’s a matter of figuring out which way will deliver the smallest dose.

This is life in a broken world where sometimes we fail people, and sometimes they fail us. Funny thing, though, Regret leads to the choice to forgive, whether it is oneself or another…and most days, practicing the act of forgiveness gives way to happiness and contentment more quickly than the “safe” decision.

All that considered, then, who am I? Am I simply the sum of all my regret negated against any joy I’ve been blessed with? And all I have to do then, is make peace with the result? Don’t I then willfully allow the editing of my own story and evidence of grace along with it? I ask myself this today because I see something different emerging in my face. Some garbled evidence of my destiny that makes me oddly happy when I stop to consider it.

Who I am now is not the result of some simple subtraction, some erasure of my Story. In fact, I think it is a multiplication of every step I’ve made…and every step my mother and father have made and their mother and father and so on back through time.

And, isn’t it funny how the old timers at a family reunion glory in the “family face.” They know what we don’t know when we are 15 and trying to like what God has given us. What once we thought we might never accept, becomes a treasure map to navigate the waters in which we’ve been thrown–the same waters everyone else throughout time has been thrown into, for that matter. And if we remove the variable from the equation–the glitches from our Story–the sum total of who we have become gets altered. How does one remove a variable when the very essence of a variable is unpredictable and fluid? Have you watched “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Remove one part of the equation and the whole story falls apart.

The variable is the fallible world around me.  The variable is me—my screwing up and choosing a path that, if I’d just thought more clearly, maybe not reacted with high emotion or self-preservation or ambition, I might have chosen The Way of No Regret. This, I see now, is naive. The variable is also someone I love—or don’t—who makes a bad or misinformed choice that spews debris on my side of the fence. And maybe I’m the only one left with a rake.

I am –we are–the sum total of all the joy and wonder and disillusionment of our Story co-mingled into one. The sum total of all those who provided us with our DNA–our lineage–and all of their regrets and joys and junk. If I remove some evidence of life from my face, do I risk removing part of the story my grandmother began telling when she spoke in lilting whispers, gently divulging the secrets of the life that lies beneath the surface?

I admit that a simple picture led to this whole landslide of musing. I posted a new profile picture on Facebook. I didn’t’ think much of it at first, I change my profile to suit my mood and the season because that’s just how flakey I can be, but something about this one reminded me of someone. So, I kept looking at it. I complained internally, of course, about any trace of time, though I won’t argue that my countenance is relaxed, happy…closer to who I know myself to be than any pictures I’ve seen in recent years. My eyes look squintier than usual. They look a little too wizened” for my vanity and it might take awhile before I stop fixating on that. However, those things aside, I think I may have just opened my arms to the stories on my face. On my grandmother’s face. The one person who I’ve repeatedly been told I look like.

My profile picture reminded me of my grandmother, whose memory reminds me of who I was as a little girl, and maybe who I’m meant to be.

Two weeks after I graduated college, my wallet, heavy with my first professional paycheck, was stolen and along with it, the only reminder of my grandmother’s face. Until today. My grandmother’s grandmother was a Canadian Indian. She was the only one in the family who anyone identified as a woman who loved to sing and tell stories. She fascinated me as a young child by simply spending time with me. Talking in the special voice she had just for me. Telling me what my puppy was saying as he ran the length and end of his chain choking out his barking pleas for food in the early morning. But to her, he was telling me to come play with him. That he loved me. That he was happy to be mine. She spoke magic into my heart and I clung to every word she said.

My grandmother, Inez, died of Alzheimer’s Disease almost a decade ago. I visited her in Florida a year before she passed. She couldn’t remember my name. I had no anguish or frustration during that visit, just an intense desire to unfold her mind one more time. She called me every female name in the family but my own until her daughter, my aunt, apologized in frustration. “No need,” I said. “It’s fine. I’m happy just to sit here with her hand on my leg.” To be close to her. To remember for her, I thought.  Then she cocked her fluffy white head to one side and reached up to touch my straight black hair, a replica of her own in her youth.  “You cut your hair,” she said, her voice like the scent of the magnolia tree in her yard. “Yes,” I said, and I remember the grief finally surfacing. “Yes, I did, Grandmother.” She smiled, shook her head and clucked. I laughed. I knew what that meant to a Southern woman whose house and mailbox and slippers had been powder pink as long as I could remember. “You like it better longer?” I asked. She nodded, then patted my leg again, and we laughed together one  last time. It was enough. She knew me, with or without the memory of my name. She recognized my face…maybe because it reminded her of her own.

I know some of her secrets now that I didn’t know as a child, because when I became a woman, I asked her. I know that she loved more graciously than most would in her circumstances, forgave easily but forgot little, had a wicked sense of humor, and that she’d suffered regret, but only enough to move forward as best she could. I still wonder if I love to sing and tell stories because I want to feel her presence again after all these years.

Now, I am beginning to see my father in the mirror and my mother’s silent knowing look. I have my other grandmother’s stubborn chin and my grandfather’s gentle love tucked somewhere safe. I see testimony of the stories that were written long before I showed up on the earth. My face is Inez’s face. And I wonder if she had her grandmother’s face too? Please, God help me embrace every word and hope and tear etched here, because surely more will follow.

But I still plan to stay out of the sun.