Lucy the esthetician has this airy giggle and a touch so feathery I’m certain she’s evaporating at least ten years from my eyelids. The bed I’m resting on feels vaguely medical, the lighting designed to be soothing. The way she’s massaging this weightless erasure solution into my forehead suggests it’s brewed from ingredients found only in the lost ark but could be Palmolive, for all I know. I have briefed this young, substantially eyelashed woman regarding her assignment: prepare me to turn 60. In the next hour I expect Lucy will cleanse, moisturize, and massage my face, neck and decolletage back in time by at least a decade, before the sheer act of walking through the world gave me jowls.
I avoid the rearview mirror on the way home, relishing the reveal.
And you know what happened. At home between the yellowy walls, in front of the bathroom mirror, I looked exactly the same. Lucy’s great but she’s not miracle-worker. Her silky salves could not achieve what a scalpel might. I was going to have to turn 60 looking exactly like me.
Anyone who’s faced down this decade understands my concerns. I’m closer to the grave than not. My bucket list is overwhelming. I did not replace Jane Pauley on the Today Show nor did I win a Pulitzer. My knee hurts. One is left to wonder, what have I been doing for a half dozen decades?
I told my husband that I did not want a 60th birthday party. I preferred to age aboard Eleanor-the-boat, as she is even more crevassed than I. And so on the assigned day we cast off and crossed the Chesapeake, then pulled into the Maritime Marina in St. Michaels where on the 28th morning of September I awakened in my berth then sipped coffee while gazing past the splintering teak veneer at the drizzle, cozy in Eleanor’s saloon. I opened a few gifts, before Jon and I wandered inland, browsed the local shops then luxuriated over an extended dinner at Ruse, my local favorite. By the next morning, the adrenaline dissipated. I had poured myself over the hump and emerged not so different from the day before. We motored home, planning to have a pretty quiet dinner with Jenn and Craig Barnabee and Mitzi Bernard and her husband Dan Nardo. (aka the BerNardos.)
Mitzi is a collage artist. Her creations are beautiful from afar and fascinating close-up. The bits and pieces of her work provide subtext for the art as a whole. About nine months earlier she’d called—very excited—as she’d gotten a commission for a “very famous person,” but couldn’t reveal the identity. That’s how famous. Of course, I began to guess and for various silly reasons I fixated on Kathleen Turner. She’s famous, right? And I love the way KT has allowed herself to publicly age. When I first saw her in The Kominsky Method I thought, that’s cool, to go ahead and look your age on Netflix. She clearly was cool enough to be the recipient of one of Mitzi’s collages. Just a few days before our scheduled birthday dinner Mitzi announced that the commissioned piece would be presented to the mystery recipient at a brief event before our gathering. We would all breeze through, meet “Kathleen,” no doubt ooh and ah at Mitzi’s piece, then go on to celebrate the occasion of my aging.
We arrived at Tsuname, a sushi place in Annapolis, and were swept into a private room. In the back was an easel covered by a black velvet drape. Guests began to arrive, the first of whom I happened to know. Then the next, who I also happened to know. Then more. You get where this is going. It was a party. And it was for me. Jon and Mitzi and many others had conspired—the “artwork,” as well as the commission was a long-running ruse. But it was a ruse with roots.
I happily settled in and ordered a Manhattan. Some of my friends had travelled far and all had done a smashing job of keeping a secret, not the least, my husband, the orchestrator, who I’ve never counted among the world’s most tight-lipped. But soon Mitzi was up at the front of the room, talking and whoosh! Off came the velvet drape from the easel I’d thought was a prop. Staring out from a dark canvas were two sets of shiny eyes—one round and bright—the other, damp and wondering. The images of my precious girls—Lillian, ears back and smiling, and the ponderous, furrowed Delilah, seemed to lean off the canvas. I felt my hand go to my mouth. I took a few steps closer. Gradually the collage, the bits and pieces that brought my girls to life, came into focus.
Lillian and Delilah - Artwork by Mitzi Bernard
The white splotch on Lillian’s chest was actually me in my wedding dress, next to Jon, his arm raised in victory, as we’d walked up the dock toward our reception. My writing critique group, Wendy, Denny, Susan, and Mary, who’d formed a human suspension bridge over the turbulent book writing years, peer out from the flop of Lilly’s ear. My mom peeps through a tangled flower along with Jenn, Craig, and our other cherished friends, Christine and Phil Buckley and the Nyces. Another creative force, Kathryn, occupies Lilly’s big toe. Each of Lillian and Delilah’s paws pop with people and moments. An Emmy award floats over a scene of Jon and I on a rocky climb, the Sedona sky spread across Lillian’s chest.
Sixty years’ worth of artifacts, including my book, Finding Waypoints, it’s subject, Greg, along with Eleanor-the-boat, a wild-haired woman on a SUP board, and another on a bike—all meld to create the hues of this amazing mosaic.
There are even blades of grass embellished with the titles of various blogs I’ve written over the years: “Collared,” was about Jon’s wedding proposal which included accessories for the girls, “The Pull of the Pack” was about cycling with wounded veterans, and “Moved to Tears” was about packing up my single girl home. On a dark strip defining Delilah’s jaw is the simple caption, “Happy Birthday, Mom!” Mitzi had spent hours and days combining people and moments curated by Jon over many months and conversations—to create a stunning piece of art—and an answer.
That’s what I’d been doing for sixty years. I’ve been piecing together the mosaic, which could not exist without all its people and parts—its shadows, skies, rough patches and grand gestures. There are a few bumps and wrinkles. But when you step back, it smooths and blends into a portrait of love and an immeasurable life.