If a picture's worth a thousand words, then these are bad words. Hag comes to mind. Grouch. Mean old lady. My son, Ben, peers over my shoulder at the photograph in my hand. “I love that picture,” he says—and of course he does. All he sees is his peachy 6-year-old self in the foreground, blurred with happiness and dancing with his little sister, both of them thigh-high in my old boots. They are pantsless and laughing and delicious, as short and sheathed in black leather as revelers in a gay jockey pageant. Who wouldn't smile to see them? Well, someone wouldn't—whatever that thing is in the background, hunched in its robe over a coffee mug. Even from here you can't miss the scowl lines, like the angry stomp of a pterodactyl foot between the eyes. It's the kind of face that would make you pedal your bike faster if you saw it in a window from the street. "Maybe that house really is haunted," you would think.
And so I am struck with an epiphany that is both earth-shattering and obvious: The problem with aging isn't simply the looking older; it's the revealing of the ugliest parts of yourself to the whole world. As a person who gets a kick out of the white hairs springing from my scalp, who admires my own gorgeously wrinkled and silver-headed parents and thanks goodness every day of my life for the confidence and peace that come with the passing years, I'm shocked by this. I am a feminist, born of a long, proud line of crumply faced women. I had always secretly assumed that vanity about aging was for the duped, the narcissistic, the panderers to men. But for me, I see that it's about feeling exposed in all my creased crankiness. I don't mind looking mature; I mind looking like a bitch.
Because as this forehead plainly advertises, my generally joyful personality seems to have come packaged with Bonus Minutes of Irritability! Take one look at my face and you'll see that I'm aggravated by loud noises—such as yelling with a mouthful of macaroni and cheese—and also softer noises, such as humming with a mouthful of macaroni and cheese; you'll see exactly how much patience I have for some of your opinions when they straggle away from the straight and sensible path of my own (um, let me see—none); you'll see that I'm on the beach in the blaring sun with a bikini bottom full of sand and a belly full of nothing, peering at my watch because I'm restless and ready for lunch even though it's actually only 10:30; you'll see me grimacing over a Googled list of bird flu symptoms. Remember Dorian Gray? How he remained baby smooth and gym perfect (or the Victorian equivalent) while an old oil painting of him magically wrinkled up into debauched oblivion? It's like that, but on Opposite Day: Maybe somewhere in the attic there's a smooth and youthful portrait of me, my face a glossy bisque to reflect the contentment I feel inside. But my actual real-world face looks as if it's been pressed onto the front of my head only after first getting wadded up and thrown to the floor like a Big Mac wrapper from somebody's car seat.
And I know it's not the aging itself that bothers me, because the crow's-feet I love. I even love the smile lines that make me look like a daffy marionette, my hinged jaw clacking happily open and shut. Sometimes I climb from my marriage bed to the bathroom, and that long-loved look of my face—flushed and rumpled with pleasure—holds more beauty, I see clearly, than any of the plummy tautness of my younger self.