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first person

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Illustration by Wenting Li

It’s time for sleep, but I can’t succumb to dreamland quite yet. I lie flat on my back in bed, staring at the barely visible ceiling. I’m certain that my shiny face is glowing in the dark. Perhaps it’s glistening or it’s shimmering. All I know for sure is that I must look as greasy as I feel. My cheeks, forehead and chin are smeared with thick, slimy Vaseline. I’ve done this to myself, on purpose. I’m on a mission and I’m determined to see it to the end. My objective is to stay still. One turn, this way or that, and some of the Vaseline will rub off and slither into my hair or glob onto my pillowcase. The longer I stay on my back before reverting to my usual side-sleeping position, the more likely the Vaseline will do its magic. It will create magic, won’t it? After all, my Aunt Lil, who looked fabulous when she was the other side of 100 years old, said Vaseline kept her looking young. She insisted that it was better than any facial cream.

As I wait for my skin to absorb the petroleum jelly and lock moisture into my skin, I realize that I will do just about anything to look younger. Shy of getting a facelift, I will do what I can to fight the battle against the natural order of things. There it is. I admit it. I will not let the passing years steal my youthful glow.

Unfortunately, though, I suspect my youthful glow is history no matter what I do. I’m a grandmother. I’m way past my prime. I know older women can be attractive. Consider the wonderful actress Helen Mirren, who is two years older than me, and Jane Fonda, who is about 10 years older. They look amazing. And true, Jane has had a facelift, but so what? Diane Keaton, who I always wanted as a friend, is still the epitome of unique style. But somehow, I don’t love her long grey hair which seems to accentuate her wrinkles. Sorry, Diane.

Why do I care about looking older? I am older. It’s just the way it is. And yet…

I think the problem lies with my past. I’ve spent way too many years looking in the mirror. As a 15-year-old girl, I was thrilled to toss away my glasses and get contact lenses. Once my eyes weren’t hidden from the world by glasses, I immediately noticed that my eyelashes would come to life with some mascara. From then on, I was hooked. A bit of lip gloss led to lipstick. My fair complexion was revived with blush on my cheeks. How could I go without makeup when I felt so pale, almost invisible, without it?

As the years passed, I realized that the face I saw in the mirror when I first woke up wasn’t the real me. I decided that my face with makeup was who I truly was. Each and every day since my teens – unless I’m very ill – I have put on makeup. My makeup routine has become a ritual. I can skip breakfast but I won’t skip doing my face. My ritual has accompanied me from my youth into my 70s and it will beyond. (I’ve made it clear to my family that if, God forbid, I’m ever in a coma, someone will need to apply at least some makeup on me. And of course, they’ll need to arrange for a hairdresser to colour my hair once a month!)

During the pandemic lockdowns when I knew I would be staying home and seeing no one, I still put on makeup each and every morning. Wearing makeup made me feel better, more able to deal with each day, no matter what. Is that so crazy? By admitting my addiction to makeup, am I open to ridicule? Perhaps.

So staring at my face is part of my routine. No wonder I notice each and every wrinkle.

I think about the women who are comfortable with their faces au naturel. How easy it must be to throw some water on your face and head out the door. These women must slide into their senior years with less angst than those of us who are preoccupied with adding colour to our faces.

I admire those who don’t fight the signs of aging. Many of my friends have let their hair grow grey, and they look lovely. It is not something I am considering.

Why does everything seem to be falling apart as I get older? I worry about my fading memory. I wince when simple words elude me and I can’t remember a thing I’ve read. Physically, I’m not in bad shape, but how I wish my knees didn’t give me grief. My friends and I joke about the disintegration of our minds and bodies, but the joking is kind of sad.

Acceptance is the name of the game as we reluctantly slide into old age. But there’s a limit to acceptance. I refuse to believe that I have no control over the visible signs of aging. I will turn to Vaseline and whatever else works to stave off the ravages of time. For whatever time I have left, I refuse to look my age. To quote that remarkable sage, Scarlett O’Hara: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be wrinkly again!” I’m sure she said something like that. And if she didn’t, she should have.

Phyllis Shragge lives in Ancaster, Ont.

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