The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Vanity Pandemic April 22, 2020

As I see it, and as I believe most of us will agree in our most private thoughts, humans become quite physically unattractive on the downward slope of their lives. The enlightened folks in the room will instantly protest this by arguing that true beauty is in a person’s wisdom, and in their soul (yes, but the packaging can be very off-putting, rendering that soulful beauty unknown), and that the best years are yet to come. Ok. You can think all that if you want.

Nature would work to support my feelings on this; a 56 year old woman is not designed to procreate, therefore she is not equipped with physical attributes that might attract a mate – or in base terms, signal to members of the opposite sex that she is a viable candidate for maintaining the species. There is just no point in denying it. The visage of a young person is magnetic, but an image of a person in their late 50s – honestly folks, not so much. I sure wish I would’ve taken the time to contemplate this more deeply in advance of my arrival at this strange place. I wish I’d considered that by the time my son left the house I’d be old – as in beyond my years of a strong jawline and a waist smaller than my hips, a time in my life when my hair would be as thin as my little finger, and my fingers would be twice their previous size and too arthritic to clutch a steering wheel. I’m not sure how that would’ve changed things, except that it might not have come as such a surprise.

Those of you who immediately react in opposition to my thoughts will likely be coming from an inspired and holy place that I myself will probably never know in this earthly lifetime. Those folks will scold that age is just a number. Uh-huh. Right.

All my life I’d never been able to imagine what things might be like beyond a few months into the future. Aside, I suppose, from a drawing I made in 4th grade projecting who I imagined myself to be at – gasp, 25 – where I sported a Mary Tyler Moore-esque flippy hair style and announced that I would be an “actor”. I think the choice was made based on my famously outgoing personality, and nothing else. (Of course what does a 9 year old know about job opportunities??) But how exactly would I get to be an actor? What was involved in that? No idea. Even a decade later, more than halfway through high school I had no idea what the future held, and actor was off the list after my grades tanked in sophomore year and my parents said no more auditions for school productions. So in junior year I had no ideas, no vision. Really. If I’d had my druthers I would’ve just been a musician. I have never been a good student, and since the age of 12 classrooms and panic attacks were closely associated. What I really liked doing however, what inspired me, had been playing music with friends – that was natural. And so it made sense that after I muscled my way through what ended up being a nearly wasted four years at college I made my way back to playing. (A sidebar here is that I made some great friends, met musicians, and got to play in some great groups – that was the value of college for me.)

Growing up I always thought of myself as fat. Might’ve been reinforced by my mother’s own laments about her chubby childhood (photos show no such thing), or it might’ve been the way my thighs always wore the whales in my corduroy pants down to shiny fabric in no time, or that my arms never curved in below my shoulders the way the athletic girls’ did – whatever it was, it had me confiding to my 5th grade diary that I was “78 pounds! Such a fatty!” Sheesh. The timeless lament of women – sad that it starts so young and runs so deep. True, I was not one of the slender ones, but by no means was I “such a fatty”. Regardless, I spent my teenage years feeling very bad about myself and trying in vain over and over again to lose twenty unwanted extra pounds. But I met with an unlikely fate at the end of high school which completely changed the course of my life, and gave me the chance for a complete re-invention of myself. I was literally given a ‘do-over’.

When I was 18 – and on my way to a band rehearsal – I broke my neck in a car accident. I wasn’t driving, but I had made the bad choice of accepting a ride from a friend who had been drinking. It was on a Sunday afternoon at the end of a village celebration. I knew when I got it that he wasn’t in good shape, but I didn’t relish a two mile walk home and being late to practice, so I got in. Before 30 seconds had passed I’d broken C6 and C7 (my shoulder too). I spent the next two months strapped to a Stryker frame bed in the hospital. A horrible event to be sure – but by the time I was healed and back at home, I’d lost nearly 40 pounds. I was given a jump start into a new body and a new life. I didn’t take it lightly either. Just being able to walk after such an injury was certainly huge, but being given a new body was inspiring. I began to workout and to run and surprisingly found that I loved it. I got fit and cut, and for a long time there was no looking back. And man, the shit I wore back in those days was amazing. Among hundreds of outfits, a lime green PVC catsuit and 4 inch platforms come to mind as I think back…

You gotta know that playing onstage is more than just talent and gear – maybe more so for a woman – but it’s there for all of us. It’s about how you read to the crowd, how you look. Really. It is. But getting a look together for a band was always fun, it was never a hardship. A challenge, definitely, but one I loved. Thrift stores and head shops with a rack of tiny tees, my grandmother’s leftovers – I’d cobble together a unique look that told the world it was just that easy to look so music video-ready. With chops from years of classical piano and ears informed by my dad’s jazz LPs, I had enough facility to play in a variety of groups. From reggae bands to alt country (the sparkly accordion added to my rootsy street cred) to Elvis cover bands – and then later (when I realized that by singing I could work with “real” jazz musicians) fronting 20 piece big bands – all of it represented an impressive repertoire of costumes. I’ve let go of most of it by now, but I have a few pieces left. A red and black horizontal stripe top from the early years (which matched my red and black Farfisa!), and a few gowns from the “Doris Day” years. Wow, those waistlines slay me. I actually zipped that shit up? I’m not even sure my current thigh could fit inside the waistline of one of those gorgeous dresses. Linda Ronstadt once said that she had no regrets because she had “a long drink at the trough”. I didn’t drink the way she did, but I’ve certainly had more than one woman’s share of glamour and adventure. Truly.

So now here I am, a country gal, closer to 60 than 50, and holding onto a half dozen silk sheaths. It’s almost as if keeping the clothes demonstrates to me that that life will one day return. That the body I identify with will return. That youth will return. I try to take stock, to let pieces go every so often. There really is no more size 8 in my future, this I know… But it’s a deeply poignant thing to say goodbye; it’s like another confirmation that the best times are behind me and truly gone… The turquoise suede duster with the fur collar that I netted from a lucrative commercial job in Las Vegas – I let it go for just $5 at a garage sale last summer. When the man sent his niece a photo and she texted back immediately that she really wanted it – that gave my heart some relief. It would have a new life, a young life. That made it easier. Step by step, velvet boots by beaded gown I’ve let most of it go, and with each separation I like to think that I’m increasing my OK-ness with this aging thing. But really friends, I’m not.

I’m grateful for the buffer of pandemic life because at least it gives me a window of time for some deep self reflection. I must remember that while I’m flitting about in this turmoil of vanity, people are fighting for their lives. This should not be the time for lamenting in my diary that “I’m such a fatty”, yet somehow that’s how it’s turning out for me. Let’s just keep this between us, shall we? I’m not proud.

The gift of time has enabled me to finally justify spending hours upon hours going through boxes and boxes of paper. Memorabilia mixed in with mundane crap. Lots of stuff mis-filed. Hell, lots of files themselves labeled “to be filed” – now that’s a hoot. I’ve just never had the stretch of time in which to fully face down this monster. And it’s actually producing results! Who knew? Finally I can put my hands on teaching materials and pieces of music that have been MIA for years. So it’s been productive, which offers my spirit some lift. There’s a lot of paper being tossed in the burn bin these past few weeks – and as each bonfire spirits away a few pounds’ worth of the past into the sky, I feel a small breath of hope growing for the future. It will be oh so different, to be sure. I will need some major redefining of my life in a year’s time. But thankfully I have a handle on it now, and I have time to prepare. I will make the most of my pandemic cocoon. File by file, and fire by fire, I’m already making progress.

I think back on breaking my neck, and how frightening it was; the uncertainty for my very life, my mobility, my health… And yet it turned into a gift. As I lose weight in paper – old files, long-useless owner’s manuals, receipts, set lists, to-do lists – it gives me a real sense of lighten-ing. And in these heavy times, that is something I can really use.

 

Dressing Down November 22, 2013

I dress for bed with relish. I can’t wait to be nothing but comfortable. It’s long underwear season for me (a season which takes but a mere two month hiatus in the height of summer) and if I can just find my XL gray fleece pants I’ll be in business. I don a zip front bathrobe on top of the whole affair, and with these three layers (plus knee socks and wrist warmers and maybe even a scarf for the neck) I am done. As I add each piece, I marvel to myself that I’ve been wearing this particular ensemble since my pregnancy, now over ten years ago. The older one gets, the less of an impact time seems to have, so for me it has become a number of little significance. At first it sounds kinda comforting even. Yeah, this go-to set of pajamas has been part of my life for ten years now…. ten years….a decade…. infant to fifth grader…. Hmm. I begin to wonder if this isn’t actually something I should announce to too many people. I stop for a second and look down at my own clothes. I begin to take a slower and more critical look at them and begin to see some obvious shortcomings: the robe is full of pills and is nothing close to soft anymore, the pants have the very weakest elastic left in the waist, and the fabric itself is thinning in small, penny-sized spots. Just a few days ago I chided my mother for wearing a sweater simply riddled with holes. She readily copped to it but said it was by far the warmest sweater she’d ever, ever worn and she kept it for that reason alone. “What’s it made of?” I asked her, truly curious, and expecting it to be made of the finest wool or some high-end fiber. “Oh, it’s just a polyester blend of some sort.” What?! I couldn’t help but think ‘cashmere anyone’? Likely as simple as picking up an LL Bean catalogue…It’s not as if she doesn’t have a stack of em somewhere in her many piles. And I’m thinking her budget could handle one such purchase without much trouble. So, as my mind flashes onto my mother’s holey sweater for which she really has no valid excuses, I wonder, am I as bad as that??

Good Lord, please say I’m not. But then I remember all the episodes of “What Not To Wear” and realize that yes, I am as bad as that. But I can’t justify spending a hundred dollars on new pajamas and long underwear when I run out of food money before the month’s end. And even if I did come into a bonus windfall of cash, why in hell should I spend it on clothes that no one ever sees? Wait. Is this also my mom? She’s got the cash but wouldn’t dare to ever spend it on herself. (Naw, I’m not that bad by any means. Give me a couple hundred bucks and I’ll find something pretty to take home. Just not sure I could blow it on pajamas and underwear.) Phooey. I feel a little less than comfortable in my comfy clothes now. They’re reminding me a little too much of my parents’ place. Old and worn. Man. Is this how it starts?

My ex and I used to marvel over the strange arc of our parents’ lives with respect to fashion – of their clothes, their home decor, hairstyles, accessories… We both noticed that our parents – both pairs being about the same ages – had somehow ceased being stylish at some point in their middle adult years. We’d look at gorgeous black and white prints of them in the sixties and ooh and ahh over our mother’s suits, the perfect hair, our father’s ties and crisp trousers…. they all looked so damned fine. And their houses were tidy and tasteful too. Then we moved into the 70s, and both pairs seemed to keep pace alright. Ties became wider, colors leaned towards harvest golds, browns and yellows, women’s hair got bigger. They still presented themselves well. Then came the 80s. It was that decade in which our parents seemed to slow a bit. (Granted, if you were going to miss a decade of fashion, this was the one to pass on!) Our homes no longer received cosmetic upgrades, our mothers no longer looked sharp and put together, our fathers no longer seemed hip and cool. When we looked at what was going on concurrently in our lives, we realized that our parents were knee-deep in the kid/family/career thing by then, and so the fashion side of life just sort of stalled in the shadow of everything else. I even noticed a time – when I was very young – when mom and dad would have parties, or even go to parties, but that too seemed to come to an end the older we kids got.

And then there came a time – I think around when I was in high school – when my parents just seemed to become cut off from their peers altogether. They had absolutely no social life. They hadn’t much of one to begin with, but by the time I was a senior, they had no life other than their work and the summer music festival they hosted here in Greenfield. My ex had noticed the same behavior in his folks. The only common thread we could find that made sense was the stages at which they were in their lives. They just sort of disconnected from the culture sometime in middle age, never to truly return. And if it was happening to our folks, it had to be happening to others’, too.

This brings me back to my present meditation: Is this decline a natural characteristic of one’s middle years? Is this a real danger – a statistically supported phenomenon of middle age? I realize that not all events are inevitable, and the more one questions and scrutinizes something the better one understands it and the more empowered one becomes to change things… but honestly, are my comfy clothes a warning sign of my increasing cluelessness? Is the ease with which I don my twelve-year-old pill-y bathrobe an indication that I’m tuning out? I do know that I don’t care as much – we all know that aging-related phenomenon. Super-old folks often dress like crap cuz they don’t f*ing care anymore. Why should they? They no longer have anything to prove. Plus – they’re not out to get laid. And frankly, it does seem that most self-beautification is about getting some. Or at least having someone else consider you being a person worth getting some with. And doesn’t there finally come a time when one stops caring about that kind of stuff at all?? I know I hardly do. And maybe that in of itself is just giving up. I don’t know. But hey, how can you miss what you don’t even want? My life is so different these days from my life of two decades ago, I’m not sure it makes sense to even compare the two. (When people ask me if I’m not interested in dating, I reply that I’m already dating a ten year old boy. !) Joking aside, there are moments when I’m a bit worried that I’m losing my touch, my oomph. Yeeps. Me, rockstar Liz, an old lady. Never woulda thought.

I do miss one thing though. And there is one thing I do continue to wish for as I muddle through my middle years out here in the country. I miss looking good. Dressing up. Just for the joy of it. I may be a chicken farmer these days, but I still want to feel like I look good from time to time. I want to know that even if most nights I hunker down in some really crappy looking threads, that even if I do pull out the high rise mommy jeans when I’m carrying around an extra ten pounds, that somewhere in my closet there is an outfit or two that I feel slammin in. Usually that goes with a smaller dress size. Off the no-carb wagon some four months, I’m almost where I was at the start of my weight loss last Spring. So maybe that’s part of it. Hard to get psyched about dressing a body you’re not keen on showing off to begin with. So was that part of the mix for our mothers? Did those extra ten or twenty pounds seal the deal for them? Not sure. For one reason or another – or a bunch of em all together – they just kinda tuned out and settled into a holding pattern of non-style. And it seems as if they were oblivious to their departure from the world. But I am most definitely not oblivious. Only wish I were. Then my crappy sweatpants wouldn’t seem like such a mark of shame. And I could forgive my mommy pants. But I can’t. And I don’t want to give in yet.

So please call ahead if you’re planning to stop by for a visit, because while I’m old enough to enjoy lounging all day in elastic waist pants, I’m not keen on you seeing that for yourself. And although my chickens don’t give me much of a reason to clean up my act these days, I think I still remember a little something about dressing up…

 

Fashion Sideways March 31, 2012

I really can’t stand the new trend in eyewear. Fashion is cyclical; it seems the cycle is about twenty-five or thirty years. I was in college back then, or thereabouts, and everyone wore those Blues Brothers style frames – the classic Ray Ban look. I know, I had a pair myself – in fact they had pink lenses, and I loved them for many years. But now, I just can’t go there. Especially because the current interpretation of the look has the frames a bit larger than they were back in the day. Personally, I think the sunglasses that people are wearing these days look ridiculous. Just plain ugly. I don’t friggin care how goddam in they are – I cannot be made to participate in such a look. I do, however, remember feeling the same a few years back at the resurrection of the Jackie O-esque oversized frames, yet I did end up buying several pairs, and found them aesthetically quite acceptable. But to be fair, I chose a more moderate interpretation of the style. There really seems to be no such counterpart in today’s look. Plus the trend is for bright, neon colors. Ich. Everyone’s walking around looking like an extra from Pretty in Pink.

Ok. So that’s my take on the sunglasses. The frames of eyeglasses themselves have me feeling a bit more conflicted. One’s frames – or one’s everyday glasses – are something of a small investment. They can cost many hundreds of dollars, they are intended to last a few years, and so one makes that choice with greater care than when purchasing a pair of sunglasses at the drugstore. So of course some careful consideration goes into the decision. My own ‘everyday’ glasses were once exceedingly hip. A few years ago when the trend was about horizontally-oriented shapes, narrow, trim lenses with an angular feel – I found myself a pair issued by Nascar. (I’d previously had a pair by Harley Davidson – and so thought it was kinda cute that my next pair followed the all-American, motor-driven vehicle theme.) My glasses were – and still are – beautiful. Many have admired them over the years. But I’m afraid they are finally played out. I see myself as outdated as the clerks at Walmart wearing similar shapes themselves. It offers me little consolation to know that at least I’m not wearing some clumsily oversized, un-ironic, low-end frames from twenty years ago. Because I do see a good share of folks out in the world who are clearly still wearing the same glasses they did a quarter of a century ago. And while I admit my snobbery at their seeming cluelessness, I secretly wonder if it’s not simply a matter of economics, as it is with me. Might I also find myself one day in twenty-year-old frames? I suppose that’s all well and good if you cease to care. Part of me really wishes I could just cease caring. But sadly, I can’t. No matter how country and cutoff my life may be, I still wish to represent myself as a relevant, participating member of society. And the glasses have so very much to do with that message. Sigh.

I myself am suddenly feeling quite out of it – and have quite a bit of ambivalence about taking action. Firstly, I can hardly afford glasses. Elihu and I live on about a thousand dollars a month, and there is simply no room for such a purchase. Secondly, I don’t at all like the new style and will go so far as to say I think the look that’s popping up everywhere makes people look kinda silly. I see the rounder, more retro shapes showing up all over – on news anchors, artists, restaurant staff, shop owners and moneyed folks. Even though it looks pretentious and slightly wacky to me, I have to admit that I’m beginning to soften to it. I have a pair of my grandfather’s glasses from the ’30s (yes, my grandfather would be well over one hundred if he were still alive today) and they are classics. Tortoiseshell (probably actual tortoise!) and round, they are one of the original shapes that the new trend refers to. So that gives me a new tenderness for it, and this perspective opens my mind. But regardless of whether I like the look personally or not, I am now beginning to feel the pressure. How long can I wear my current glasses and not feel like an average joe? I don’t so much see the new frame styles in the lower economic strata – and I can guess that’s for reasons much like my own. We need to make sure that’s the direction things are going in for a while before we can make a financial commitment to the look. I wish there were some way for me to make a nod to the rounder, larger lense look, while still keeping to a more reserved size and shape. (Am I thinking about this too much? I don’t think so. It just takes so many words to convey the thought process which happens in the blink of an eye.) And so it seems I’m toying with the idea of making this happen, lest I appear to the world an ignorant dolt.

I’m not dwelling on this for hours each day, but I have spent some time lately thinking about what this means in the larger picture of my life. I’ve seen how the aging process works; I’ve seen people become increasingly oblivious to trends as they grow older. I’ve seen people frozen in a look for decades. As I’ve said before – I wish I could relieve myself of the burden of caring how I appear to others – but I can’t. I don’t want to care, but I do. I want somehow to join in the trend, but I want to do it in a way that represents the uniqueness of me along the way. I just spent a crazy couple hundred dollars on new contacts a few months ago – that was my tactic to relieve myself of the frame dilemma. Turns out I really don’t like the feel of this new brand, plus my need for readers while wearing contacts has become undeniable – and so I end up wearing my once-hip-but-now-not-so-much glasses all over again.

I think the easy solution here is to find some cheapie readers with that new look. There. That should do it. Because I’m not quite ready to look like Sally Jesse Raphael. Not just yet.