My husband and I were rearranging furniture in our bedroom the other day when I found a photo of myself that I had not seen in decades. We had taken out the drawers in our bureau so that we could move it, and I had grabbed the hand vacuum to clean the dust out of the openings where the drawers fit in.
A 3-by-5 white rectangle was facedown on the bottom of the slot for the top drawer. I reached into the empty hole, pulled it out, turned it over and felt a wave of shock.
The photo showed me with my first husband at a wedding, half my lifetime ago. Hadn’t seen that photo in at least 20 years; that’s how long it dwelled under my sock drawer. I was a year older than my daughter is now. My face was unlined, my hair longer and more luxuriant and not yet needing hair dye. I was 10 pounds thinner and free of the sorry-looking bags that are a permanent part of the midlife body. We were smiling and our faces were free from care. A few empty glasses that once held wine are on the table.
I try not to look at photos of myself, especially those from long ago. Despite our efforts to take care of ourselves, we never quite recapture the carefree beauty of our 20s, when we think we will never grow old.
A few years ago a commencement speech attributed to Kurt Vonnegut stressed that youth is fleeting and we’d better appreciate it while we still have it. While it was later debunked (Vonnegut never gave that speech; it was an urban legend that spread on the internet), one passage stands out:
“Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.”
It’s hard to look youthful after a certain age without looking as if you are trying too hard. And despite the wisdom we gain from decades of experience, accomplishments and mistakes, our faces and bodies do suffer in the process. Trying to keep the ravages of time at bay requires great genes, relentless discipline, over-the-top vanity or some combination of the three. (But mostly great genes.) An old photo and a mirror provide a jarring report card of how well we managed.
So does it matter if the years have not been kind? Not really. I’ve been too busy living my life and enjoying my loved ones to dwell on these things. Until I look at a 30-year-old photo.
And that’s why the photo was quickly tossed into a drawer and covered up with a mound of socks. The practical and unglamorous kind that keep my feet warm.
“You’re still beautiful,” Bob said as we moved the bureau into its new place.