Updated: May 4
"Even after she witnessed her little sister's dramatic transformation, my aunt did not get a facelift. She seemed an Odysseus who could see the sirens on the shore, who could hear their irresistible song from the ship on the undulating ocean, yet, as if tied to a mast, did indeed resist the temptation to look younger and thinner, to smooth out skin and erase lines, to lighten spots and suction away fat."
I'm looking at a photograph taken by iPhone in Lima and sent to me in California. It shows my aunt and uncle sitting in their living room on their low cream couch, a leopard print cushion in the corner and an antique oil painting of the Archangel Rafael in rusts and reds and golds hanging behind them. I wouldn’t have thought that the animal print would go with the Catholic imagery, but it does, the luxury of the colors and the historical undertones – gilt frame, Papal riches, safari hunting – brings it all together in an edgy way that seems right to me, having grown up surrounded by the aesthetics of Spanish colonialism.
This one I save to my phone album because I know I will want to return to it time and again, especially when my aunt and uncle are gone. They are, as of the taking of this picture, eighty-seven and ninety-two years old, respectively. They sit close to each other, as is their wont, embodying what I consider to be one of the great love stories in my family, if not the only one. They lean into one another, and her hand presses his as it rests on his leg. I have grown up watching my aunt touch my uncle constantly, sitting next to him at the dining table for instance, rubbing his arm and plucking his skin gently with her thumb and forefinger as she talks to my mother – pluck, smooth, pluck, smooth, pluck, smooth. Once when we were teens my sister entered their room with a question after everyone had retired for the night; she found them in bed gazing into each other's eyes as they caressed each other's faces. Who does that at sixty-plus years old? After forty-plus years of marriage and seven children?
But what strikes me about this particular photo is my aunt. Of course I notice that she is elegantly dressed, her hair styled, a dramatic silver necklace around her throat. That is normal. What is also normal, but what I end up still mulling over later, is her face. It is wrinkled. She has the kind of skin that shows its age in webs of fine lines, especially around her eyes and mouth. She is an animated talker, charismatic and exuberant, and when she laughs or smiles, her mouth moves and her eyes crease. A lot. My mother, her younger sister, is less dramatic. She is quieter, shyer, more self-conscious. Her face has moved less, let's put it that way. And her skin is different, thicker, less fragile. My mother has hardly any fine lines.
Growing up, I spent weeks and sometimes months of my school vacations in Lima, visiting my mother's family. Like my mother, I am more quiet and shy than my aunt, and was especially so as a child. Often, instead of playing or even reading, I would watch my aunt and observe her style, noting how she talked and moved, what she wore, how she decorated her house and instructed servants. One of her favorite hobbies around this time was gardening. She loved her garden, creating it, tending to it. She loved ordering the gardeners around, telling them where to dig ditches and holes, how to plant the palms and ferns and acacias. She also loved watering the trees and flowers. That love she shares with my mother and me. As an adult I've realized how we three share the satisfaction of wielding a hose, adjusting its nozzle, giving water to thirsty plants and grass that will take that water and thrive, populating our surroundings with texture and color and scent.
I can see my aunt in my mind now, much younger, maybe forty-five years old. She rolls up her slacks and steps out onto her lawn with a long hose that unfurls as she walks. Her feet are bare but her hands stay adorned with diamond rings and gold bracelets. Although her hair is done and her face made up, she is not fastidious like her oldest daughter or even her mother: she keeps her nails short, and her hands are strong and broad – the better to play the piano, comfort a child, or repot a flower. I once watched her jump into a pool, clothes and jewelry and all, to rescue a flailing toddler; I can still see her tanned hand clasping his arm as she lifted him to safety. In my memory of her in the garden, my aunt strides out, watering as she goes, paying special attention to the ferns and orchids that fill the shadier corners. If a gardener crosses her path, she gesticulates toward the jobs she wants done. I also remember going with her to the vivero to select new plants, which was always fun, especially when we picked up roasted chickens with fat greasy fries from a Pollo Loco on the way back to eat with our fingers for dinner.
All this is to say that my aunt has spent much of her time outdoors. Not only in the garden, watering and supervising and repotting, but also at the beach or the pool. She has much lighter skin than my mother, which was part of the familial narrative of her superior beauty when she and my mother were growing up. She is slightly older than my mother, and charismatic. When she was young, she was fair skinned and dark haired like a South American Vivien Leigh. Maybe she took this beauty for granted, having been assigned it since infancy, but in any case she never cared about the sun, about getting brown or freckled. Most of the summers in the period of time I'm recalling, in her middle age when she lived in a gated community with a large, lush garden and plenty of irrigation, she got darker, lightening again during the mild winters, marking the seasons with her skin tone. In the warm months she often wore bright pareos from morning to night, tied around the top of her chest and over her bathing suit. My mother, on the other hand, never liked to tan, always conscious of the stigma of being too brown to begin with. And now, looking at the photograph, I can see the consequences of my aunt's blithe attitude toward the sun. Although the bones of her beauty are still evident, her nose delicate, her cheekbones sharp, her skin is thin and spotted and lined.
My aunt lives in an epicenter of plastic surgery. Many cities in South America – Bogotá, Caracas, Rio – promote, through a combination of pressure and propaganda, the relentless beautification of women. In Lima my aunt is surrounded by women who get fillers and botox, lasers and peels, facelifts. Yet she has done nothing. She remains a cosmetic procedure virgin. It seems odd in someone who appears so superficial, who values designer handbags and perfumes, Italian shoes and penthouse apartments. She constantly comments on other people's wealth, the companies and property they own, their houses and cars, as well as their looks. About a friend's daughter, for example, who is particularly pretty, she'll make sure to report several times, “Está linda - ¡preciosa!” Does her apparent indifference to cosmetic work for herself have to do with having been considered beautiful her whole life? With having found her husband and having had her children early, at the peak of her beauty? Or perhaps it has to do with her distrust of doctors in general. She once told a daughter who was six months pregnant not to worry about giving birth – “no tengas miedo” – that prenatal care wasn't necessary because having a baby was like having a tooth pulled – “cómo sacarse una muela.”
Her mother, my grandmother, was not a beauty, but she was attractive enough to catch the eye of the Italian gentleman who had emigrated from Genoa, and all her life she looked elegant in silk, heels, and her signature pearls. My grandmother escaped the era of plastic surgery, of chemical and surgical alteration of the body and the face. She aged, I like to think, with dignity. She never dyed her hair, but instead wore it swept up in a large bun that over the years turned from black to gray to white. Growing up, I never really noticed her aging face, it was just a normal part of her, an essential aspect of her character. I never thought to criticize it, or to think about how she could fix it to look better. What I noticed instead was the way her black eyes crinkled when she laughed, how her silver hair framed her wide cheekbones, how her broad smile exposed slightly protruding teeth.
My mother, though, gave in to the siren call of cosmetic surgery, with its promises of prolonged youth, a thinner body, a firmer face. Why she and not my aunt? Why she, who was used to decades of being in the shadow of a brilliant sister? Who was used to being the darker, plainer one? Maybe it was because of this. Maybe she saw surgery as her opportunity to shine, to transform from an ugly duckling into a shimmering swan. To be clear, my mother, my beautiful aunt's little sister, is not ugly, or even plain. She is also beautiful, but in a quiet, unassuming way. And everything is relative. Growing up in Peru with a sister whose beauty was striking, that called out and demanded attention, taught my mother that she was wanting, that she lacked charm and attraction, that she was the drab, homely side of the coin. She likes to tell a story about her First Communion: My grandmother dressed both her daughters in the requisite white - the veil, the dress, the gloves, even the rosary – and, as if they were twins, had them take their first communion together. At the party afterward, none of the guests remembered my mother, instead passing her over to congratulate her older sister and give her the gifts they had brought. My mother remembers, much more clearly than the actual ceremony at the church, feeling invisible, ignored, excluded. Her sister, once again, shone with the light of the sun, leaving my mother in the shadows. After all, it was just my mother and my aunt: two sisters, born close enough in time so that they were constantly compared – not quite twins, but almost.
In the ten years leading up to her facelift, my mother had become dumpier: she had gained weight around her middle, and her clothes began to reflect her insecurities about aging. Because she was conveniently in Lima on a visit to her sister, because her children were grown and no longer her daily responsibility, and because the cost of the surgery was a bargain, the siren call proved too seductive. She decided to go for it, paying for the procedure out of her own money, and the accommodating surgeon threw in liposuction and a tummy tuck. On the phone the morning after, when she was recovering at my aunt's house, she sounded weak and miserable. She told me, in a slow, slurring whisper, that she had never endured such pain in her entire life. That she hurt all over, but especially around her stomach. As if rebelling against its cute name, the tummy tuck turned vicious.
My sister and I were worried about the whole situation. About our mother in Peru, so far away from us in California, having a serious operation under anesthesia. And one so unnecessary. What if something went wrong? We knew what had happened to the founder of the original "First Wives Club" who, after writing about being cast aside by her husband for a younger, prettier woman, died on the operating table during a facelift. Plus, for a fraction of the price in the United States, could the surgeon possibly be a good one? What if he was a hack? But my mother, after two weeks of pain and healing in Lima, recovered. I remember driving with my sister to the airport in San Francisco to pick her up. In those days we could walk straight to the gate to greet her. When she emerged from the jet bridge we almost didn't recognize her. We were met with a marvel, a vision. We had dropped off a mother with a thickening waist and a softening face, wearing a chunky hand-knit sweater. We picked up a sophisticated woman, outfitted in camel-colored slacks and a silk top with matching heels. Her waist was narrow, her figure svelte. She had had her hair done so that highlights shone in the sexy cut she had sported when young and single. And her face! She easily looked forty, a good twenty years younger than her actual age. I was so happy for her. I loved her new look. My sister however, confessed to me later that she missed her "old mom," the comfortable one, the more obviously maternal one. Our mother as a gorgeous, glamorous woman felt alien to her.
Here in California the pressure on women to look good is also palpable; we should present a certain ideal, a femininity that is thin and toned, as well as perky breasted, smooth skinned, and full lipped. In certain circles, the cosmetically altered look, with fillers and lifts and lasers, feels more normal. Bleached teeth, Fraxeled skin, and Botoxed foreheads are common. When I go from a walk in the morning with my friend who eschews any cosmetic indulgence beyond sunscreen to afternoon coffee with friends who run in the more looks-conscious circle, I feel like an old hag in comparison with their smooth, artificially maintained faces. That very word – hag – comes too easily to mind, showing the degree to which I have internalized a loathing of the feminine when it's not up to the patriarchal standards of the male gaze.
What does it mean for my aunt to be able to leave all that to one side? About ten years ago, she came out to California to help tend to my mother after she had a car accident. At the hospital, wrongfully assuming the relationship between them, a nurse referred to my mother as my aunt's daughter. Reminders of her diminishing looks and increasing age must have been common these past few decades. Yet my aunt feels she is enough, more than enough, in her own eyes and in the eyes of her husband, her children, her family. She rejects the conflation of looking younger with being better.
Thus even after she witnessed her little sister's dramatic transformation, my aunt did not get a facelift. She seemed an Odysseus who could see the sirens on the shore, who could hear their irresistible song from the ship on the undulating ocean, yet, as if tied to a mast, did indeed resist the temptation to look younger and thinner, to smooth out skin and erase lines, to lighten spots and suction away fat. Why was this? How was it that she seemed to wear some kind of invisible armor without a chink, which protected her from the dermatologist's laser and the surgeon's knife? I think that it might have something to do with the great love, el gran amor, she shared with her husband. He refused to consider surgery for his beloved wife and life companion, even as her beauty began to be compromised by time and gravity and sun. He was scared for her. Why should she take such a risk for something so trivial? It seems that deep down, rather than loving only her beauty, he loved her - her essence, her core, her soul.
My aunt and uncle married when she was only seventeen and he twenty-three. She never finished high school. Instead, the young couple relocated to an hacienda his family owned a few hours from the city. Since then, they are always together, seeking each other like homing pigeons; to this day, like magnets, they become uncomfortable when too long apart. Early in their marriage, my uncle went to North Carolina for a year to complete a degree in agriculture. Before a month had passed he called for his wife to come to him. Without her, he couldn't sleep and broke out in hives. In less than a week she arranged for her two young children to stay in Lima with her mother and sister and flew out to the States to be with her husband. Much later, on our yearly visits, my uncle often acted as our chauffeur, driving us here and there and waiting for us patiently in the car, dropping us off at a ladies' lunch or picking us up from the peluquería where we got our hair and nails done. Even last year, too old for chauffeuring, if my aunt took my mother and me shopping to Lana, the alpaca store, or Ilaria for silver, my uncle would call her on her cell phone wanting to know where she was and when she would return to the house: “¿Donde estás? ¿Cuando regresas?” Although she seemed to be having fun, enjoying browsing among the silken scarves or hammered urns, my aunt would hurry home to make sure my uncle had his lunch: “Quiero darle su almuerzo a mi Josito. Está muy flaquito.”
The siren song, then, never really had power over her, could never really have power over her, although she was exposed to it, although its music surrounded her every day as she grew older and technology continued to advance. For her, the song of beautification and resurrected youth falls flat – she has what she wants, what she needs, what she deserves: the unconditional love of her most beloved.