I didn’t always want to be a writer. Besides being an archeologist and paleontologist, I wanted to be a healer, then an actress. I wanted to use words to change minds, soften hearts. But I only wanted roles in which I could be pretty. (I know. Don’t judge me. I’m already judging myself.)
Like on Halloween. I was an elf, a baby (size large), a devil, but a super-cute one with a pitchfork, and an angel. But in second grade when Olivia McClure dressed as a witch and showed me with glee that she had blacked out her teeth, I was horrified. Not pretty! And by choice! Yet I was also impressed. What substance this girl had! I would have followed her onto the field of battle under fire.
My perspective on appearance has always been highly subjective and hugely self-critical. I know this because I was having lunch with my friend Cheryl at the Severn Inn the other day, and after bemoaning how hard it is to regard yourself mirrored for hours on Zoom, I mentioned I’d recently had a revelation sifting through decades of family photographs.
“Looking at those photos was like observing someone else’s life,” I said. “I was so amazed at what I had had, what we had made. I think I was sleep deprived, stressed out and distracted for about 20 years. I didn’t realize in real time the magnitude of the gift I’d been given.”
Because in truth, scattered in snapshots all over the bed in the loft that afternoon, I saw this beautiful family—a family I wish I had known. A family I’d give anything to have back now that I’m awake and present. But that’s not how this works. That family has now dispersed into the world to become whatever it is that families become when love overflows its banks.
I squinted into the light on the restaurant’s sundrenched deck wishing for a hat and a glass of wine. “And this will sound bizarre, but do you know what else I suddenly realized that I never, ever knew?” I asked.
And without missing a beat, my friend replied, “That you were pretty.”
And I can’t tell you how stunned I was to hear my most-practical, least-romanticizing friend confirm without hesitation the same revelation about her own past. That our self-images had been distorted for years. Probably all our lives. By our own hyper-critical expectations. I would have cried if we hadn’t been laughing. All those decades spent thinking we needed to improve, to be better than we were, both inside and out.
When I was in graduate school, one of my instructors told me that when her father was dying, she’d gone to visit and had spent an entire day joking, reminiscing about her childhood, talking about his career, going for a walk, reading to him, and when it was time to leave, he had clasped her to him and said with such loving sincerity, “You seem like such a nice girl. I wish I had known you.”
It’s like that, I said to myself as I drove home thinking about the woman I’d seen in those photos. I wish I had known you.
And it makes me wonder what I am not seeing accurately now—what else I’m not grateful enough for, as is. Because I know now that come tomorrow, these will be the days for which you would give anything. Because at some point the tide of possibility stops rising.
Proximity to those you love lessens, primacy shifts. You are no longer your kids’ next of kin. And your relationships reach a point of stasis. It’s that moment of slack water, where the river has no velocity, poised to reverse the flood tide for the ebb tide, as it sighs back to the sea.
I remember the day I realized that time had come for my mother—surely it happens in marriages, too. And in friendships. And between fathers and sons. That moment when you realize that what you have between you is all you’ll ever have. For whatever reason, further growth, further change, has become impossible.
Mom and I were on the phone, and I needed her to understand something about the way we related. She was probably responding with unwarranted anxiety to some piece of news I was sharing. (Oh gosh, do I do that to my kids? She stops typing to stare out the window with furrowed brow.) And suddenly I knew the conversation was too complex. Mom was 89, had increasing dementia, and could neither take in what I needed nor ask for what she wanted from me. I stood there in the kitchen, pork chops on the counter, understanding that our relationship could be more of same, but it could never be something more. The tide was rushing out now.
And I hope that is not going to happen to me—that I’ll remain able to change—that I’ll keep trying to see things from other points of view. That I’ll be able to empathize with people I dislike. And then, of course, like them. See? There’s so much easy magic in this world.
I hope the only role I’ll want to play is me and that I won’t need to be pretty. And I hope you are on stage with me in this glorious pageant with a million speaking parts because I think this is the truth: if you are reading these words, we are in the same play, only you are the lead in a simultaneous performance.
I hope that it won’t require a look back from the future to recognize in this holy moment how beautiful you are, how beautiful we all are.
How very beautiful we have always been.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.