Body Inheritance

By

My mother, my aunt, and I inherited our faces from my grandmother. Wrapped in different skin, set on different bodies, our faces are screen-printed copies with sloppy ink, imperfect duplicates born of the same stencil. Deep-set eyes marbled green and amber, soft pillow cheeks, thin lips that disappear when we smile, a long face with a square jaw, a button nose. When I was growing up, I thought they were beautiful, and that because I looked like them, maybe I could be beautiful, too.

When I was twelve, my mother took me to get my eyebrows waxed. She’d gently asked if I wanted to. When I said no, she took me for my own good. She’d wished my grandmother had taken her, our shame about our forms manifesting in different directions. She wanted to teach me things she learned on her own, the oldest daughter of a widowed mother who trusted her to figure it out. She over-plucked hers, she said.

I didn’t want it to look like I was trying. I was under the impression elegance was effortless, and in order to be beautiful, I needed to do as little as possible. It was embarrassing to want to be pretty. I was afraid if someone saw evidence of my labor they’d pity me for working toward the impossible. I needed my beauty to be invisible, either accidental or not at all. It wasn’t until later I learned that being beautiful meant being covert, spending time and money and pain to hide in plain sight the fruits of your labor.

The acne medication I also hadn’t wanted had made my skin tender, and sheets of it peeled off with every band of wax. The aesthetician blotted the blood and smoothed my face with vitamin E, showing me my eyes in the mirror. Gone were the untamed brows, slicked on cotton strips like fly paper, replaced with neat arches that made me look older and awake. I looked intentional. Pretty. Like my mother.

“These are the brows you are meant to have,” she said.

 

We each have different scars that map our bodies—records of betrayal, organs and flesh mutating into something hostile. They’ve been stitched back together or recreated or lost entirely, parts of ourselves which are not us anymore.

My grandmother has new bones. Her knee replacements she didn’t tell anyone about until the night before, assuming she’d be able to drive herself home, and the recovery that almost killed her, clots clogging her veins; her hip replacement from when she fell and refused help, dragging herself up the stairs until the morning. Her spine is all original parts rounding forward.

My mother’s skin is wet paper, torn to bleed by touch, melanoma and basal cell carcinoma disintegrating her face in patches. She started getting chunks taken out when I was a kid—a bite of her cheek, a wedge of her jaw—until they started stripping her entire face, layer by layer. Chemical peels left her skin raw and open, her skin healing tight and dry. The tip of her nose was the most recent loss, not enough structural integrity left to rebuild, button to slope. She looks twenty years younger than she is. The same treatments used to dissolve diseased skin are also used to smooth wrinkles and brighten complexions.

My aunt has scars from a double mastectomy that reach around her back, my mother changing her bandages in the bathtub, the reinvention of her sisters part’s, the hair that grew back in curly. My aunt was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer three weeks before Hurricane Katrina drove her out of her home, forever guilty for her answered prayers to be closer to family. Her face is etched with gratitude and worry, the coalescent laminate of someone who was told they were going to die and didn’t.

I saw their scars when they were fresh wounds, the wire twists of stitches, the shiny new skin. I sat in waiting rooms and cooked dinner and drove to CVS for prescriptions. I was afraid of losing them, of their pain, but until I felt my own body fail, I didn’t understand that I, too, was part of the legacy. It all felt irrelevant to my body, like I was an independent instance, autonomous and discrete. But no one is only their own person.

Aside from some hole-punched moles on my torso, my scars are on my face. At the top right of my hairline is a false widow’s peak forced by the precursor to the same cancer my mother has, one of a constellation of marks hidden beneath my hair that bleed when they’re caught by a brush, doctors scraping them away so completely I could hear the metal against my skull. Adjacent on my forehead, I have a slash through my left eyebrow—a drunk fall on a granite countertop—that is barely visible but makes a few hairs grow in the wrong direction.

But the moles are more than a warping sunburn, the fall more than an isolated mistake. Their foreboding gives me time, tells me what to look for. I ask myself if I am guarded by this knowledge, if the women before me have suffered so I can protect myself against the tragedies coded in our bodies. But that relegates their roles to their relationship to their children, an incomplete picture of full lives. I have been given glimpses into my future through their pasts, warnings through their trauma. What do I owe for this gift of information?

 

My mom’s sister, and her husband and children, lived in New Orleans in a shotgun house across from the zoo, the giraffes visible from her front porch. When Katrina hit, they left with the assumption they’d be home within days. It wasn’t so much a decision as an inexorable truth: they could not go back, at least not yet. If you ask, most New Orleanians will say it wasn’t the hurricane that was the disaster but the intentional negligence of infrastructure, levees long due for repair or replacement, a lack of investment in the city and the people who’d be washed away. My aunt stayed down the road at my grandmother’s house and transferred her medical care to a university hospital in our city, one of the best in the country.

She lost many things—first weight, then breasts, then hair. She sketched on her eyebrows every morning and secured her wig that looked like her hair in my parent’s wedding photos, a cut she hadn’t had in years, long and auburn. Her skin was clear and luminous, all the toxins flushed from her body. She laughed when people told her how great she looked. She was still beautiful; she always had been. When I was little, I thought she was a model masquerading as a scientist like a feminist Barbie doll, accessorized with a lab coat and microscope.

She and my mother stood in the kitchen together every night making dinner and drinking wine out of squat hexagonal glasses that squeaked when they tapped together. There was a magnum of bottom-shelf grocery store chardonnay in the door of the fridge, the label gummy and peeling. They’d pour full glasses, a millimeter to the top, and talk, managing the kids as we circulated through the kitchen. I sat at the island, did my homework, and listened.

My mother told me my aunt asked not to be put on any sleeping pills or antidepressants, which she said were a typical part of an extensive medication regimen for people with Stage 3 cancer. Grown-ups drank because they were stressed, and who had a better reason to be stressed than a sick woman forced out of her home. My mother was drinking with her so she wouldn’t be alone. And, besides, everyone drinks in New Orleans.

When they left for the night, my mother would be drunk and crying, hugging us all too tight, rebuffing us when we asked her to go to bed, her ungrateful children, her angry husband. Didn’t we understand? Her sister was dying.

The wine moved from the fridge to her purse, her purse to her closet. My brothers got their learner’s permits, and she drank mini-bottles in the parking lot during tennis practice so the boys could drive them home. A year after my aunt went into remission and moved back to New Orleans, my mom went to rehab for the first time.

She was inpatient for a few weeks and came home in late spring. She did the outpatient homework, drawing timelines of her traumas on construction paper, marking events I’d never known about. She was laid bare, talking openly about everything that had happened to make her into a person who drank like that, like she was sucking poison from a wound and spitting it on the floor. She told me she drank because she couldn’t sleep and never knew how to turn her brain off.

Being with a person recently in recovery feels like seeing a patch of skin shaved for surgery. It feels more naked even though it’s no different, the bareness necessary to mend and heal, exposed in a way that makes you want to look away while still saying, “I’m here for you.”

Things were better until they weren’t, relapses initially marked as part of the process until they strung together into weeks and months until it became life stretching indefinitely forward.

Years later, I went to college in New Orleans. My aunt was in remission, the first few years a provisional gift. I stayed over in their house on the park, newly painted neon yellow with orange trim, a shock of brightness off the deep green of the park. We drank white wine, too much of it, and talked, mostly about my boyfriend, who was as handsome and emotionally compromised as a movie star, and the men who had broken her heart.

She gave me a small glass sculpture of a woman sitting down, with her legs pulled to her chest and ankles crossed, her face hidden with her forehead to her knees.

“A long time ago, maybe before you were born, my friends went to Paris and each bought one for me. Separate trips,” she said. “They both said it looked like something I would love.”

It was heavy and clear, like purified ice. For a long time, it was the nicest thing I owned, my first piece of artwork. I put it on my bookshelf and my friends said it looked like me. The men I invited in said nothing at all.

 

At night, I grind my teeth until they break. Four teeth in the last year, though break doesn’t feel like the right word for it. There were no clear traumatic incidents, the fragments falling like shale after picking spinach from my teeth or tasting pasta to check its doneness. Because there were no clear causal events, my dentist says the breaks are from my bottom tooth putting pressure on my top tooth until the bottom half chips off.

I care about having perfect teeth. They are straight from surgeries and braces, money and metal poured into my mouth. I wear my retainer years after the removal of orthodontia, the man who would become my husband saying it “humanized” me after weeks of arrogant flirting. When they fill in the chips, the color they use is A1.

In the days between the incident and getting a dentist appointment, I realize how much I smile, shielding my face with my hand when I say hello, when I apologize, when I leave a room. I do not conceptualize myself as someone who smiles that much until I’m ashamed of every time I do.

Every time I get my teeth fixed, the loss is compounded beyond the initial chip. They have to file down the uneven ridge further to get a clean edge, each fix getting closer to exposing the root. I’ve grown sensitive to hot and cold, to textures, to pressure. Unlike other bone, there is no way to strengthen or repair teeth from the inside, no amount of rest or calcium to rebuild what has been lost or shattered. Any solution is superficial. Temporary.

The thing is, I can’t sleep either.

I’m usually tired, but I look it even when I’m not. I’ve inherited deep purple under-eyes from grandmother. I dot them with banana yellow cream and concealer. I take calcium and vitamin D to protect the bones under my skin, the ones that still have a shot. The women in my family, our bones become negligent to our structures, my grandmother losing five inches of height, ten percent of her composition, my mother losing two inches and cracking a few bones every year as her blood leeches calcium from her skeleton.

“It’s not the drinking. My bones are weak,” she says. “My doctor says it’s really bad, the worst he’s seen. It’s not my fault.”

I spend hours every week on corporeal maintenance. I do planks to support my spine, the pain of scoliosis emerging if I take even a few days off. I slather my face with SPF 60, rubbing the nose that is no longer my mother’s. I drink two glasses of wine, three if it’s champagne. I know drinking will not help me sleep better. I keep tension on the leash. I check my breasts in the shower once a month and sit naked with my hair in a towel researching genetic testing.

These may be facile solutions, surface-level fixes to delay the inevitable, but the incidental effects have made me conventionally beautiful. My skin is smooth, unwrinkled from years of serums and peels and attentive dermatologists. I have ropes of muscle from the yoga I do to lift my back out of its stiff curves. My bones are thin but strong, and I am, too, with phenomenal breasts that may not always be mine so I will not hedge on how excellent they are right now. My body has become a byproduct of self-preservation measures. All I can do is hope for the best.

It’s hard to tell if we’re successful in changing our lives when the purpose is avoidance, to know if we made the difference or if the focus was wasted on an imagined risk. Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t matter because eventually I’ll die anyway, and what does it matter which type of cancer it’s from, but by that reasoning, nothing matters.

My grandmother turned ninety-six last summer. We host a birthday party for her every year, her bridge club and other friends coming together over finger sandwiches and lemon cake. After dessert, I gather the matrilineage for a photo against everyone’s resistance and document our faces, a pattern repeated in time.

***

Rumpus original art by Cowboy Rocky.


Anna Held is a writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Catapult, The Cut, Electric Literature, and Runner's World, among other publications. More from this author →