Do you ever look in the mirror and wonder, “Who is this woman, really? What is her persona? Am I who I think I am, or what other people see, or hear when I speak? Am I an integrated person, relatively unchanging or – like Peter Pan – do I have a shadow that I can put on and take off?
The questions sent me back to early memories of seeing myself in a mirror. Surely the sight of two missing front teeth only produced giggles unlike the despair of having to accept the owlish look of eyeglasses at about age ten. Then the long gawky adolescence when what others might be seeing and saying about you sets the parameters of self-image. Four years at a woman’s college began to reflect an image of self-esteem, confidence and independence flowing from an intellectually exciting environment and supportive sisterhood.
Ah, but then came LOVE and the face reflected back was hardly recognizable, and surely could never match up to the image described by the lover. The first years of my marriage were war years attended by separation and the threat of loss. Because of the war I was engaged in teaching and other employment, pushing my ability to the limit. My persona was being shaped by elements beyond my control. The image in the mirror became a stranger, someone “on hold” waiting for normalcy.
Those of us given the opportunity to continue our education and start families were among the fortunate ones. Is there anyone seeing a baby’s gaze fixed on your face who has not wondered what was being seen? There comes a rush of incredible love and humility and a desire to present the very best of yourself to this miraculous creature. A very different kind of mirror, indeed.
The next twenty years passed quickly in a succession of life-altering events. Four children were born, two houses were bought and sold, and six years were spent overseas as a Foreign Service family. There was little time for reflection but when it did occur I tried desperately to weave my many roles together so that my husband and the children could recognize the whole person I wanted to be for them. Many of you will recognize this fragmentation of “persona.” It helps to know that one is not alone in this.
Despite the ups and downs and occasional trauma those were happy years which have given my family some wonderful memories. But then real tragedy entered our lives when my husband, at the age of 47, was diagnosed with an already metastasized cancer. And here I do clearly remember looking into the mirror and saying aloud “No, this cannot be happening to me, this is not me; it must be somebody else”.
Two years later, what was reflected back was the older face of a woman who has lost lover, husband, partner, friend, and the father of her children.
Looking back over the next several years I recall living two lives, on two levels, with two personae. My one role was as a work obsessed administrator with a reputation for addressing critical situations coolly, competently, and even with a sense of humor in a male-dominated hierarchy. At home I was a desperately lonely mid-life female trying to balance lifelong values against the new attitudes and ethics of the 70’s which were entering my children’s lives. Gradually the two roles found harmony and for the next twenty or so years I found both professional success and personal contentment as a student affairs administrator at the college/university level.
These years were followed by a post-retirement position as the administrator of a congregate housing facility for the elderly. Concurrently I had become the caregiver for my mother and aunt, both in their nineties. On a daily basis I was given a preview of how to age with grace and dignity – or, alas, how to choose another path. I was also given a forecast, now realized, of how the body can begin to dictate the persona on a daily basis. Was I imagining it, or was the face reflected now more and more similar to my mother’s?
To seven grandchildren I was now “Nana,” someone seen on fleeting visits, sharing holidays and birthdays – providing precious reminders of generational change and growth and the satisfaction that some little part of you at least is being carried into the future.
Several years into full retirement I moved to another part of the state. Such a separation from all previous social and professional history provides a major challenge to one’s persona. Along with the opportunity to try on new roles is the frustration that comes from the feeling that these new neighbors can understand so little of where you have been, who you really are. You are faced with choices of how much you want to reveal, who do you want to be now, how do you wish to be perceived?
I felt compelled to share this story because I know there are so many similar stories of loss and change out there, leaving behind the question of “who am I now?” I am hoping to give assurance that part of the gift of life is that we are blessed with the flexibility to change, to reshape our lives to meet life’s challenges. Family, friends, and our environment all play a part as much as those events over which we have no control.
Am I the same as I was when I first became conscious of having a persona? Of course not – but at 92 perhaps it is time to settle for who I am.
Doris Coster is a writer, a wise woman and an inspirational guide for WWN.