A computer hard drive is a lot like a junk drawer. Every so often you have to go in because there is always the chance that, back in the corner with the pennies sticky with Kool-Aid, under the 2-year-old church bulletin and in an envelope decorated with Hello Kitty stickers, you may find the key to the safety deposit box or your mother’s engagement ring. Don’t ask me why; that’s just the way it is.
I finally broke down and bought a digital camera just before my vacation last month. I was spending Memorial Day trying to figure out where on the computer hard drive the camera software had "automatically" saved my pictures when I came across something that I’d forgotten was there, something that made me lift my fingers from the mouse and keyboard and just stare.
It was a portrait shot, one of those they make in the church fellowship hall, of me at 19. My hair was short and bore the distinct evidence of having been blown dry in an effort to pull out the curl I tried to pretend wasn’t there. I wore a simple green dress and a scarf tied at my neck in the way we did things in the mid-70s. Despite the obvious fact that the shot was old, something about it felt not just familiar, but current as though I’d been looking at it recently.
Computers are -- I used to tell the college students who worked for me and taught me how to use them -- magic. With little more than a binary abracadabra, I managed to pull up on the screen beside the 19-year-old face a photograph from my vacation, the 53-year-old face.
The hair, thanks to modern chemistry, was the same color, but the more recent photo evidenced the white flag I had finally raised to its determined curliness. The eyebrows that, it was once pointed out to me, I smooth down with my fingertips when I’m uncertain or avoiding answering, had lightened over the years, but both sets still resembled wide strokes of a calligraphy pen. The green eyes looked a little paler, but it could be the sunlight.
The smile, though, the smile was exactly the same – a straight line with the slightest upward curve at the ends – and I realized that it was the smile that made the old photo seem so unsurprising.
Mr. McKinney, who taught theater at Wesleyan, explained to us once that no human face is exactly symmetrical. Each one is close enough that our vision compensates for the differences and we think we are seeing in any given face two identical halves. He proved his point by taking a photograph of a student we knew, cutting the negative down the middle and then creating a full-face photograph from each half. One of the created faces looked exactly like the student and the other nothing at all like her. One was beautiful, the other grotesque.
I thought about that as I stared at the two faces. No one had split me, but the two photographs did represent two halves – youth and adulthood.
The 19-year-old has freckles. She wears no make-up; life has not yet given her a need for a mask. There are no lines across her forehead or at the corners of her eyes. She looks up and off as though she is watching the future advance toward her.
The 53-year-old still has freckles and they shine through the makeup she wears, as the magazines say, to even out her skin tone. She is squinting just a tad, making visible the shallow furrows between her eyebrows, a sunburst of tiny creases at the outside of each eye.
But there is a difference beyond the wrinkles.
The woman, the woman who was once the girl, looks straight ahead. Her eyes are focused on what is here, this moment. Her eyes have seen the future that the girl imagined and have recorded that future in memories both good and bad. Dancing with excitement or crying with despair, her eyes have drawn in the light that makes all things grow.
The girl looked away – toward the future, but also in fear, fear of disappointment and disappointing. The woman, I knew and could see, was no longer afraid.
That, of course, is the beauty of age. The luminosity that comes from experiencing the best and the worst and surviving both. The radiance that arises from a heart that has been broken and healed. The winsomeness that emerges from the accepting the fact that perfection doesn’t always mean flawless; sometimes it means whole.
I glanced from one photograph to the other. Girl to woman. Woman to girl. One I was. One I am. Asymmetrical and lovely nonetheless.