His name was Zenaido. He was the gardener. I must have been about forty, so I was a long way from becoming who I am today. Zenaido was not a physically beautiful human being. He was small, wiry, with thick lips and drooping eyes; he walked hunched over, ambling as if the pieces didn’t quite fit. His legs were too short and bowed, his arms disproportionately long for this body. His two front teeth were missing due to a drunken brawl, and his hair, pitch black, stood on end like a threatened cat’s ruff. There was nothing one could find pleasing about his looks. But Zenaido had a straw hat with a broad blue band around it, and on the band, in glaring white letters, was the inscription: “THIS IS THE WAY I AM, AND SO WHAT!”, as if he himself knew we were all looking a bit askance at him. I loved that hat; it made Zenaido into my first serious teacher about the body.
To pick a fight with the body is to pick a fight with the Universe or God or Reality, and I spent most of my life involved in this hopeless struggle. My mother’s body and face were perfect, but somebody or something had definitely screwed up when it came to making me. At the age of thirteen I had no waist; at sixteen my breasts were so small my grandmother called them “bee stings” which produced so much shame that I was more prone to take off my panties than my shirt. It was embarrassing to be flat when your mother flagged a D cup and your father spoke adoringly of the fact at any excuse. It was possible that I got on my bottom what she got on her top, because I must admit that she always complained of having a flat backside while mine has been ample since the beginning, but at that age when everyone who is anyone in your life seems to think that your mother is the most perfect creature in the world, there wasn’t a chance of seeing one’s own attributes as advantageous. According to me, I was so far from perfect as to be considered pitiful, and the encouraging message that Zenaido flaunted every day in my garden years later was nowhere on the horizon.
Looking back, I can see there was nothing wrong with my body. I had all the attributes of a human being except for one little toe on my left foot which apparently had been lost in a motherly hiccup during conception. The absence of the toe never bothered me; I actually used it as an attention getter, something that made me different from others. “Guess how many toes I have” was my challenge when I wanted to become the center of attention in school, and when someone would say “ten”, I’d pull out my little foot and flaunt my four toes: “Nope: nine!” and everyone would circle around to gaze at what I lovingly call “my little foot”. I loved having four toes: how else was one to get all the attention. Neither was I conscious of the fact that my right leg grew faster than my left (as is frequently the case when a toe is missing) so that when I was eleven I walked with a hop according to my grandmother. I always thought that I was just skipping along and no one else seemed to notice anything wrong either. The fact that I needed on operation at the age of eleven to stunt the growth in the longer leg and allow the shorter one to catch up just seemed like part of life, and the use of crutches in school during my recuperation was only one more way to attract attention.
So the imperfection wasn’t in the part that was missing, it was in all that was wrong with the existing parts. In my memory, the only acceptable thing was my blond hair which –being so absolutely blond- everyone thought was dyed. But that came with eyebrows and eyelashes that were blondly invisible, and pink skin that got sun burnt with the slightest encouragement. Not even blue eyes are beautiful if you have no eyelashes or eyebrows to accent them. My grandmother made things worse by always calling me: “Round eyes, round mouth, round face”, lovingly –it’s true- but insensitive to the fact that it didn’t sound at all like a compliment, especially as the rest of me began to get “round” too which began a lifelong obsession with weight.
To make a long story short, I spent the next forty something years trying to make myself beautiful and thin and never feeling that I achieved either. When I divorced at the age of 50 I had three large sized albums filled with photos of everyone but myself. My photos were in a drawer along with all the other discards that hadn’t merited being in the albums.
One day, not long after I had begun living with myself for the first time in my life, I decided to clean out the drawer full of photographs. Mine began appearing one by one: there I was at twenty-one in a white bathing suit lying the length of the diving board my head resting on my hand. It was a black and white photo and even so there was no doubt in my mind that I had been beautiful. I gazed long and lovingly at the photograph wondering how I had ever believed, at that age, that I was not good enough in any way. Again, at thirty something, in a black evening gown at somebody’s wedding I appeared not only lovely but elegant, distinguished; how come I had missed that? Why had no one told me? Or, had they and I wasn’t listening? There was another one where I had my long blond hair pulled back in a bun, a glass of champagne in my hand and I was laughing. How in the world had I missed seeing how incredible I was, seeing the joy, the light in my eyes, the waist delicately outlined in spite of having two children. One by one the photos appeared and were lined up on the floor in front of me. There wasn’t one where it could be said that I wasn’t attractive, but I had never seen it, had never enjoyed it, had never celebrated it or been grateful for it. Quite the contrary: I had suffered thinking I was not good looking enough ever. I walked over to the mirror and looked. At fifty there were wrinkles around my eyes, a few on my upper lip; below the eyes there was a beginning of puffiness and my chin had started to droop into a turkey neck. My first thought was that I was not beautiful; then I turned to the photographs again. At each moment of my life when each photo had been taken I had believed the same; I had never allowed myself to enjoy what I had at each age. I realized that someday I would look at a photograph taken at that very moment, when age began to show and see that I had been beautiful then and not realized it. It was a momentous realization. I decided that I was beautiful enough as I was, even with the wrinkles and the turkey neck and the fanny getting fatter and the breast growing and beginning to hang. I hadn’t enjoyed me before, but suddenly I knew I wasn’t going to give up that chance again. I remembered Zenaido’s hat THIS IS THE WAY I AM, AND SO WHAT! I certainly was good enough. And seeing that it wasn’t getting any better, I was damn well going to enjoy me as I was for as long as I was.
That was 19 years ago. Each day that has passed has left its mark but rather than upset me, it has produced an overwhelming tenderness. My body has become my best friend, my most prized possession, the most loyal buddy I could ever have. It lives in the present so it can always bring me back when I wander into stories of how things should or shouldn’t be; it never lies, it’s just that before I didn’t understand its language. Now I listen to its signals, I care for it. I try to have patience with its aches and pains as I have patience with my dog when she is unwell. Deep gratitude wells up in me as I watch it age, spread around the middle, wrinkle and lose some of its strength in spite of the exercise I give it. When I consider how I treated it during the first fifty years, admiration for its fortitude overwhelms me. It has my undying commitment to care for it as best I can during all the days of its life and when it finally lays down on its last bed, to be there with it till the end. Isn’t that what we would all do for our bestest of friends?