A few weeks before my mother died, she was going through photos of herself, as a teenager and a young woman. She looked up at me and said, “Back then I thought I was so ugly. But I looked great!”
This was heartbreaking, but then she laughed. While I was growing up, my mother often told me about three people whom she thought looked not merely beautiful, but “spectacular.” These were the poet W.H. Auden, the artist Louise Nevelson, and the writer Virginia Woolf.
While some people might consider this trio odd-looking, or even homely, my Mom worshipped them, both for their work and their uncompromising faces. Here they are:
A few years before she died, my mother took me to an event celebrating Woolf, at Town Hall. It was a passionate and somewhat terrifying evening, because the hall was packed with the fiercest Woolf devotees, mostly women around my Mom’s age, with defiantly silver hair, bold jewelry, the occasional cape and many, many canvas tote bags silkscreened with Woolf’s portrait. I suspected that if I said anything even mildly critical of their goddess, these women would rip me limb from limb, toss my lifeless body into the street, and then calmly resume their ardent discussion of Mrs. Dalloway.