The Advantage of Aging

What’s so bad about navigating the world with a soft-focus filter?

I sometimes wonder if a mother loses a part of herself with the birth of a child. That seemed to be the case with my mom. With the arrival of my older sister, she lost a good portion of her hair, with me she lost her figure, and with my little brother she lost part of her vision. This last loss really affected her life. She described lying in her hospital bed read- ing a magazine when everything went blurry. And stayed that way. My parents, too cash-strapped to pay for eye tests, never discovered the reason. Luckily my brother was her last child because she didn’t have much more of herself to lose.

Mom made the best of it. She found that if she held a book farther away, she could read it. She’d say, “Pam, would you hold this for me? My arms are too short to read.” Anything too close or too far away was outside her zone of clear vision, so she saw most of the world in soft focus. Which isn’t all bad. Mom’s poor vision smoothed hard edges and rounded sharp points, it blended away harsh wrinkles and muted dark spots. She said it was like watching an aging movie star with a clause in her contract that she be filmed through gauze, a technique that makes everyone look younger. As children, my siblings and I got used to Mom flipping through TV Guide, and then saying, “This is mice type. Honey, what’s on ‘Gunsmoke’ tonight?”

Prescription glasses would have solved or at least helped the problem, but with three kids and only my dad’s blue-collar income, money was scarce. We were the working poor before that term became popular. Money was so tight that Mom refused to spend what little we had on herself, especially when my sister desperately needed glasses after an accident as a toddler damaged her eyes. Back then, when my dad was a commission service writer for a car dealership along Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach, it was a choice between glasses or groceries.

We got used to reading things for Mom and laughed sometimes when she’d see someone on the street and say, “Look at that cute girl. I really like her outfit.” And we’d say, “Mom, that’s a boy.” Once when I was about 11, my mom and I went to a gas station on Beach to fill the tank of our old Dodge. Since self-service didn’t exist then, we sat in the car. As the pump glug-glugged, a woman holding a small watering can came out of the gas station office and gave a drink to a lone dandelion that had pushed its way through a small crack in the asphalt. My mom rolled down her car window and said to the woman, “You’re a good person.” The woman looked puzzled, but smiled anyway before she turned to walk back to the office. That’s when I saw the hand-lettered label on the side of the can. It was weed killer.

I felt glad she couldn’t read the label and decided to never tell her the truth. Even at my young age, I understood that my mother lived a hard life—a life that looked better in soft focus. I’d rather she thought of that incident as a bright spot, as proof that there are good people all around us. My mom lost many things in her life, but she never lost her ability to see the best in people.

I know it didn’t happen all at once, but I eventually developed my mother’s soft-focus eyes. For weeks I’d been driving down Gothard Street on my way home from Trader Joe’s and I’d pass a sign—like a political campaign lawn sign—that said, “Honk to Save the Ducks.” Planted in the grassy front plot of an industrial park thrift shop, the sign was only a couple of hundred yards from Huntington Lake at Huntington Central Park. The lake supports a healthy assortment of ducks, among other birds. Being an animal lover, I assumed that some bureaucratic agency was trying to rid the park of the ducks. I also assumed that the kindly shop owner was spearheading a grass-roots initiative to save them, so every time I’d pass the sign, I’d honk my horn in support. I felt proud to be doing something positive.

But last week, I got to Trader Joe’s a little later than usual, so on my way home I needed to wear my night driving glasses, which I seldom wear during the day. As I prepared to do my traditional honk, I realized that the sign did not say “Honk to Save the Ducks.” It said, “Honk if Dave Sucks.”

The next day I visited the shop,, and discovered that it’s where many of the items from the TV show “Storage Wars” are sold. Dave, I learned, is a character on the show, a strict, no-nonsense guy everyone loves to hate.

I felt foolish—though not for honking. I felt foolish for getting glasses that made me see the hard, sharp edges in life when I would rather see its softer side. By occasionally misreading signs and making wrong turns, I’ve discovered interesting cafes or wonderful, tucked-away boutiques. With my soft-focus eyes I’ve found more than I have missed.

I’m reminded of a pair of sisters I met recently. They showed me a lovely old photograph of the two of them, then one said, “That was taken when we were young and beautiful. Now we’re just and.” But through my eyes, they were still young and beautiful. When I told them, they felt good about themselves, like they’d had a facelift without the expense or pain.

I’m not saying we should all take off our glasses; but wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could view the world through my mother’s gentle eyes? Maybe if more of us did, we would be nicer to each other. We would roll down our windows and say to a stranger, “You’re a good person,” because even weed killers appreciate a kind word.

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