2126) Fading Beauty


By Frederick Buechner (1926- ), in Telling Secrets, 1991.

     (My mother denounced) the ravages of old age but never accepted them as the inevitable consequences of getting old.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today,” she must have said a thousand days as she tried once, then again, then a third time, to pull herself out of her chair into her walker.  It never seemed to occur to her that what was wrong with her was that she was on her way to pushing a hundred…

     The living heart and command center of her room was the dressing table.  When she was past getting out of bed to sit at it any longer, what she needed from it was brought to her on a tray as soon as she woke up every morning, before breakfast even– the magnifying mirror, the lipstick, eyebrow pencils, tweezers, face powder, hair brush, combs, cold cream, mascara.  Before she did anything else, she did that and did it with such artistry that even within weeks of her end she managed a not implausible version of the face that since girlhood had been her principal fame and fairest fortune.

     Over that dressing table there hung for years a mirror that I can remember from childhood.  It was a mirror with an olive green wooden frame on which she had once painted in oils the French words:  Il faut souffrir pour etre belle.  It was the motto of her life:  You have to suffer in order to be beautiful.  What she meant, of course, was all the pains she took in front of the mirror:  the plucking and primping and powdering, the brushing and painting– that kind of suffering.  

     But it seems clear that there was another kind too.  To be born as blonde and blue-eyed and beautiful as she was can be as much of a handicap in its way as to be born with a cleft palate, because if you are beautiful enough, you don’t really have to be anything much else to make people love you and want to be near you.  You don’t have to be particularly kind or unselfish or generous or compassionate because people will flock around you anyway simply for the sake of your beauty.  My mother could be all those good things when she took a notion to, but she never made a habit of it.  She never developed the giving, loving side of what she might have been as a human being.  Needless to say, that was where the real suffering came– the two failed marriages after the death of my father, and, the fact that among all the friends she had over the course of her life, she never as far as I know had one whom she would in any sense have sacrificed herself for and by doing so might have perhaps begun to find her best and truest self.    W. B. Yeats in his poem A Prayer for My Daughter writes, “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned/By those that are not entirely beautiful.”  My almost entirely beautiful mother was by no means heartless, but I think hers was a heart that, who knows why, was rarely if ever touched in its deepest place.  To let it be touched there was a risk that for reasons known only to her she was apparently not prepared to take…

     Being beautiful was her business, her art, her delight, and it took her a long way and earned her many dividends.  But when, as she saw it, she lost her beauty… she was like a millionaire who runs out of money.  She took her name out of the phone book and got an unlisted number…  With her looks gone she felt she had nothing left to offer the world…  So what she did was simply to check out of the world…  My mother holed herself up in her apartment on 79th Street, then in just one room of that apartment, then in just one chair of that room, and finally in the bed where one morning a few summers ago, perhaps in her sleep, she died at last.


I Peter 3:3-4  —   Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.  Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

Proverbs 31:30  —  Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Ezekiel 28:17a  —  Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.

Isaiah 40:7-8  —  The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.


Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.   Abide with us, for the days are hastening on, and we hasten with them, and our life is short and transient as a dream.   Abide with us, for we are weak and helpless, and if thou abide not with us, we perish by the way.   Abide with us, until the morning light of our resurrection day, when we shall abide forever with thee.   Amen.     –James Burns