The topic of nose jobs bobbed into the conversation at my mother-in-law's 94th birthday dinner. She turned to my daughter, who'd just graduated from college, and blurted, "My sister wonders when you're going to have your nose fixed already."
Stunned, my daughter nearly burst into tears. We'd just been congratulating her for graduating magna cum laude. One minute ago, we were trying to explain her new job in digital media to Grammy, who'd never used a computer. But Grammy still believed the greatest accomplishment a woman could have was a perfectly sculpted nose.
Gently, I told my mother-in-law that plastic surgery should never be a dinner table topic, nor whispered about behind anyone's back.
"My generation just thought that way," she explained apologetically to my daughter. They both had such identical profiles that we often joked they'd been cloned.
I was particularly sensitive to any discussion of plastic surgery because of my own mother's vanity. She had her first face lift when I was in college. My father casually informed me, "Your mother's in the hospital," as if it were routine to spend a few days in the Manhattan Eye Ear and Throat Hospital. Dad and I traveled from Brighton Beach to East 64th Street by subway. "The City," as we called it, was a faraway place where my father worked and occasionally took me to skate at Rockefeller Center.
I didn't know what to expect when I entered Mom's hospital room. Her head was bandaged, and I felt as frightened as if she'd survived a near-fatal car crash and suffered traumatic brain injury. Sitting by her bed, I was already eager to leave, uncomfortable and angry that my parents hadn't warned or prepared me in any way. It was baffling why my first-generation reformed Jewish mother, a middle-class housewife, would subject herself to "the knife" in a quest for eternal youth.
A decade earlier she'd "fixed" her beak by one of the most renowned plastic surgeons in Manhattan. She never liked the way it came out. Her new turned-up nostrils looked fake and Wasp-y. Then, when I was 16, she took me to a different plastic surgeon who had a reputation for sculpting "natural" noses. I didn't want a nose job—never asked for one, yet I followed my mother's instructions, not thinking I could protest.
During the procedure, I was half-sedated, so that the doctor could say "Smile" to see how to perfect my profile. I heard him say, "We usually don't even do rhinoplasty on someone like this," meaning my schnoz didn't really need it. But whose does? I grew up admiring Barbra Streisand. Yet I suffered through recovery, my nostrils packed uncomfortably with gauze, wondering why I didn't have to courage to stand up to my mother's forced reconfiguration of my girlish face.
I attended my brother Jay's wedding with black-and-blue marks under my eyes. When the swelling went down, Mom approved my new snout, especially because the surgeon hadn't shortened it too much, like hers. Standing side by side, the two of us no longer looked characteristically or overtly Jewish. Nor like each other.
My mother was trying to sculpt away her traumatic past. Her father died of tuberculosis when she wasn't yet two. Her Russian immigrant mother made bootleg gin in her Jersey City railroad apartment, unable to support three children, eventually putting them all into an orphanage. Mom buried the trauma for the rest of her life. Whatever happened in that state-run orphanage, Mom constantly ran away from her past, obsessively focusing on winning a cabinet full of golf trophies, spending entire days lost in museums, and chiseling torsos out of alabaster.
"Gets rid of her nervous energy," my father said.
He was a penurious self-made man, who went to Cooper Union, a math prodigy who opted for a secure but uninspiring civil servant's job at The State Insurance Fund. He'd give my brother the car keys and a dollar, saying, "Get three gallons of gas"—hard to imagine in today's world. Embarrassed, my brother felt like a cheapskate at the Shell station.
How did Mom ever convince Dad to fund two nose jobs and her secret face lift? I kept mine hush-hush from almost everyone, except my husband. I was regretful and ashamed. No one ever gossiped behind my back, wondering, "Did she … or didn't she?" I pretended I'd been born that way.
No one ever guessed my mother had plastic surgery. Her friends commented how vibrant and glistening she looked. Eventually their faces became more lined, but she smoothly stood out.
"Genetics," she told them when they asked for her skincare secrets.
She had a second face lift 20 years later. A touch-up. She cruised into old age appearing decades younger than her peers. Mom hadn't had a normal childhood; she'd missed out on the simple pleasures of dinner with family, sitting in a backyard on a breezy summer evening, riding a bike to school, having a mother comfort you when your small world crashes. Two face lifts made up for the youth my mother had missed.
She was bedridden with Lewy body dementia for the last two years of her life. Nellie, her live-in caretaker, often stroked her cheek and said, "She's beautiful. How does she look so young?"
"Genetics," I replied.
Today, my daughter and I often look at old photos in my mother's pre-nose-bob-era. "Grandma looked so different then," she observes.
I explain everything to her, including my own reluctant foray into plastic surgery. My daughter has inherited my creamy skin tone. When we shop, I sit in the dressing room envious of her concave stomach. In the harsh store light, the wrinkles in my face are even more predominant than usual. But I'm supposed to look like her mother, not her sister. My daughter has never asked for a nose job—and I hope I'll never have to consent to one. Her nose is the exquisite one I remember distinctively from the moment she was born. The identical one to my mother-in-law's. And that's the way it should be. Who am I to mess around with genetics?
I may never convince Grammy that women should be judged by brains more than beauty. But I'll continue to reinforce those values with my daughter. My nose job didn't change my life. My career, marriage and motherhood did.