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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Watching My Face Change

My writing corner has a pretty standard setup. I’ve got a corkboard covered with half-baked ideas scribbled on post-its, some inspiring prints of my Spirit Animals and some MMIWG2S information. To my right, Erik mounted shelves for my microphone and a special space for my smudge kit and sentimental items. On that shelf, I’m greeted several times a day by the pamphlet helpers handed me as I walked into my Grandma’s funeral. The front showcases a large photo of our Matriarch herself, Violet, smiling with huge chubby cheeks and a wide nose. Her skin is a gorgeous dark red-brown, and her hair is white.

Despite the pamphlet tying me to a sad moment, I love this photo because Grandma looks exactly how I remember her when she was healthy and vibrant. Still, I struggle a lot when I think about her face and the last time I saw her. At the time of her wake, when her casket was opened, I remember the expectation that I go up and say goodbye. She had come to me at the time of her passing, so I knew she was gone before my Dad announced it. I couldn’t feel her in the room at the wake either and the anxiety I felt at seeing my Grandma in a casket had flared up my gastritis and migraines. My Dad hung back. He never did look in the casket. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t either, but something definitely changed for me that day.

I sort through a lot of memories of my Grandma and something that stands out above everything is her chubby cheeks — the kind you only get when you’re Native. There’s something about Native cheeks that just sit differently and they never shrink! Or, at least, I used to think they didn’t. At some point, my Grandma’s chubby cheeks became small, and her wide nose became thinner and slightly hooked, pointed even. I remember studying her face and thinking, this isn’t my Grandma. Why is she so pointed? Why is she so small? She was always short but now she was just tiny. It still makes me lightheaded.

When I got home from the funeral, I placed the pamphlet at my desk with my esteemed items. Quite often I examine her face. I like to imagine what she’s laughing about, and sometimes I even marvel at how much our smiles match (we Greenways smile big, that’s for sure). It’s hard to say how much we look alike because I haven’t seen many photos of my Grandma as a young woman, but when I give myself the same careful examination I can pick out bits and pieces I’ve seen in photos of my ancestors. I don’t think it’s too large of a stretch to imagine that maybe I carry more than just her name.

Even my own face has changed substantially in the past few months, growing softer and rounder. “Moonface” is what they call it. Part of me wants this to be an optical illusion from growing my brows back in, but even my eye shape has changed. In reality, it’s the result of the steroids I’ve been put on to control my severe asthma attacks.

My gut reactions to the changes in my face are, of course, multilayered. First, I grapple with the fear that settled in when I saw my Grandma in the casket — her face was completely different. How do we go from identifying with one face or one body for so long only to realize you’re now living with a different one you had no hand in choosing? The cognitive dissonance I feel when looking at current photos of my face can be overwhelming when I expect a face that no longer belongs to me.

Second, I deal with the shame of having these thoughts. This idea that my face changing shouldn’t but does disturb me or makes me feel childish or controlling. Seeking consistency or at least recognition, I feel silly for struggling to identify with the changes happening and I then fear being labelled a control freak. I’m troubled by the expectation that women, females, femmes, etc. are expected to age gracefully, take care of ourselves, not be vain, care just enough but not too much, and the list goes on.

We’re expected to take every change in stride, find a solution while simultaneously accepting it and then move on without skipping a beat. It’s all about grace and empowerment, but I don’t feel powerful. If anything, I feel vulnerable.

This is not to say that I don’t like my face. I am, if nothing else, a good sport, so if this is my face then this is my face. I just wish that there was more room for discussion about the ambivalence of accepting change to the face and body you’ve come to identify with. Further, where is the space for us to have these discussions without the discussion turning into yet another thing to be ashamed of. Any moment of not being 100% comfortable in our skin or our bodies is met as a sign of weakness or challenge to the acceptance of others, and I wish we had more honest spaces that allowed us to sort through our ambivalence surrounding how we change. The word “ambivalence” is one I choose purposely, too, because not all the changes to my face have been met with fear or anxiety. In fact, some have drawn me closer to who I am on the inside.

I listen to podcasts and youtube videos while I wash my face at night. Several nights ago, I was bent over in the sink when someone said something that made me burst out laughing. In the midst of it all, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Of all the things to see, I saw the smallest narrowing and drooping of my nose tip. That’s new…it kind of looks like a beak when I do that. Suddenly, my mind flashed back to Grandma in the casket, her nose narrowed and pointed down in the centre. It had never looked like that in all my time knowing her, but in her old age and from the weightloss at the end of her journey here on earth, her Tahltan nose transitioned to a Kaska nose. It had gone from wide and sturdy to pointed and hooked. That brief glimpse of my nose emulating hers caught me off guard, but realizing that it was also mirrored in my (Great) Auntie Anne’s nose made me feel grounded. A nose that I’d always had issues with (too round, tip’s too big, etc.) finally started to look familiar to me.

At the end of the day, so many factors contribute to the changes in our faces and bodies. In some ways, I’m frightened by what I see happening in the mirror. In others, I’m fascinated and excited. I think what hangs me up the most is the lingering memory of who I see in my mind when I think of people, and perhaps that’s simply not the way to be looking at people anymore, myself included. The most jarring thing about seeing my Grandma at the wake was that I didn’t recognize her, and now my job has become to reconcile who I knew her as and who she became in the end. The process has become so painful and convoluted that it hinders my acceptance of my own change…or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe my fear of accepting my changes has limited my acceptance of my Grandma’s.

All I know is I want to know her and I want to know myself. That’s going to require validation and not an ounce more of shame. That being said, I’m beginning the process of validating not only the changes we both went through or are currently going through but also how we both feel or must have felt about those changes. My hope is that I can further unpack and unlearn the shame I’ve picked up along the way, but I’m sure my Grandma has more lessons for me along that journey than I can even imagine. She usually does…




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