Delightful flaws tie us to family

Posted Jan. 03, 2010, at 8:12 p.m.

From the time that I can first remember, I have not liked my nose, and in particular, the way that it is thin at the top and wider at the bottom — like a triangle. Although I hadn’t always noticed, I also dislike the way one nostril is larger than the other (thanks to my brother, Will, for pointing that out when I was in the eighth grade). In high school, I begged my mom for rhinoplasty. She never gave in.

“In time you will learn to love your face and body,” she said.

As I’ve aged, I’ve found new distressing things about my appearance. There is the vertical line between my eyebrows, the freckles on my forehead and the tendency for my chin, in the words of my son, to “sort of hang off [my] face.”

After long stretches of time without seeing my parents, who live in Smithfield, Va., I am always surprised to see the resemblance between them and me. That crease between my eyes, it comes from Dad. So do my chin and nose.

More recently I saw these same similarities while looking at old photographs of my paternal grandmother, Thelma Rutherford. She apparently was the originator of some of the characteristics that make up a “Rutherford face.” I also am built like her, with an upper body that is wider than the bottom. I think they call this “an apple.”

Grandma Rutherford passed away on Dec. 18 at age 92. The next day, when I looked in the mirror, I saw her — in my chin, nose and eyes — staring back at me. I also saw my dad, whom Grandma named Lindell. Yes, Lindell, the same name I chose for my youngest son. Grandma always said she picked the name because she liked the sound. I suspect it also had something to do with her living near the corner of Lindell Street in the small town of Vandalia, Mo., where my dad grew up. When I talked to Grandma on the phone, she referred to the two Lindells as “my Lindell” and “your Lindell.”

Like me, Grandma had only sons. Also like me, Lindell was her youngest. Grandma had an ear for the piano and could play hymns without looking at the sheet music. Although the baby grand piano I own was passed down from my other grandmother, Doris, my ability to play it comes from Grandma Rutherford.

Grandma was a writer (specifically, a poet) and loved words. She did a crossword puzzle every day, a habit I have recently acquired. For the 33 years that I knew her, Grandma sent me handwritten letters on the same style and size of paper: thin, rectangular sheets torn from a tablet. Her letters were folded three times and sealed in an ordinary business envelope. Sometimes she closed it with a shiny sticker. She liked it when I wrote back and told her stories about my boys. She especially liked the stories about “my Lindell.”

When I was a baby, Grandma said that my dark brown eyes against pale white skin looked like “two holes in a blanket.” It’s a description I have caught myself repeating, word for word, about my own babies: “Their eyes are like two holes in a blanket.”

Also, as my oldest child, Ford, has grown, I’ve noticed that his nose makes a perfect triangle, and when he looks up, that one nostril is larger than the other. Perhaps more importantly, however, he is blessed with a love for words and a knack for putting just the right ones together.

Grandma’s funeral will be in Vandalia, in the same church where I was christened and my dad went every Sunday while he was growing up. Grandma said it made her happy to know I was raising my boys in a church, just as she did. As I walked in the snow yesterday holding “my Lindell’s” hand covered with a mitten, I cried and wondered if Grandma had sometimes done the same with “her Lindell.”

I called Grandma on one of the last days that she was alive. She couldn’t speak, but I told her that I would think of her any time I do a crossword puzzle or play the piano.

What I didn’t tell her is that I also will look at my own face as if it is a gift. I am grateful Mom never let me erase the visible ties to my family by changing my nose. Someday I hope my children will view their delightful flaws — a crooked nose, a freckle on the eyelid, a crease on the forehead — as outward reminders of the blessings — faith, character, talent and beauty — their ancestors have passed down to them. It is important to remember that these are the greatest, most irreplaceable gifts of all. As my friend Paula so eloquently wrote to me in a sympathy card, “Your grandmother sowed some beautiful seeds while on this earth … that’s all anyone could hope for …”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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