My mother, Alice, was always beautiful, Armenian immigrant beautiful, with thick curly black hair, olive skin, and big dark eyes. But as a girl in New York, she wanted soft golden hair, and everything that went with it. She was scientific about her quest, Lamarckian specifically. When she stirred the yogurt and garlic sauce over the stove with a wooden spoon so it wouldn’t curdle, she pushed her nose up with her other hand, convinced that eventually her nose would grow that way. She stayed out of the sun after she realized which men whistled at her at Rockaway Beach. Still, when she went through the cafeteria line at Duke University in the mid 1950s, my fair-skinned father overheard the cashier say, “I didn’t think they let them in here.” She is still beautiful. Her skin is remarkably soft and unwrinkled. Until the end stages, when facial expressions and the ability to move disappear, Alzheimer’s remains invisible. The missing pieces stay hidden.
Hiding has always been her friend. As a child, I didn’t understand my mother’s distorted approach to all things blond. Though we ate yogurt long before it became available in the grocery stores, we spoke no Armenian at home. She married an odar—a foreigner, an American. Our job was to fit in, to leave most everything Armenian behind, to become blond. Now, when she looks in the mirror , I guess it isn’t just age, or the weight she has gained with Alzheimer’s that drives her to say, “I look awful.” But other times, she comes down from her room for dinner with necklaces and scarves draped around her shoulders, strands of beads woven through her hair. She feels lovely, like an Armenian princess.