03/04/2014 01:42 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

My Mother's Facelift

While everyone was laughing at or tweeting how alarming Kim Novak and Goldie Hawn looked with their faces full of Botox, I could only think of a woman who never stood on the Academy Awards stage: my mother.

She had her first facelift 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 I occasionally went to the theater, to Bloomingdale's, to skate at Rockefeller Center.

I didn't know what to expect when I entered her 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 also baffling why my first-generation reformed Jewish mother, a middle-class housewife, would subject herself to "the knife" in a quest for eternal beauty.

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. I always found her new turned-up nostrils too fake and Wasp-y. Then, when I was 16, she took me to a different plastic surgeon who had a reputation for sculpting perfect 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 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.

My mother was trying to sculpt away her traumatic past. Her father died of tuberculosis when she wasn't yet 2. 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, where Mom lived until she was a teenager.

The events of her past are sketchy, as she was often unable to call up the trauma. Once she confessed, "The superintendent came into my room and exposed himself to me. That's as far as it went."

I never knew for sure. Mom buried the topic 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 the Met and chiseling torsos out of alabaster.

"Gets rid of her nervous energy," my father said.

He was such a penurious self-made man, who went to Cooper Union, a math prodigy who opted for a secure but uninspiring 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 she ever convince Dad to fund two nose jobs and her secret facelift? 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?" And I pretended I'd been born that way.

No one ever guessed my mother had plastic surgery either. Her friends commented how vibrant and glistening she looked. Eventually their faces became more lined, but she smoothly stood out.

"Genetics," she'd tell them when they asked for her skincare secrets.

She had a second facelift 20 years later. A touch-up. Thankfully, she never looked like Joan Rivers. But 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 your 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 facelifts made up for the youth my mother had missed.

She was bedridden with 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.

My daughter is now the age I was when my mother had her first facelift. Sometimes we look at old photos in my mother's pre-nose-bob-era. "Grandma looked so different then," my daughter observes.

I explain everything to her, including my own reluctant foray into plastic surgery. At 19, my daughter has inherited my creamy skin tone and never suffered through acne. When we shop together, I sit in the dressing room envious of her concave stomach and tight thighs. 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 -- nor would I consent to one, even though the doctor who crafted mine would have a bit more to work with. But her nose is the one I remember distinctively from the moment she was born. The identical one to her father's. Standing next to each other, they look like clones. And that's the way it should be. Who am I to mess around with genetics?

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