My mother’s 101 birthday would have been June 22. This is for her.

I don’t think anyone ever said of my mother that she was “a beauty.” A childhood photo when she was nine shows a slender and almost delicate girl on pointe in a perfect ballet tutu and pose. Her face is serious.

Photos from her teen years show a serious pensiveness–no smile, but no frown either. Was she always a serious child? Perhaps this was before the era of family events that are always being marked by photo opps and parents’ admonitions to “smile.”

Photos with my dad before they were married remind me of two kids having fun together- doing acrobatic tricks, or side by side, she smiling and standing tall and straight, feet together, dressed in the over-sized pants of the 1930’s, he with suspenders, and that wide smile that charmed just about everyone.

image of my mother tall proudWhen my mother was raising children in the expected full-time mom era, the words I ascribed to her were very competent, strong, determined. She was determined her three girls would be accomplished, and achieve all she set out for them. The few times I remember her dressed up she was still tall and proud in dresses that swished when she walked.

The day I noticed her beauty was in early winter when I walked into Regency Gardens Nursing Residence in New Jersey. By then her children were grown, even her grandchildren were grown, and she had been an active widow, painting, traveling, and in Toastmasters until a stroke slowed her down in 2001.

Sitting in her wheelchair by the window in her room, both feet, now in permanent retirement, were propped on the footrest. My first glimpse was the back of her head. It was mid-morning.

Winter sunlight coming in a window holds none of the frigidness of a Northeast winter, only a softer light. Her hair was a silver halo. Coming a few steps into her room, my view of her shifted like a camera on a dolly curving around and in on its model. Her stroke-affected right arm curled up and into her chest at the elbow as if her hand were like an infant wanting to be close to its mother. Her left hand supported her chin. Her face was at rest. A small oval face, pale, held up by an arthritic and age-spotted hand.

She turned and a smile, small and slow, embraced her face. She was beautiful. It was almost as if her face got lighter, not more pale, but suffused with a light like when the sun comes from behind a cloud and the shadow it has cast slides away.

Her head tilted a little to the side as she looked at me.  “I didn’t think anyone was coming to visit today.”

And because my heart filled with love, she was even more beautiful.

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and the writing life. She is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships.