Growing up, the high points of my month were the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” feature in my mother’s Ladies’ Home Journal and Nora Ephron’s column in my father’s Esquire. LHJ generally advised women to “make it work” at any cost—to hang on like a barnacle no matter what kind of low-life, cheating, bedroom-challenged, BO-ridden dog he was. Nora, on the other hand, pointed the way to a world so large, so filled with possibilities, that marriage might or might not even be part of it.
Which is why I was cheering when her new collection of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, hit number one on the New York Times best-seller list. I eagerly helped her out with my own purchase, even though, page for page, the slender volume was the most expensive book I’ve ever bought. (Twenty-two dollars with tax for 137 pages? State secrets have sold for less.) I hoarded my delicacy until I had time to savor what the reviews were hailing as a triumph of wit and honesty. Nora said the collection was her antidote to those “happy face” tracts that claimed we weren’t getting older, we were getting better, and that if we’d just embrace our inner crone, we’d all be having more sex than a boar mink as we rolled into our sixties and seventies.
When I finally dived into the book, I was eager for Nora to work her magic the way she had with her early-seventies essays (the famous one about breasts, for instance; in that piece, you started off reading about mammaries and ended up watching Nora hammerlock the culture with an A cup). As the possessor of a fine turkey-gobbler wattle, I couldn’t wait to see how she’d wring the neck of neck wrinkles and iron them out into a metaphor that revealed the larger picture.
I read the whole collection in two hours, and guess what? Neck wrinkles are a giant metaphor for … neck wrinkles. Really. Nora doesn’t like ’em. And the larger picture? She doesn’t think she’s a good candidate for plastic surgery, so she wears black turtlenecks—a lot—as do all her friends within the few micrometers of Manhattan she fetishistically details. At least they do when they’re not hiding what God has furrowed with chokers and Hermès scarves. On the front cover of the book is a jar of wrinkle cream. On the back is a photo of Nora wearing one of her black turtlenecks, pulled up so that only a chadorlike slice of her eyes shows. In between, she kvetches about purses, fading eyesight, unwanted body hair, Botox, and the disappearance of her favorite cabbage strudel.
The black turtlenecks, though, were what really stuck in my wattled craw—but why? After all, I love me some enhancements: hair dye, nail polish, exfoliants, lip plumper, makeup (hand me my trowel). Even plastic surgery; the day they take out pain, expense, and risk of death and put a face-lift in handy pill form, sign me up.
I was still puzzling over this question when the news came that Ann Richards had died. Like the rest of the state and the nation, I could not stop staring at those piercing turquoise eyes, that white tornado of hair, the blinding grin. But mostly I studied her glorious and gloriously exposed collection of shar-pei-quality neck wrinkles. And then it hit me: Real Texas Women don’t wear black turtlenecks. If neck wrinkles bothered a Real Texas Woman as much as they bother Nora and her bescarfed friends, she’d go out and find the best plastic surgeon around, have the damn lift, and throw a party to show it off. Or she’d get herself something a lot bigger to worry about, like taming a frontier or being governor or becoming one of the greatest female singers in the history of rock and roll. (Janis Joplin, you freed more women from undergarments and hair straightener than you will ever know.)
I don’t think a Real Texas Woman would do quite so much of what Nora herself calls “dancing around the D word” (that would be “death”). She’d take the wrinkles and the sags, the wattles and the bags, for the extremely useful reminders they are—that at this great banquet of life, those of us wondering where we put our reading glasses are a lot closer to the dessert cart than we are to the pupu platter. If that woman is Ann Richards, she would probably get up, go back for seconds and thirds, then bring a bunch of the best stuff back to the table for everyone to share. And if—in spite of being born in (shudder!) California—she’s one of the Realest Texas Women Ever, if she’s Molly Ivins, and she’s lost her hair to chemotherapy, she would appear in a magazine beaming, beautiful, and magnificently bald.
I found myself wishing I’d had a chance to ask Ann how she felt about her neck wrinkles. Then, bobbing on the ocean of ink that poured out to celebrate and mourn her passing, an answer to my question appeared. Rena Pederson, formerly the editorial page editor at the Dallas Morning News, recalled the last time she saw the governor: “She was complimented about her appearances as a political commentator and asked why she didn’t have a TV program. Without hesitation, she grabbed the folds of skin under her chin and flapped them with her hand. ‘They don’t want you on TV with this,’ she said.” Pederson writes that when Ann was asked why she didn’t just have plastic surgery, she replied, “I don’t think that’s the kind of example I want to set for my granddaughter.”
A few nights after she died, I had to give a speech not far from the Capitol, where Ann W. Richards gave the state of Texas four of the most inspiring years of its life. Knowing how merciless the speaker’s podium is, I had reason to flirt with thoughts of wattle camouflage: the jaunty scarf, a little ascot action, that black turtleneck. Instead, I took inspiration from Ann and made such a howling fool out of myself that everyone worried more about my precarious mental health than my neck wrinkles.
Besides, it’s just too damn hot in Texas for turtlenecks.