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I Went to the Spa for a Facial and Left With So Much More

Friday, September 03, 2021

By Natalie Silverstein

Illustration by Rebecca de Araujo

I sped through mid-day traffic, berating myself for leaving late. I could feel my blood pressure rise as I obsessively checked the clock on the dashboard. Miraculously, there was a parking spot directly across the street from the spa where I had booked a facial, a gift from a group of friends for my 52nd birthday a few days prior.

I jumped out of the car and sprinted across the street. I was only three minutes late and didn’t want the aesthetician to take time off of my hour of zen. The irony of rushing and stressing my way to do something intended to be relaxing is never lost on me. I frequently break a sweat running late to yoga class, sabotaging the whole endeavor from the start.

After checking in, the receptionist escorted me through the hair salon and past the pedicure chairs to a small hallway in the back.

“Nadia, your client is here,” he called out.

A tiny elderly woman in a white lab coat emerged from the staff room. Well under five feet tall, wearing big glasses and bright red lipstick, she looked like a slightly more stylish Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

“You are my client,” she said, a statement rather than a question, eyebrows raised as she peered up at me, more Eastern European than German, with an accent I couldn’t quite place. She stared at my face, glancing at the baseball cap on my head, assessing me. I suppressed a giggle, disarmed by this ancient elf who was apparently going to give me a facial with her wizened hands. My frustration with running late slowly ebbed.

She took my arm and led me to the treatment room. She wanted to know if I had had a facial before (of course) and whether a heated bed was agreeable (yes, thank you). She asked a few more questions before telling me that she was, in fact, nearly ninety-one years old and that she had been giving facials for longer than I’ve been alive. I asked where she was born and she told me Romania. This made sense. I’ve never met a Nadia who was not Romanian. I told her I was Ukrainian. An immediate bond had formed.

The irony of rushing and stressing my way to do something intended to be relaxing is never lost on me. I frequently break a sweat running late to yoga class, sabotaging the whole endeavor from the start.

She asked if I have trouble with claustrophobia, as she would be wrapping my face like a mummy for the collagen facial I had requested. No problem, I assured her, and she breathed a sigh of relief. After I was settled, she returned and made sure I was comfortable, tucking and adjusting. I had flashbacks of my own tiny grandmother, a refugee who had survived famine and war, smothering me in blankets to ward off a nonexistent chill on the rare occasion I would sleep at her home as a child.

Nadia proceeded to tell me more about her life. She was a nurse in her native Romania but she didn’t speak a word of English when she came to America and was not allowed to practice nursing. She trained as a massage therapist and then went to cosmetology school in New York City (the greatest city in the world — the energy!). She worked at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for four decades, giving facials to well-heeled New Yorkers, and has been working at this salon for over twenty years now.

“This place must be the best because I went from working at the Waldorf Astoria to working here. I could not go from working at the best place to anything less than the best, you understand?”

I nodded. Of course, I understand.

The lines on her face were deep and well-earned. Her eyes were bright and animated. Her hair (which appeared to be her own) was thick and wavy around her face, dark with hints of grey, certainly professionally colored but not overly so. I wondered how she would manage all of the bottles and gadgets, whether she would be strong enough to give me any kind of neck and shoulder massage.

This concern was in vain. Nadia expertly and effortlessly moved through a wonderful facial. I closed my eyes and melted into the heated bed. She was gentle but firm, didn’t pick at my skin but simply massaged it using creams and oils. She quietly explained her process a few times. Otherwise, she was silent and let me relax.

Finally, she covered my face with a thin cloth, leaving only my nostrils exposed, and brushed a thick mask onto the cloth which seeped through, making my face feel cool and tingly. She covered this with some sort of thin aluminum foil. She asked if I was alright, but my mouth was completely covered so I was unable to answer. I simply hummed “mhmm” and giggled again.

She laughed. “I love you,” she said, and squeezed my arm as she exited the room.

I dozed for the next ten minutes.

After she had peeled everything off, rubbing more potions on my face, layer after layer, I was finally finished. She stood by the bed and held my arm.

“Don’t touch your face. You have a beautiful face, wonderful skin.”

She was a miniature oracle. I needed to hear these reassuring words. After my recent birthday, I was feeling old, used up, past my prime. Aging is a privilege. This is a fact I understand, a truth I have internalized after recently losing a friend to cancer and watching family members and friends struggle with debilitating diseases. But that doesn’t always quiet the pity party in my head. I am often startled by the squishy middle-aged woman staring back at me when I look in a mirror.

Nadia continued with her simple declarations. “I love what I do. You know, I’ll be ninety-one next month, and as long as I am working, as long as I am moving, I am living. If I am sitting at home, I might as well be dead, you understand?”

My eyes welled up with tears. I exhaled slowly.

Yes, I understand.


Natalie Silverstein, MPH, is an author, speaker, consultant, and passionate advocate for family and youth service. Her first book, Simple Acts: The Busy Family’s Guide to Giving Back, was published in 2019. Her second book, Simple Acts: The Busy Teen’s Guide to Making a Difference will be published in early 2022. Natalie is the New York coordinator of Doing Good Together, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit. In this role, she curates a free monthly e-mail listing of family-friendly service opportunities distributed to thousands of subscribers. Her personal and parenting essays have appeared on a variety of blogs including Grown and Flown, Red Tricycle, Motherwell, and Mommypoppins. She is a frequent public speaker and podcast guest. Natalie holds a master’s degree in public health from Yale. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.