My mother’s beauty is a storied thing in our family, a story that begins with a tale of love at first sight.

As my father tells it, it was not ethereal beauty but rather the glimpse of a celestial soul that compelled him to proclaim eternal love to a stranger on a plane some 50 years ago. And if you met my mother, you would believe him.

On the doorstep of 80, my mother wears her wrinkles with serenity. Between her brows are sloped creases, the worry a parent assumes when allowing their children the freedom to discover their own paths. Across her forehead are stacked lines, deepened with each generous act for someone else. Together, these imprints are the vestiges of a beautiful life defined by devotion, compassion and understanding.

Jennifer Lee and her mother (wearing her wig), photographed in December 2020.

Then there are the missing wrinkles, those that fearlessness refused. In their absence is the courage of an immigrant from Taipei seeking a new life for her young family in small-town New Brunswick; the heroism of a mother modelling kindness for her four children; and, most recently, the lionheart of a cancer patient.

Two years ago, my parents moved from Saint John to Toronto to be closer to their grandchildren. Only months later, my mother tripped while taking her shoes off on New Year’s Eve. She came out of a precautionary ER visit a few days later, suddenly battling the final stages of a vicious disease.

When my mother’s hair began to fall out from her treatment, it was difficult for me to separate what might be seen as a loss of beauty from the idea of losing her. To vanquish such thoughts, my siblings and I did what the powerless and lost do in such a position: we shopped for fashionable head gear. Hats, turbans, scarves and — my contribution this past Christmas — a wig.

As it happened, my mom already had a wig, a beloved souvenir from her university days. Back then, her hair hung below her hips. When she cut it all off in the name of travel and convenience, she cried and preserved her hair in the form of a glorious bouffant wig that stayed tucked away. Decades later, the jet-black wig — freshly cut and styled in secret by her faithful hairdresser, Gisella — was met with tears once again. This time, the tears were ours: my dad, my brother, my husband and me sniffled (if not sobbed) when my mother carefully donned the wig. For a family of non-huggers, that’s something.

It wasn’t that she now looked beautiful again; she was always beautiful. The power of that wig was in how it connected me to my early memories of her. Suddenly I was a girl again, sitting on the living room floor, watching my mother transform a sheet of lace, some gluey water and fuzzy gold sticks into a pair of angel wings for my school’s holiday concert. To a shy seven-year-old, those wings were magical and well worth conquering stage fright for. Decades later, now a mother myself, I appreciated, maybe for the first time, what it meant for her to stay up late into the night making my costume. Between working 10 hours a day six days a week and tending to every crisis that comes with raising children, my mother always found time for the little things.

For as long as I can remember, the wonder of my mother has been framed by her storied beauty. And for as long as I have felt loved, I have known that its true point of origin is her beautiful heart. Underneath my mother’s wig, her hair is sparse and grey, but with or without it, she is a thing of beauty.