My mom and I spent much of my childhood arguing about who I was. To her, I was the girl she’d always wanted, the one she could put in frilly dresses and decorate with pink bows. I tore off the bows, wore pants, and scraped the makeup off my face because it made my skin itch. Then I fled to places she wasn’t so sure about like Narnia and Oz.
As I grew up, we grew even more apart. She wanted me to settle down, have a family, and give her the grandchildren she could show off to her friends. She liked the man who became my future husband, but my mom wasn’t quite sure how I had managed to catch his eye. Here I was, the woman without the pink, and yet, there he was, a wonderful man obviously madly in love with me. She would stay baffled about our marriage for years, surprised that I’d managed to avoid her highly traditional femininity and yet find a life partner.
For many years, we did not quite understand each other. I did not understand why she clung so ardently to the rules of being female her generation had laid out. I abhorred the way she’d spend hours looking for pantyhose and searching for a precise lipstick shade. She wondered why I went out without carefully putting on blush and pushing my feet into high heels. I looked at her and shrugged and she looked back and sighed. The careful facade of womanhood that she’d put on before leaving her home did not appeal to me. I would greet the world with my face on and nothing else in the way.
Discovering my mom
After I had my first daughter, I found myself crying out for my mother’s help for the first time in my life. My daughter slept in tiny microseconds, waking bitterly when I was not at her side immediately. I didn’t know where else to turn. For two months, we sat up with the baby, getting to know her sweet skin and finally figuring out what would lull her to sleep and keep her there.
In that time, as we admired her tiny hands and inhaled her baby smell, for the first time in our lives, we truly began to talk. This was not the fury of the adolescent and the frustrated mother anymore. It was a meeting of two grown-ups.
I discovered my mother as she was and not as I’d failed to see her for so many years. This was the adult person who chortled as we watched The Vicar of Dibley late at night. She told me of her love of Anna Quindlen novels and how she had dreamed of being a writer as a child but shelved the dream as she grew up. My small daughter made us too tired for much else other than talking. For the first time since I had known my mother, she left off her usual round of meticulous makeup and went outside with the baby in her pajamas and slippers.
A few years later my mom got sick, and then she really got sick. For years she’d struggled with type II diabetes, but it was in the background and there it stayed. Neuropathy bothered her but she largely ignored it. It wasn’t until she got really ill with chronic bronchitis that her health truly started to erode. The bronchitis was eventually diagnosed as emphysema. This was an ironic diagnosis for someone who had smoked her last cigarette over four decades ago.
For a few years, it was okay. She coughed with her makeup still on and made no other fuss. Finally, reluctantly, she was forced to bring an oxygen tank with her, trailing it like an unwanted baby carriage. The miserable disease would claim her shortly after her sixty-ninth birthday. To that end, even in her coma, next to her hospital bed sat her purse with her sweet-n-low and her makeup bag bulging with her carefully chosen eyebrow pencil and the mascara she liked best.
A hint of color
I realized many things when I let her go. On some level, it became clear how much our lives were alike. Just as I sought self-expression by turning my house into a library and my life into one dedicated to the written word, she also sought self-expression in one of the few avenues open to her: makeup.
My mother’s makeup choices weren’t just about the superficial, they were her uniform, her way of telling the world her feelings. Her carefully-manicured nails with the varied patterns that changed from week to week weren’t about just covering her nails. They were also about letting who she was out bit by bit in vivid color. Just before we buried her, I decided to honor her with a slash of bright red on my own nails. I put on a hint of lipstick and imagined her smile.