When my mother turned seventy, she said, “The trick at my age is not to try to look forty. The trick is to be the best-looking seventy-year-old in the room.” When she turned eighty, she told me that she had scheduled a “make-over” for herself. I remember hiding a smile. My mother looked awfully good for her age, but a make-over at eighty? What was she hoping for?
She was more intensely aware of people’s looks than anyone I’ve ever known. “Look at her with that long neck,” she would say, tilting her chin to point out some unsuspecting woman waiting for the bus. “She should at least wrap a scarf around it. And her poor husband with his little short arms—his hands barely hang below his belt!” And she would shake her head sadly, because there’s nothing that one can do about short arms.
She focused on my appearance with particular vehemence, but even though I complained bitterly, I benefitted from her fixation. She had my teeth straightened, my eyes uncrossed, my flat feet corrected, my acne tamed. The year I turned twelve, she got me my first girdle, and sent me to have my braids cut off and my legs waxed. She worked tirelessly on my posture and facial expression (“Don’t sit there with your mouth open. It’s not an intelligent look.”) But though she wanted me to look as well as I possibly could at twelve, fourteen, or sixteen, she was adamant that I not look a minute older than her idea of what a twelve-, fourteen-, or sixteen-year-old should look like. Hence, no stockings or straight skirts before fourteen, no lipstick before sixteen. These were the fronts on which, since I cared more about lipstick than braces, we fought our fiercest battles.
In the 1970s, when I was a grown woman with a husband, two children, goats, chickens, and a profession, she wrote me a letter expressing her concern that I might be in danger of looking “like one of those farm wives I saw when I last visited you. That would be a terrible thing! What would people think?” I might be cleaning out the chicken house, but that was no reason not to look soignée.
She was unsparing of her own shortcomings in the looks department, but treated them with the insouciance of one who knows she is the only star in her husband’s firmament. “Your father must have loved me a lot,” she confided after she became a widow. “He was a leg man, but he married me even though my legs are less than perfect, as you know.”
And I did know, because she would comment ruefully about her legs, which were slightly bowed; her hips, which were too wide; and “up here,” meaning her chest, which was too flat. But about her appearance from the neck up, I heard no complaints, and rightly so. She had a wide brow, thin, arched eyebrows above large eyes, a well-shaped nose, and a jaw-line that retained its definition her entire life.
She kept her beauty rituals to a minimum: a slathering of Nivea at night, and in the daytime a little powder and lipstick, and maybe a discreet slash of eyeliner at the outer corner of her eyes. When she was going to the opera, she would curl her eyelashes, and follow this with an application of Rimmel, the ur-mascara that came as a solid black cake in a small flat box. You spat on the cake, rubbed the resulting paste with a little brush, and applied it to your lashes. Then you took a pin and carefully separated whatever clumps of mascara the brush had left behind. (Spitting on the Rimmel cake, along with that graceful backwards twist of the torso to check the straightness of stocking seams, seemed to me as a child to embody the essence of femininity.)
Other than scraping it off her forehead—because she had somehow conceived the notion that a wide forehead was a sign of intelligence—she didn’t do much about her light-brown, curly hair, which she kept short. But this changed in the 1960s, when hair was expected to rise straight up from the scalp before curving smoothly downwards into a balloon shape. After watching me put my hair in jumbo rollers every night, she observed that in the morning it did form that coveted balloon. But she was too fond of her comfort to sleep on rollers, and she may also have wanted to spare my father the sight of her lumpy head next to him on the pillow. Instead, she recruited me as her hairdresser. After she washed her hair I would put it up in rollers, and fit the hood of the portable hairdryer over them. When the hair was bone-dry, I would take out the rollers and, very gently, because her scalp was sensitive and she would yelp if I tugged, tease, spray, and mold her hair into shape.
In her eighties she was still, thanks to good hair and good bones, the best-looking eighty-year-old in the room, so when she announced her plans to get a make-over, I wondered what was going on. Shouldn’t she be satisfied that she didn’t look any worse? What could any process, short of extensive plastic surgery, do to improve an eighty-year-old face? I was in my fifties at the time, and as unable to put myself in her place as if I had been a teenager.
I kept my doubts about the make-over to myself, and the next time we spoke on the phone I asked how it had gone. “It was a waste of time,” my mother said. “The woman kept repeating ‘We must bring out your features!’ as she put blush on my cheeks and darkened my eyebrows. I washed it all off when I got home. My features are all still there, thank God, and they don’t need bringing out.”
The features that enchanted me as a child stayed reassuringly the same as she turned eighty-five and then ninety, delineating to the end what had always been for me the face of love.