My mother was an avid skincare specialist. She believed deeply that if she took regular care of her face, it would serve her well in the end.
She died with a justifiably hydrated face.
Her two daughters and only offspring, however, were tan-aholics. Setting our alarms on warm summer days, our goal was to wake up not too early (morning rays are worthless) but not too late (by early evening the shadows were too long); assembling for hours, preparing to spend the day in the sun. Most maternal women smile sweetly at the smell of a baby’s freshly cleaned bottom. To me, baby fresh anything smells like the wonderful oil we slathered on our faces and bodies to achieve maximum burn status.
The laying out chair had to be just right as well. I can still smell the unique combination of tanning lotion mixed with sun-warmed plastic tubing from the tri-fold-out chair.
Our backyard was perfect for sun tanning. The middle of the yard was spread wide open all afternoon for the sun goddess’ delight. Dad’s water sprinkler could be placed at just the right distance so that its back and forth rotation would sprinkle its way across our bodies with the going to and coming from back-and-forth motion. There were limitations to this water usage, however. Dad neither wanted to pay the water bill of an afternoon spent sun soaking, nor did he wish to swamp his perfectly manicured backyard with unnecessary H2o.
After approximately 30-40 minutes of oil-covering, swimsuit-line-determining, chair/sprinkler-positioning, we laid back. The sun immediately grabbed our skin and began its oh-so-good fry. Using a transistor radio as a clock, we laid on our backs. Three songs later, we flipped sides and laid on our stomachs to give our backs a chance at wrinkle-inducing, cancer-birthing rays as well.
My sister and I, now in our 40’s, are suffering the consequences of those we-wear-short-shorts and Ban de Soleil commercials that promised skinny thighs and evenly bronzed skintone, not to mention the undying attention from groups of good-looking boys on the (undetermined) beach. The lasting consequences have been brutal. Just yesterday I spent hours talking to a beauty consultant about skin-evening lotions and sun spot-reducing serums.
Although desperately trying to get her daughter’s to adopt her skincare regime’ discipline, we resisted with every leave-the-mask-on-until-it-was-so-itchy-you-couldn’t-stand-it attempt our mother employed.
I am currently 47 years old and consider it a minor act of self-effectuation to actually wash my make-up off at night before crawling into bed. I am truly a horrid, horrid person. I remember Mom started going to bed hours before ever hitting the pillow. I can see her downstairs (she had a bathroom to herself for this very reason), washing her face with the special cleanser, then gently but thoroughly, wiping her face – and neck! – with the soft, just-for-this-purpose washcloth. Once a week she buttered the red paste on her face, covering each pore and getting up into the hairline (lest that be left untouched and eventually age 20 times faster than the rest of her face.) She waited the allotted time, face shrinking into a dried apple-like contortion, then began the tedious and slow process of wetting and wiping each section completely.
This, while her daughters sat outside in Something-About-Mary fashion with aluminum foil and SPF-negative-50.
I wish I had inherited her breadth of understanding about short-term inconvenience for long-term benefits. This was her specialty in so many areas of life.
Although never quite grasping the skincare system, I did, however, love our trips to the Merle Norman store.
Merle Norman. That was Mom’s go-to skincare product. She drank the Merle Norman Kool-aid and never looked back. Each of the skincare steps, she followed with precision. Of course for the best results, the make-up needed to compliment the skincare products as well. I am sure that only Dad knows the amount of money spent on those products, yet he must have understood that this was her thing. Her commitment. Her way of managing on-set aging; and he graciously allowed her the extra expense to maintain some semblance of youth.
Walking into the Merle Normal shop was like walking into what it meant to be a lady. The smell was clean and distinct. The colors, pinks and ecrus and mauves. Each visit, I immediately felt out of my element. This was a language I didn’t understand. The patience, alone, for such tedium, completely escaped me. Words like ‘smooth’ and ‘bright’ and ‘refined’ didn’t seem to matter in light of my childhood and adolescence. As a teenager, I preferred to skip the foundational elements of skincare and jump straight to the more superficial and immediate results of mascara, blush and eyeshadow.
While Mom shopped, instead of walking around picking up products and reading about their long-term promises, I mostly stood and observed the surroundings. The ladies that worked in Merle Norman were fine and perfect and (what I didn’t understand at the time) subtly sensual in the way they dressed and their ladylike ways.
After restocking on her weekly regime of step-by-step cleansers and lotions, Mom stepped up to the register to pay.
Merle Norman didn’t have clanking registers or noisy bells and whistles. Instead, the lady with handsomely painted fingernails, clad with appropriate gold and diamond jewelry, would delicately pick up her small receipt pad. With a slow and meticulous movement, she would lift the pages slightly, while unfolding the heavier, folded, cardstock attachment at the back of the pad. She placed the cardstock extension behind the first empty carbon-backed page of the receipt pad and picked up her pen.
The saleslady’s pen was thick and made of heavy black and silver finish. The point was wide, but came to a very finely pointed end. The way she held it was magical. Her nails were beautifully painted and her hands were elegantly refined. The pen was treated with care and used more as a friend, than a mere tool for writing.
With her other hand, she lifted each item to be purchased. Listed on the item was a number, which she deliberately and vigilantly wrote on the first line of the carbon-backed receipt paper. Gracefully setting down one item, she picked up the next. Line by line she wrote. Her letters had a slight flair to them, but maintained a proper and fluid style.
After transcribing each item number and price onto the small piece of paper, she then lifted a calculator to enter each price for a grand total. It was the most alluring and exquisite use of a number-producing machine I had ever witnessed.
Her writing was strong and precise. The paper indentation was exact.
She wrote ‘Marlene Williams’ at the top of the paper, then beautifully signed her own name at the bottom of the transaction.
In fastidious precision, she tore the paper, releasing it from its perforated hold. She was careful to not tear it in any inappropriate places, but rather made sure its tear went all the way across to the very end.
Laying the paper on the tissue-wrapped items, she placed the product and magical piece of paper in the bag with a broad smile and sincere gratitude, handing it majestically to my mother.
This must be what it is like to be a grown-up. A fine lady. These two women understood the spoken and unspoken sentiment of beauty and delicate charm.
30+ years later, it was not the nightcream or the non-caking foundation that stood out to me. It was the elegance of the written word. The art of combining letters in a luxurious and ornate way. It was the process of making friends with the ink, holding its receptacle with a soulful command. It was to allow the letters to flow from its ductile casing onto the awaiting page.
This lovely lady, talking to my exquisite mother, had no idea that the lasting memory in a young girl’s mind was to imagine what artistry could be performed with just a paper and a pen.
from the series, Note to Self