It wasn’t until my mother was 62 and my father left their marriage that I recognized her tendency, in the company of certain men, to seem not very strong or smart at all but instead wide-eyed, almost worshipful. She listened with a charming tilt of her head. I felt as if I were glimpsing her at a Citadel hop, circa 1957.
My mother was devastated by my father’s leaving, and not just because it left her alone for the first time in 28 years. It also peeled back the cloak of marriage, the seeming safety of forever. It made clear that she had aged and that her age was not, in fact, irrelevant. She was an older woman in a society that likes its women young. My mother spent a lot of time in bed in the early months. Sorrow and a colitis flare-up took off 20 pounds, and she decided to keep the weight off. She got out of bed and bought nicer clothes. Sometimes I would see her in front of a mirror, pulling back the skin from her jawline, letting it fall again and frowning. She consulted her most put-together friends on makeup and started wearing it every day.
By the time my daughter was born, my mother’s makeup seemed like part of her complexion. And one morning, soon after the Bloomingdale’s trauma, Sylvie went to wake my mother in our guest room, found her sans maquillage and once again burst into tears. My mother understood immediately. It made her feel a little bad, but she understood. “Wait just a second, I’ll put on a little makeup,” she said. Sylvie nodded gratefully. “OK,” she sniffed.
When they came downstairs a short while later, Sylvie kept looking from my mother to me. We were familiar to her now—my mother made up, me not—but back and forth she went, her mouth open, as if at any second we might transform. She seemed to be silently exclaiming, “How many faces these women wear!” I felt a pang of sorrow. Some trust had been stretched, but that wasn’t all. Sylvie is a girl, after all. She knows that she, too, will become a woman someday. And here she was getting a glimpse of how strange and mysterious and possibly scary that might be. She stared and stared at us, too young even to feel shame.
Between that morning and now, I’ve managed to develop a beauty regimen as unique and haphazard as my mother’s. Many days, I wear no makeup at all. Others, I use under-eye highlighter and a flick of mascara. For social or professional events, I break out the foundation, layer on some shadow and line my eyes and lips (thanks to the Bobbi Brown whiz who patiently showed me how).
Each version of my face has become familiar enough to Sylvie that she rarely comments. Yet recently, when I heard her coming down the hall as I was putting on mascara, I panicked and shoved the tube into a drawer. That made me realize I’d gotten comfortable with a double standard: Her knowing about my makeup was one thing, but seeing me apply it? I thought of my mother self-correcting her sagging jawline in the mirror and how she might have felt equally uncomfortable if she’d seen me watching her. Then I wondered, But why? Does hiding our own insecurities and efforts actually encourage our daughters to be stronger women? Could pretending not to care about our beauty or age be just as corrosive as caring too much? Maybe the point isn’t to model total, unattainable confidence for Sylvie but to let her see the real me, with all my contradictions intact.
The next time I heard her coming, I continued applying my mascara.
“Is that grownup stuff?” she asked.
I told her it was.
“Can I put on lipstick?”
I smiled apologetically. “You mean lip balm?”
“Lipstick. Just for pretend?”
I sat down on her step stool, opened a tube of bright pink lipstick and showed her how to hold her mouth. “Now press your lips together,” I said once I was done. Sylvie pursed her lips, wiggled them this way and that and somehow spread the lipstick an inch wide around her mouth. She dabbed at it with her finger, then touched her cheeks, her forehead, her chin. She smiled, pink faced and radiant. “Do I look beautiful?”