Stories of My Mother, #6

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Meanwhile, my mother came home from her weekly hair appointments sporting a face that seemed only vaguely reminiscent of the one she had left with. In her her eagerness to embrace the day and to sell her wares, Gretta sent my mother home each week with shockingly inappropriate eye make-up and a passel of samples. We tried to be kind. But the colors that were smeared across my mother’s eye lids were truly an assault to both nature and my mother.

My mother never did “do” her eyes on a daily basis, but on the now-rare occasions when she and my father went out for the evening, she would spread Gretta’s samples across her bathroom counter, stand in front of her room-sized mirror and attack the job at hand in much the same way that she attacked gardening. My mother, in fact, had no eyelashes. Well, damn few, in the sense that what hairs did manage to sprout forth happened to be sparse, fine, blonde, and exceptionally short. Nonetheless, my mother grasped her eyelash curler (a medieval contraption I tried a small handful of times to largely painful and highly undesired results – meaning I either ripped out more eyelashes than I “curled,” or I ended up with lashes that formed a severe right angle, heading straight OUT for a short distance, and then straight UP) with no end of determination for the task at hand.

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Mascara of the day bore little resemblance to the technological marvel of lengthening, thickening, volumizing, curling, smudge-proof, waterproof, lash-defining, no-clump, lash-separating types that incorporate resins, waxes, nylon fibers, and light-reflecting particles that overwhelm us today. My mother’s mascara was a brownish goo that I’m pretty sure was actually a combination of shoe polish and cold cream. The applicator wand was essentially a screw, much like one would find at the local hardware store, where the tarry goo insinuated itself between the threads of the screw. Once my mother had curled her lashes, swiped the mascara screw across their length, then repeated the entire process a second time…well, it’s difficult to describe the end result. It did look as if my mother had something coming out from the edges of her eyelids – not eyelashes, exactly, but something.

My mother relished the idea that Gretta’s little eye shadow samples had taken a page directly from Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 role as Cleopatra. Like Gretta’s miscarriages, my mother followed the news of Taylor’s frightening health scare that nearly ruined the production, her great love affair with Richard Burton, and the charming fact that once married, she referred to herself as Betty Burton. So. My mother stood before me, clumps of…something… on her lash line where her real lashes had once been, colors that could scarcely be imagined swathed across her lids; and as a final touch, a kiss of lipstick in one of the exact pale, frosted shades that I had recently tossed away. In her gown, and her glory, my mother asked me how she looked.

I loved my mother. I said she looked just swell.

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Stories of My Mother, #5

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Everything changed the year that I was 13, and before my 14th birthday I had tossed out my last jar of Dippity-Do, deep-sixed my hair curlers, and thrown away a large number of white and pink-white and nearly-white tubes of frosted lipstick. Even though I was slightly late to the party, I considered myself A Hippie, and pared my wardrobe down to one pair of jeans that were long enough to abrade the bottoms in an artful fashion, a pair of moccasins that I wore in all weather conditions, 4 identical mock turtleneck sweaters in different colors for winter, and four men’s T-shirts for summer.

Suddenly everyone who had been desperately trying to get their hair to hold a curl was straightening it! I grew my hair to my waist and beamed when people asked me regularly if I ironed it to get it so straight! I was a Natural Woman. I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning. My mother was actually quite accepting of the changes in My Look, never getting especially excited when I came home with frozen feet from wearing moccasins in mid-winter, or put the same pair of jeans in the laundry time after time (though jeans were not meant to look clean at this time – we doodled on them with ink pens, and if we didn’t smoke ourselves, we co-opted friends’ cigarettes any chance we got, so we could grind the ashes into our jeans to create a look that was just so.)

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My mother drew the line at the bra thing, however. She commenced in giving me anatomical lectures about the Cooper’s ligament, and how I was putting myself and my 14-year-old breasts in danger of developing a ghastly condition known as “Cooper’s Droop,” due to my poor, unsupported B-size breasts being unable to support their own massive weight, the ligaments stretching under the immense strain, and ending up with – Cooper’s Droop. Her own mother had suffered this fate, she told me. Being a fashion victim of the 1920’s, the “flapper era” when women’s ideal appearance was flat-chested, my grandmother had bound up her ample bosom, resulting in – Cooper’s Droop. My mother alleged that things degenerated to the point where my grandmother had to lift her breasts out of the way in order to fasten her belt. My mother attempted to horrify me even further by saying that at least it was easier for grandmother to see the breast lumps she kept developing.

I was unfazed. Cooper’s Droop be damned. My girls were set free.

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Stories of My Mother, #4

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Over the two decades that my mother and I cohabited the planet, her beauty regimen changed very little. She switched from doing her hair herself to having it “done” each week at a salon. She chose a style which was highly constructed, bore no relationship to anything hair would ever do on its own, but could last a full week between salon visits and look astonishingly unchanged. Sometimes I would lie in bed and think about her hair remaining unwashed for an entire week. And looking the same! Occasionally I dreamed of plants starting to grow in my own hair that I would have to painstakingly pull out of my scalp, making sure to get the entire root without breaking the little sprigs.

My mother discovered the great joy that many women of the time shared – the weekly visit to the hairdresser! She returned with her curled and lacquered coif in bubbly good spirits that carried through the rest of the day. Each week we would hear new tales of Don and Gretta, the husband and wife owners of the shop. Don was clearly the front man of the outfit – the chatty, convivial, completely non-threatening, [cough*straight*cough] charmer that anyone would want to tell their troubles and secrets to. By early 1960’s suburban Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania standards (ouch), Gretta was Glamor itself – meaning she came off as adorable (rather than trashy or “cheap”) in her bleached-platinum, cat-eye made up, slim. capri-sporting way. She was quiet, letting Don do the heavy lifting of the conversing. Quite slender and petite, she also gave the impression of perhaps just a hint of fragility, a hint that expanded considerably once she experienced a number of Tragic Miscarriages. My mother was all aflutter about poor Gretta, taking each of the miscarriages, and Greta’s increasing quiet, totally to heart; with the news of a third miscarriage, I came home from school to an open bottle of Anacin on the kitchen counter alongside a note saying she had taken to her bed, but that she had every intention of rallying in time to have supper on the table at the usual stroke of six o’clock.

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Gretta never did carry a pregnancy to term; she and Don never had a baby. But her tragic situation touched the hearts of her middle-aged patronage deeply. Meaning – business boomed. She and Don expanded into a brand new shop with considerably more space and more staff, and they began carrying a wide array of beauty products – including make-up!

Sadly, perhaps, this coincided with my own entrance into the 1960’s. In junior high, as it was called back then, I had endured the torture of setting my stick-straight hair in rollers that I slept on at night, even though my poor hair would invariably revert to its natural state well before I got anywhere near the school. I liked to think that I looked mighty fine at the bus stop, and perhaps for a portion of home room as well. At the ripe old age of 12 and 13, I never left the house without a chic coat of mascara and nearly-white lipstick. And, if I were wearing a dress/skirt ( which I was, every day at school, since girls wearing pants was a dream for the future), I wore a girdle. A girdle. At 13. WE ALL DID. And if you don’t think you’ve come a long way baby, read that last sentence one more time.

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Stories of My Mother, #3

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Many years ago I worked with a Chicago theatre ensemble. As ensembles are wont to do, we made every effort to cast our play productions from within our own pool of ten or so actors. An enormous pool of talent existed there, no question; but some of the corp were definitely more versatile in their range than others. None was more versatile, even chameleon-like, than one of our actresses – Lindsay.

When she walked in off the street, with her white-blonde hair, pale blue eyes and inevitable cigarette, Lindsay possessed the demeanor of someone whose strong preference was to remain unnoticed. She offered her greeting, her authentic questions about my own health and well being; then took her seat and immediately seemed to recede, as if she were striving to become one with the chair that held her.

Lindsay could use this trait to amazing advantage on the stage, in roles where she could appear, no be, so worn, and weary, and shrivelled up into some deep phantom of a former self, that her 20-some years seemed completely impossible. On the other hand, Lindsay could walk onto the stage and take your breath completely away. She was radiant, stunning, utterly beautiful.

My mother had this – whatever this is – that comes from some well deep within, and is able convince anyone who looks upon you that you are, in every way, beautiful.

My mother never worked at being beautiful, and in fact, would have considered doing so a shocking waste of time and a bewilderingly superficial focus. She came of age in the late 1930’s and early 40’s, when the makeup regimen of a serious, athletic college girl consisted of dabbing a puff of compact powder on both sides of one’s nose – exactly twice – and applying a good coat of lipstick.

My mother took very little time to get ready each morning. A couple of fast brushes through her hair, dab dab on her nose, a quick and artfully drawn mouth, a glance at both sides of her face. But like Lindsay preparing for the stage, by the time she finished this simple routine, a beautiful woman stared back at her in the mirror.

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Photos of Georgia O’Keefe by Alfred Stieglitz

In memory of Lindsay

Stories of My Mother, #2

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My mother thought of herself as a beautiful woman. I’m not sure how I knew this, but I was sure of it: she went through each day of her life with the confident certainty that her beauty was a given. She never spoke of this, and referred to it only once that I can remember. When I was a mid-range adolescent, maybe 14 or 15, and boys had begun to sniff and circle around our house, my mother said one day, out of the blue: “You definitely have the better body, but I believe that I have the prettier face.”

Even then, in my dewy youth, I thought: what a weird ass thing to say.

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photos by Garry Winogrand, from his book “Women Are Beautiful”

Stories of My Mother

While I continue to mull the future of “Pushing the River” – whether I will put the novel aside, discard it, work on a new, different project alongside it, or attempt to power through a finished first draft — it strikes me as a worthy idea to write something in the meantime. What has been on my mind quite a lot lately is: my mother. Undoubtedly this is because my own two children lost their father in a horrifying bike accident this past August; and it has created rippling echoes of my own first parental loss, when my mother did not wake up one morning in July, nearly forty years ago. She was 56 years old, and I was 20.

Here, then, is the first “Stories of my Mother.”

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My mother hailed from a long line of rail-thin, nasal-voiced, energetic women who were capable and prepared at the drop of a hat to whisk into the kitchen and whip up a corn pudding or a batch of date bars well into their 80’s and 90’s.

My mother’s own mother came from a family of five children – four sisters and one brother – Edna, Lula, Ralph, Nell and Honey. Ralph was apparently a gentle and quiet soul who faded away and died quite young, leaving the four sisters to march into old age and beyond in their own brisk company.

Edna was the eldest, the smallest, the most serious, and arguably the most capable of the batch. The death of her husband in the early years of the 20th century did not deter her from providing a loving home for their only son, while dipping her hand deep into the well of local politics and remaining involved in any number of civic organizations that endeavored to protect the excellent quality of life she found in Grove City, Pennsylvania. All the sisters had snow white hair from an early age, yet never seemed to change much after that. It could scarcely be believed when the day arrived, in her early 90’s, when Edna registered mild annoyance at her son when he asked her how to spell a distant cousin’s name – Becky – and she replied “B-E- eck – eck – Y.”

It was when my mother gardened that she most strongly exhibited her damn-the-torpedoes heritage.

I was born in the 1950’s to a physician father and a homemaker mother who had earned a PhD in Biochemistry. She worked as a chemist and physicist during World War II, helped write the first full assay of Vitamin C, then elected to stay home with her babies and never looked back. She committed to being a wife, mother, PTA member, churchgoer, bridge player, etc., with the square-jawed determination that I can only assume a woman would need in abundance to earn a PhD in a science in the late 1940’s.

Just as Donna Reed, June Cleaver, and their ilk would have you believe, women of this era lived their lives in dresses and skirts. In shirt-waist A-lines, or slim pencils, they cooked, cleaned, chauffeured, reprimanded, volunteered, and – if they were especially efficient and read the right ladies’ magazines – greeted their hard-working husbands at the door with a cheerful smile, a well-mixed cocktail, and the aroma of Big Meat wafting through the household.

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Women wore trousers only if the situation deemed this indignity inescapable. If it was blazing hot, it was acceptable to wear “pedal pushers,” a trouser also sometimes called “clam diggers,” but relegated mostly to Californians, bicycle riders, and teenagers dying to adopt new and shocking trends. Once in a great while the temperature and humidity would soar well beyond the pedal pushers zone, and my mother would unearth her shorts for an afternoon of gardening.

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Despite the fact that skirts still hovered just below the knee back then, and pedal pushers hit at nearly the same latitude, shorts of the time were alarmingly, well, short. Though it happened two or three times each summer, I never felt prepared for the sight of my mother dressed head to toe in clothes that never saw the light of day otherwise – white Keds sneakers, thin nylon ankle socks folded down in precise cuffs, extraordinarily short shorts, and sleeveless button down blouses with impossible color combinations of checks and plaids.

I may as well come out and say it: the sight of my mother’s mile-long, stick-thin, never-seen-a-drop-of-sun, otherwise skirt-covered legs horrified me. I was humiliated and embarrassed and saddened well before the age that all daughters are horrified and embarrassed by their mothers. I immediately went about the business of planning an afternoon inside the house, safely behind closed black-out drapes.

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My mother gathered up her armament of tools with the precision of a scientist who had tested munitions during World War II. She inserted her hands into her cracked, worn leather garden gloves with the care and confidence of a veteran surgeon. She approached an afternoon of gardening as her many generations of Naval officer family members undoubtedly approached their duty to protect their country. And though I could not bear to look at my mother’s frighteningly pale, spindly legs, I understood completely that when my mother returned to the house in the late afternoon – without a hair out of place or a drop of sweat on her brow – not a weed, nor a withered stalk, nor an unsightly rock would remain in the extensive garden borders. Not a one.

I Am Just As Surprised As You Are

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Those of you loyal and intrepid souls who have followed my blog posts of “Pushing the River” – my third novel-in-progress — well, undoubtedly you have noticed the rather vast silence of the past couple months.

It was nearly two years ago when I was enjoying a glass of wine with my friend Mary, regaling her with the latest tales of my extended family and trying to make some sense of it all. The number of people residing in my home kept growing, and with it an increasing quiet chaos and sense of foreboding, inescapable doom. Between sips (or perhaps gulps, by that point) of wine, I told Mary that I was seriously considering beginning a third novel sparked by the events taking place in my house. Without missing a beat she said, “Ha! And it should be told from the point of view of the house itself!”

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Viola. Inspiration. As it usually occurs – as a completely unexpected bolt from the blue in the form of an idea I could steal outright from someone else and make my own.

Life has thrown some pretty good punches since I began work on “Pushing the River” – just as life is wont to do. I have a decent one hundred or so pages, much of which I am reasonably pleased to re-read and know the words are mine. But the strangest thing has happened. I seem to have lost interest. In all of it! Even stranger – my friend and fellow writer Rita apparently saw this coming, and told me this recently over a shared glass of wine.* (*Obviously, there is a critical causation at work here; I must heed it and continue to drink wine regularly with good friends.) Rita (correctly) had the belief that this book, as I originally explained its conception to her, would need to be written quickly, almost breathlessly, to pour out a first draft while the fire of the original idea was hot within me. In some sort of shaman-like wisdom, Rita foresaw that if I couldn’t churn it out fast, the combination of me and the idea would lose momentum.

Well, here I am, just as surprised as you are.

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