I recently returned from Florida where I spent a week cleaning out my mother’s house so that I can sell it and pay for the memory care facility where she presently resides. When I finally got around to the bathroom, I groaned. Not because it was filthy or because it stoked my ever-simmering sadness, but because my mother never in her life left the house unless she was wearing makeup.
And oh boy, did she ever have a lot of it.
My mother was the Countess of Cosmetics, the Baroness of Blush. I remember as a child sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching her “put on her face.” I was fascinated by the vast arsenal of products splayed out across her large countertop, mesmerized by the precise, dedicated manner in which she applied the foundation, the liners, the sticks, and the shadows. It seemed like it took her forever, and I can still hear the echo of my father’s impatient voice imploring her to “Come on already.”
By the time I reached the age where many girls begin enthusiastically experimenting with makeup, I wanted nothing to do with it. I was far more interested in embellishing my mind than my face. Instead of blackening my lashes with mascara, I hid in my room darkening my thoughts with Sartre.
It just about killed my mother. She hated that I “didn’t take pride in my appearance,” and she often wondered aloud (jokingly, I think) whether the hospital had handed her the wrong baby by mistake.
Patti Smith put it well when she said, Even as a child, I knew what I didn't want. I didn't want to wear red lipstick.
It wasn’t as if I was trying to make a statement by avoiding makeup, I just preferred how I looked without it. I preferred how all women looked without makeup, and didn’t really understand why they would want to hide their natural beauty behind artificial colors.
Most of my girlfriends wore makeup, I guess because it made them feel better about themselves. They knew how I felt, but still they often ganged up on me before a high school dance, pleading with me to bedaub my face with synthetic color, insisting that I would look prettier. Better. Sexier.
I always resisted. Regardless of peer pressure, media pressure, or maternal pressure, I knew I was never ever going to wear makeup. Not for any friend. Not for any man. Not for any reason.
Long ago, before most Russians even knew there was such a thing as the Internet, I was living in Seattle in a tiny studio apartment on the top floor of a five-floor building overlooking Highway 5. I had a minuscule deck outside my window where I would sit and smoke while watching the ever-rushing traffic below me. If I craned my neck just so, I could see the Space Needle shooting up between two ugly office buildings.
After crawling back through the window, I’d sit at my desk-cum-dining room table and research possible markets for a genetics software program that my super-smart friend Tim was creating to allow breeders – cow, cat, plant, you name it – to input genetic data into a graphic interface. If he ever finished writing the code, it was going to take the software world by storm. While waiting for Tim to deliver me a shrink-wrap-ready product I got a call from my father, asking me if I wanted to go to Russia.
“To do what?” I asked with ignited interest. I mean, Russia? Boris Yeltsin had recently been elected President and the country was throwing open its previously-shuttered doors to the rest of the world. I wanted to be one of the first tourists to step through.
“You’d be selling makeup,” my father replied.
The cosmetics giant, Maybelline, had recently transitioned their ubiquitous blue-colored packaging to an au courant black, and now they needed to unload a few million units of the old stuff. My father, a man who was forever spawning some unconventional deal, somehow fell in with the owner of the corporate trading company charged with selling off the démodé eye shadows and blushes and lipsticks to fashion-starved Russian women. In order for my father to be in on the arrangement, he needed to come up with a sales rep.
He picked me, the woman who knew nothing about selling makeup, let alone applying it.
“Oh, and you’re going to peddle your own skincare line too,” he continued. “The company will create it for you.”
“Yeah, I figured you should go over there as a...a personality, you know? Like an American starlet. They’ll eat it up. Your new name is going to be Lissa. Lissa Cazzel.”
“But I have no idea how to—”
“You’re going to have a ball, Lissa Cazzel,” he said, interrupting me before I could list my concerns. “You fly to New York next week.”
So it was that I allowed a Vietnamese woman to glue long red acrylic fingernails over my own short unpainted ones. I submitted to makeup lessons, using only Maybelline products. I slathered baby blue eye shadow across my lids and fiery orange lipstick over my lips because women in Russia, I learned, lusted for those colors.
I was outfitted with a new sexy skin-hugging wardrobe. I agreed to wear very high ankle-cracking heels and lots of costume bling after I stored away my Tibetan yak bone choker that I'd bought at a crafts fair in Portland.
I assessed my eponymous product line, sniffing the bath gels and rubbing the lotions onto my skin. They smelled like cheap perfume. When I suggested a more subtle scent, I was told that women in Russia love strong smells. The stronger the better.
Two weeks later, I landed in Saint Petersburg with two suitcases full of clothes and eight boxes filled with makeup and Lissa Skincare products, and checked into Hotel Astoria, the same hotel where Hitler had planned to celebrate his conquest over the city (good thing that party never got started).
You know what? Other than having the hardest time removing my contact lenses with my red talons, I did have a ball. I traveled all over Russia and Czechoslovakia, and even into parts of Finland, meeting with beauty shop owners and store managers and government officials (as well as un-officials).
Every morning I awoke before dawn so that I had enough time to “put on my face” – my very painted face – before rushing to meet Tanya, my interpreter, in front of the hotel. (As she was a Russian citizen, armed guards barred her from entering the hotel.)
Besides helping negotiate business deals, Tanya was also my tour guide and companion. She instructed me to stay silent and look angry as she pushed me along the much shorter Russian-Only lines at museums and other tourist attractions.
Tanya protected me from making bad decisions. During a business dinner, a Georgian businessman asked me to marry his son, a war hero. When he showed me his photo, I almost accepted his proposition on the spot, the guy was so handsome. Tanya leaned forward and, with a false smile on her face so the Georgian wouldn’t know what she was saying, told me that the son had been shot in the head during the war and was presently in a vegetative state. His father desperately wanted his son to receive better medical care and figured it’d help if he married an American starlet.
Since no business deal in Russia can ever be closed without first making many toasts with many shots of vodka, Tanya also taught me how to drink for hours at a time without falling face-first into my borscht and effectively blowing the sale. Which is why, when I finally departed Russia, I gladly gifted Tanya the rest of my samples. She would have enough blue eye shadow to last her a few lifetimes. It wasn’t as if I had any use for them. The moment I landed back home, I cleaved off my fingernails, scrubbed my clogged pores clean, and went back to being au naturale.
My mother kept a framed photo of me from when I was in Russia, the one where I looked “so beautiful.” It wasn’t that my mother didn’t think I was beautiful. She just loved makeup so much, she couldn’t help herself.
Mom couldn’t help herself the day I got married either. After she fastened the back of my wedding gown – a 1960s dress from Paris that I bought at a consignment shop – I turned around to face her. Of course I expected her to say, “You look beautiful.”
Instead she said, “Would it kill you to wear a little lipstick?”
Sure, I’d compromised my anti-makeup beliefs to go to Russia. I also knew it would make my mother wildly happy to see her only daughter wearing makeup on her wedding day. Yes, there was a small part of me that thought my wedding album might shine a little brighter if I smeared some color across my skin, but in the end, I really wanted to be my best unmade self that day.
“No,” I stated with a small smile. “I want Victor to recognize me when I walk down the aisle.”
I’ve always thought my mother was more beautiful without makeup, but the only time I ever saw her facially naked was in the mornings when she awoke or sometimes late at night if I went to sleep after she did. As she read her book in bed I’d lean over her to kiss her goodnight, silently breathing in her clean clear skin. I loved it when she didn’t smell like artificial dyes.
She smells like that now. Now that she no longer wears makeup. Now that she needs to be reminded how to use a phone. Now that she has no idea what day it is. Now that dementia is taking over her brain.
She’s still adept at conversation. She remembers the distant past, but has no idea what she ate for lunch. She recognizes people, but often sees or hears people who are not there, like her dead mother or my brother who lives in California. Remarkably, she doesn’t seem to care about her face anymore and leaves her room in the morning completely fresh-faced, straight from the shower.
Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want to look at her own face anymore and so putting on makeup has become more of a burden than a desire. The woman who used to check her makeup in every mirror she passed now avoids them. I wonder if it’s because when she glances in the mirror she sees the shadows framing her reflection, the ones that are slowly smothering her mind.
I filled two Hefty bags with the leftover makeup from my mother’s bathroom. Part of me was grateful she no longer needed it. Grateful that she will spend her remaining days looking like her real self, even though so much of that self no longer exists.
I miss her. I don’t miss her criticizing my looks or my lack of fashion sense, but I sort of miss the painted lady that she was, the woman who cared too much about what other people thought about her looks.
She was beautiful then and she’s beautiful now. Just a different kind of beautiful.