There are no early childhood memories more vivid to me than those of watching my mother putting on her makeup in the morning. Putting on “my face”, she called it. It was a daily ritual that included several cups of coffee, an unbroken chain of cigarettes, and an arsenal of makeup sprawled out on the far left side of the kitchen table. This was the best spot in the house for natural light, and there was a nearby door leading to the Florida room that she would crack, giving her the illusion this was in some way lessening the severity of the cigarette smoke. So for the next 30 some odd years, this would be her spot.
I would sit at that table all of 5 or 6 years old, and through the lingering smoke I would watch her transform. I would sip cold coffee from her cup (this was the early 80’s, people) and observe her artistic approach to painting that stark, black winged eyeliner around those emerald green eyes, making them appear almost electric. Her creamy even- toned alabaster skin slowly showed definition as foundation gave way to powder and finished with blush. The contrast of her jet black eyes and hair against the fairest shade of cosmetics was simply striking. It’s no surprise that for years my friends asked me in whispers if my mother was a real witch. Neighbor kids were legit frightened of her and strangers always snuck a second glance. She never gave a second thought to the opinions of others, and this only added to her aloof eccentricity. Her unusual appearance was quite strategic to be sure, a haunting beauty comprised of equal parts 1960s mod and Elvira. Coupled with her adoration of the bizarre, the whimsical and the macabre, she was, even to me, a figure quite literally clouded in smokey mystique.
Before the liner or the powder, however, came the eyebrows. Like Rembrandt himself I watched as she sculpted eyebrows from thin air, stroke by meticulous stroke. Like magic there was now shape where only moments ago there was none, giving frame to a face that was beginning to appear. The eyebrows always had to match the hair. Over the years I watched them go from jet black, to deep eggplant to her signature auburn. She never left the house without her eyebrows. I once had to wait for her to put on her fucking eyebrows before taking me to the Emergency Room as I writhed in pain from a scratched cornea! The eyebrows always went on first, and many times they remained while she slept. Without those eyebrows she was not herself; she was not complete. I had always planned to film my mother in her morning transition, to document this metamorphosis that literally gave way to a completely different personality. I was always astonished by how the quiet, disheveled, trepid woman who walked into that kitchen upon awakening seemed to walk out of it a lioness, larger than life and self assured. It wasn’t the pot of coffee that sprung her to life, it was a total shift of character. When the makeup went on, the woman I knew as my mother came out, and that was pretty powerful to me.
Naturally, I became interested in makeup quite early on. I became fascinated with the assumed perceptions of others it’s usage afforded. While the other middle school girls were smacking their lips with cutesie glitter bomb glosses, I was lining my 12 year old eyes in jet black just like mom. This correlated fabulously with my broody angry teen years though, I must admit. While my interest in music trumped all else through high school and beyond, I never stopped experimenting with makeup and beauty. My clueless little boyfriends were reluctant and unwitting participants of Noxema cream cleanse sessions and peel off mask makeovers. The ones I really liked were treated to eyeliner and mascara. I lived for transformation and making things pretty. Fast forward years later past the drug induced near failed college experience and the exciting but directionless early adult years that followed. Music became an exhausting fruitless career endeavor and by mid 20s I was back on the path toward my other love: Beauty.
By 26 I was a late-bloomed licensed Esthetician, and the rest is history. While most of my makeup knowledge is self-taught, when I did come across new techniques or looks I was eager to try them out. Only once did I attempt to try a new look on my mother. I was several years into my professional skincare career when I suggested we try a more “natural” look on her. With that one word she quickly froze with terror, and I knew the moment that word left my mouth that this would be disastrous. Amazingly she agreed to the makeover, and to this day, I was never so nervous doing a face. Not in the years of applying makeup to high strung wedding day brides or demanding models to be featured in magazines have my hands shook as violently as they did that day in the kitchen with my mother. We set up right there, in front of her favorite window with the natural light. I sprawled out my makeup kit next to her ashtray. She customarily cracked the door, and we made a pot of coffee. I stroked a soft brush over her lids with a wash of neutral matte beige and replaced that severe black liner with a creamy smudged copper brown. A swirl of gradient browns defined her crease, and her brows were softened in both color and shape. I replaced her boring Cover Girl foundation and powder with divine Chanel and sultry MAC. Once finished I stood speechless at the stripped down beauty in front of me, she was stunning. A far cry from her 60s inspired makeup, she looked 10 years younger and effortlessly modern. But She Hated It. Not one to mince words, she let me know this. Polite enough, she kept it on while I remained at the house.
Of course she hated it, she didn’t recognize the face that looked back at her. I always understood her reliance on makeup to feel confident and pretty, but It wasn’t until that day that I discovered just how enmeshed her makeup and self identity really were. For her makeup wasn’t about emphasizing one’s best features as it is with most, but rather designing the features themselves. Needless to say, the next day she was right back to her signature look, never to deviate from it again. That was mom. The word “change” was about as foreign and frightening as the word “natural’. My biggest sadness in life is not knowing the woman underneath all that makeup. The shy quiet one who entered the kitchen with her eyes drawn to the floor, her demeanor and spirit heavy from the weighted baggage of a tainted childhood from which she never sought help. Despite my tireless efforts to know her, she just would not expose the person who sat in that chair before the makeup went on. Which one was the real Kathy, I will never know.
On this Mother’s day, just as all Mother’s Days that will arrive following her death almost three years ago, I will think of this memory. I close my eyes and can almost smell that familiar and comforting cacophony of aromas coming from the kitchen. A sweet mix of coffee, cigarettes and that distinct powdery, semi floral talc fragrance that wafted from those old timey Cover Girl formulas. Remembering my mother at that table makes me feel close to her. While I can’t escape the seared memory of her death, I choose to think of her when she and I were young. I swell with tears thinking about her last day, in that hospice bed just steps away from the kitchen table where so many precious moments were shared. She looked up at me, strained, as I swiped her favorite tinted balm across her chapped lips because she was too weak to do it herself. So I choose instead to remember her in our old station wagon, touching up her copper red lipstick in the rearview to the melodies of Boy George as I bounced along in the passenger seat. I thought she was gorgeous then, and found her just as gorgeous on that that horrible August evening as she breathed her last while I held her in my arms. And you better believe that even then, somehow, her eyebrows were absolutely perfect.