By Patricia Conover
Most of the time, my mother was what is dismissively called “a housewife,” although in truth, housework was the least of it.
She was the wife of a hard-driving executive who left home before we awoke, and returned after we were asleep. She was the mother of five children. She was a dutiful daughter whose parents lived nearby. My mother’s parents depended on her for doctor visits and beauty parlor appointments and trips to the library.
My mother did everything, from driving the kids to school and fencing practice and ballet lessons, to shopping for and preparing every meal, to picking up prescriptions, to painting the kitchen, to planting the garden, to mowing the lawn.
She usually wore starched white cotton blouses (a habit from her years at Villa Maria Academy, a Catholic boarding school in New York) and khaki trousers, ironed to within an inch of their lives. She seldom wore makeup. She tied her chin-length chestnut hair up in a short ponytail, sometimes with a pen stuck in the elastic band so that she could find it easily when she had to sign a school permission slip or write a grocery list.
We lived in a typical 60’s style colonial in New Jersey, with swings and fruit trees and a backyard that stretched to a running brook with tiny iridescent fish. When we were bored, my brother and I walked to the golf course at the end of our street to sell lemonade to men wearing plaid trousers.
My mother’s life was constrained by children and the house that contained them. Although she had studied art, and the hall closet was crammed with her paintings of blossoming cherry trees or fields of lavender, she rarely lifted her easel off its hook in the garage, where it was wedged unceremoniously between rusting bicycles and old snow tires.
Like every fairy tale, my mother’s story during those years had a little magic in it, when her world shimmered with the same palette as the paintings in the closet. The magic happened when my mother became someone else entirely. During those few hours she came to life before my eyes, like Cinderella after her fairy godmother arrives.
The glamorous woman my mother became on these occasions seemed to me to be my real mother. I wasn’t crazy about the barefaced, pony-tailed mother. I preferred the movie star mother. It took me years to realize that a woman can have many roles, and that each one has its own dignity, beauty and importance. You don’t have to choose just one.
My mother’s metamorphoses occurred on Saturdays when she dressed for a night out on the town with my father. As I grew up, these formal evenings became more and more rare, as our family expanded and my mother’s responsibilities increased. But when I was very young, she and my father went out fairly regularly, and she established a routine for getting ready.
Now, all those fairy tale nights have coalesced into one memory: It was an anniversary or a birthday, and my parents were going to a Broadway show. I can’t recall what they saw. I only remember what happened in my mother’s bedroom before she went out the door.
In those early years, as my mother prepared, I sat quietly on her white chenille bedspread and watched her “put on her face.”
It was the Mad Men era. Mother sipped a dry martini. She was not a big drinker like the characters on the television show, but there was nothing wrong with a martini while preparing one’s face for an evening out. It took the edge off. (To this day I am addicted to Spanish olives.)
My mother had spent most of the afternoon at the hair salon, and her dark mane was perfectly coiffed. Her hair framed her heart-shaped face, a delicate wave brushing against her chin on each side.
I can close my eyes and see her, sitting at her mirrored vanity table, applying her makeup. A child of the forties, the lessons of the great film legends were not lost on her. As a teenager coming of age in Manhattan, she devoured all the beauty magazines. She learned how to accentuate the positive from publicity stills of stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe.
Mother always used a new makeup sponge to apply a light coat of foundation. Next came the rose powder blush, which she applied with a thick sable brush. Then, she carefully shaded the hollows beneath her cheekbones with a darker shade of pink.
Mother curled her dark eyelashes and piled on black-as-night mascara. Her eyes, which she described as “hazel,” were actually a mossy green, fringed with a halo of dazzling gold. Her irises looked like tiny dark suns with shining golden rays.
I once told her that she had eyes like a lioness. My father agreed and said that she should, because she was one.
Once, I told her from my perch on the bed that I thought she was using too much mascara. This was later on, after I had begun reading Seventeen magazine, which declared the natural look “in.”
She turned to me and said, “I don’t follow trends. I do what works for me. Don’t forget to do what’s best for you when you’re a grown-up.”
Now, the recommendations my mother gave me in those days seem decidedly metaphorical, but at the time, her advice just seemed like a make-up lesson to remember.
Mascara applied several times, Mother stood and walked into her closet.
She drew her dress carefully out of its sealed hanging black storage bag, which looked a little like a shroud. She slipped the dress over her head and said, “Zip, please.”
I hopped off the bed to zip her up. Mother had several fabulous dresses, most of them several years old, but that didn’t matter. Everything she owned was classic and timeless.
And there was another lesson: A dress doesn’t have to be new or trendy to be sensational.
That goes for dresses and just about everything else, too.
I loved the cocktail dress she chose. It fit snugly at the bodice and flared at the waist. The sleeveless top was black velvet and the skirt was white brocade. Mother took great pride in her twenty-four inch waist.
Smoking a pack of Winstons every day helped her keep her weight down through five pregnancies.
She stepped into black patent leather pumps and checked to be certain that her nylons were perfectly aligned.
Now that she was wearing her dress, my mother did not sit down again. She leaned into the mirror and lined her lips with a thin brush. Then, she filled her lips in with deep bluish-red lipstick. She only had three lipsticks, all Revlon, in shimmering golden tubes, lined up like little toy soldiers on a mirrored tray. She used the same colors, one red, one pink, one coral, year after year.
A lipstick doesn’t have to be new or trendy to be fabulous. I was learning, but I didn’t know it yet.
Lastly, my mother sprayed some Chanel #5 into the air and walked into it. This was so characteristic of her. She didn’t believe that one should spray perfume directly on the skin. Whenever we went shopping at Bonwit Teller or Bloomingdale’s, perky young things rushed toward us, perfume bottles aimed at our necks, chirping, “L’air du temps?” I always said oh yes, please do, but my mother replied firmly, “No, thank you.” The idea of a stranger spritzing a perfume that was not her particular scent on her was not something that she found remotely appealing.
I looked at the clock on the bureau: 6:00 p.m. Mother opened her little black onyx jewelry box and selected the pearl necklace with the gold daisy clip, an engagement gift from my father. She fastened the necklace quickly. She never pierced her ears, and hated the way clip-on earrings felt, so she never wore earrings.
Mother hurried back into her closet.
I adored this particular part of the preparations, although I knew it as the signal that our evening ritual was about to end.
I waited silently on the bed. This was the end of the show. The curtains were about to close.
In moments, my mother would leave. I would hear the car door shut firmly and the engine start. I would watch out the window as the car backed out of the driveway and snaked up the road.
I fought the urge to wrap my arms around her and beg her to stay home. I was afraid of cars driving through long tunnels or over tall bridges, of sirens, of telephone calls bringing bad news in the middle of the night.
But I did not say a word. I was not averse to tantrums, but even at my tender age, before I understood what it means to be a wife and a mother, I knew instinctively that I should not ruin her moment.
Soon I would sit calmly in front of the black-and-white television until our babysitter, Jayne, commanded my brothers and sister and me to brush our teeth and climb into our narrow beds.
But not yet.
Now, Mother was standing before me.
“How do I look?”
She was wearing her white mink coat, the one with the tapered sleeves, shawl collar, and deep satin-lined pockets. It was my favorite, the coat I wore when I pretended that I was Cinderella going to the ball.
“You look like a movie star,” I said.
That was our code for goodbye.
Sometimes, I closed my eyes in anticipation of the last image of my “show.”
Sometimes I imagined a different ending, but it was always the same.
My mother smiled broadly and kissed me ever so lightly on the forehead, on my fringe of bangs.
She couldn’t kiss me on the cheek. That would have smudged her lipstick.
Patricia Conover is a writer, editor and photographer who recently returned to New York after living in Paris for ten years. Patricia has published poetry, short stories, personal essays and hundreds of articles and reviews. She also has taught writing, journalism and new media at EFAP, L’École de communication (the School of Communication) in Paris. Follow her on Twitter: @ParisRhapsody.
Editor’s note: Early in my career at The Oregonian, I met Patricia when she was a young mom who had just moved to Portland from New York. She successfully pitched some story ideas to me and things took off from there. She is a gifted writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The International Herald Tribune, among other places.
Tomorrow: Parfait Bassale, The hidden script