My movie star mother

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Like so many in the Sixties, Joan was a do-it-all housewife during the week. On Saturday nights, she transformed into her real self — a glamorous woman made up for a night on the town.

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.”

PC Joan and my brother

Joan holds her first-born child, the author’s brother.

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.

PC patricia

Patricia Conover: Back in the U.S.A.

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

21 thoughts on “My movie star mother

  1. I remember the same scenarios on Sat., Patricia. The shoes, matching clutches, the transformation. I remember one Sat. taking my Mom’s lipstick and writing, “I love you, Mommy” on her vanity mirror. She never erased it, as long as she owned it. As a mother, I now know why. Thanks for the trip down memory lane. What a time it was!

    • Hi Lori, Thank you so much for your lovely comments. I remember writing notes to my mom on her vanity mirror, too! It was another time and there were advantages and disadvantages. Taking the time to prepare for a romantic date with one’s significant other was a woman’s prerogative then and it is now just about a lost art. Today, it is fairly common for mothers of young children to work out at the gym or go running–sometimes daily. I think that is a healthy alternative to a few hours of primping in front of a mirror once every few months. Still, I’m happy to have this wonderful childhood memory of my mother.

  2. Your mom looks every inch the movie star. You must be very proud of her. I felt like I was sitting on the bed with you. A loving anecdote, well told.

    • Hi John, Thank you for your lovely comment. Your words mean so much. My mom was incredibly beautiful and glamourous, but that’s not the only reason I’m proud of her. My father died when I was a freshman in high school. Mom was only forty years old, with five children aged three to sixteen, and she rose to the challenge. She raised all of us with sheer will, determination, love, grit and faith. With every year I love and respect her more. Mom died sixteen years ago and I still think about her every single day.

  3. I totally agree with John. So much vivid description throughout. One of my favorite passages:

    “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.”

    • Hi George, They say that the eyes are the window of the soul and I believe it. My mother’s eyes reflected both warmth and a wary sensibility. I understand her so much better now than I did when I was young. I guess that is one of the many gifts of living a long time…

  4. Wow – thank you for letting me sit on the edge of your bed and watch your mom prepare for her Saturday night date with your dad … such details! I almost smelled her perfume and heard the swish of her skirt. Nicely done.

  5. I never thought reading about a woman putting on her makeup could be so interesting! Thinking back, I realize now, I used to watch my mother getting her face ready as well. Something that belonged only to her younger days and seems unreal now. I’m sure it would not have been something my brother ever noticed.

    Beautiful portrayal of your mother. This said it all:
    “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.”

  6. An excellent, well-written memory. Ahhhhh. I would love for my kids to remember me as a movie star mom. The other day they called me the macaroni mom. Sigh.
    “The idea of a stranger spritzing a perfume that was not her particular scent on her was not something that she found remotely appealing.” Agreed!

  7. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful, intimate memory of your mother. I don’t wear makeup often but my 3 year old has taken an interest when I do. This makes me wonder what she’ll remember of her mama putting on her makeup later on (who currently doesn’t wear earrings because the baby pulls them) and .

  8. Patricia Conover, what a wonderful piece! You so deftly re-created a time and place that is a part of you, and did so in a way that carries each of us back to our own childhood recollections. How we see our parents changes with our own years, and that time when our parents are just our world is fascinating. Thank you!

  9. Wonderfully evocative writing. Despite the fact that I grew up in South Africa, my mother was going through the same rituals on a Saturday night. Now that she has dementia and can’t look after herself in the same way, I find the memories that this story evokes so much more poignant.

  10. How lovingly and vividly you remember these magical moments with your Mother. I especially like how you point out that women, Mothers, can be many things and don’t need to be locked into one particular role. Her “beautiful pastels of lavender fields stuffed unceremoniously in between old hockey skates” really stirred me. So often – in taking on the role of Wife and Mother-and Dutiful Daughter- women forget their other passions – the things that make their hearts sing just for themselves. Not that kids and husbands do not bring as much, if not more, joy:) . It’s just a different kind of fulfillment or channel for one’s love.
    You really are a gifted story-teller. I smell the Chanel and see the line-up of Revlon lipstick soldiers on the fancy mirrored vanity… the car snaking up the driveway to whisk the white-mink clad movie star away from her sweet, adoring little girl to another very special place. One where she is ready for her close-up after working so hard behind the scenes all the week long! BRAVO Madame Conover!

  11. what a wonderful and beautiful description of a ritual you and your mother had every Saturday night. I too had that with my mom. I had forgotten the magic and the aura in the room as she transformed herself into the movie star. You write beautifully and with ease, and it was a pleasure to read.

  12. Thank you so much for this memory. My mother and father did the same every Saturday night and my stay at home mom became Grace Kelly with her sparkling blue eyes and pink lipstick. She always wore an off white mink stole on these occasions and I remember sneaking into her closet just to smell the scent of Chanel #5 on that stole. Thank you, thank you.

  13. We should all be reminded every day of the loveliness of our mothers! I know for certain that my own mother’s words and advice are more precious to me now (in my late 40’s) than they have ever been in my life. Thank you, Patricia!

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