She sits on a tufted swivel chair and regards herself in the lighted vanity mirror, her face softened by the low wattage bulbs. She rotates slightly into profile and pokes her index finger around the contours of her eye socket, raising her brows in surprise or furrowing them in mock distress. She moves along the perimeter of her face, sucking in her cheeks, pushing here, prodding there, until she’s completed her grand tour.
Shifting her attention, she looks at me with a seriousness normally seen only in national security briefings and discloses the secret password: Contour.
Welcome to the inner sanctum of beauty, aka my niece’s bedroom where I am about to be schooled in the art of sculpting, highlighting, and something called “feathering.” I’m in town for her bat mitzvah, and we’re making a dry run before the big day. I am a bit shocked to learn that at 13, she has enough products to open her own Sephora and appears to know more about giving great face than the Kardashians combined, certainly, more than her aunt Cathy.
“What’s that for?” I ask, pointing to a shimmering powder in the shade of what I would label “the undead.”
“It brings out your cheekbones,” she answers. “You can also use it under the arch of your eyebrows,” she continues, speaking slowly should I decide to take notes. “For a more rested look.”
Oh how the tables have turned. There was a time, you see, when I was the Estée Lauder in the family. I’d take Amtrak home from NYC, where I was working as an assistant manager in Bloomingdale’s Now, a department on the fabled store’s fourth floor that carried ready-to-wear stalwarts like Ellen Tracy and Adrienne Vittadini.
Arriving home, I’d unload my big city makeup bag on the counter in the bathroom. My mother, who was usually highly critical, disparaging my all-black wardrobe (“When I was in school,” she once remarked, “only easy girls wore black.”) and whatever I had on my feet (“I knew a girl who wore shoes like that,” she said upon seeing my Doc Martens, “And then she fixed her club foot”), would hover by the bathroom door whenever I performed my beauty routine, watching me like a cat.
“Just curious,” she’d say, as I’d douse a tiny comb with hairspray and run it through my eyebrows, a trick I had learned at the Chanel counter at work.
Before moving to Manhattan, I was a small-town Jewish girl from Connecticut, who wore a fat tube of Bonne Bell Black Cherry Lipsmacker around her neck. Back then, it was all about making our mouths slick and scented and what I remember most about our first dips into boy-girl parties were not the boys I kissed, but the taste of cinnamon Kissing Potion. That was as far as we went.
My mother, a six-foot tall beauty who wouldn’t take out the trash unless she was in full makeup, would chase me around the house with her tube of Revlon’s Love That Red. “Put on your lipstick,” she’d say. “You never know who’s around the corner.”
What was around the corner for me was a new and glamorous life in New York. I traded in my Bonne Bell for YSL, which cost a fortune and came in gleaming rectangular gold case. I’d spend an inordinate amount of time getting ready for Saturday nights out on the town, hours that would put my niece to shame, hours that were wasted once my roommate and I hit the dance floor, our faces a landslide of foundation and mascara.
During that period, I was proposed to, quite a bit, by men in need of green cards. My mastery of makeup was a shallow competency compared to the finesse of these men—Serbian, Moroccan, Irish, French—who were more attracted to the gullibility of a girl from the suburbs than the shadow quads that played up my green eyes.
There were disappointments. Oh, there were disappointments. I almost said yes to the Serbian guy with the movie star looks, who promised he’d convert to Judaism and become a rabbi in order to gain my father’s acceptance. He then spent an entire day in my apartment, drinking vodka and making long distance calls, skipping town and leaving me with a $400 bill.
It was my mother, as always, who stepped in and warned me about falling for another pretty face. “Looks fade,” she said, a prophetic lesson that has since proven true over and over again.
There was another side to our interest in makeup, it turned out. During the era where, if you were born pretty, you did everything in your power to stay pretty, my mother still refused to trade on her good looks or allow me to do the same. If she were still alive, she may have stood at my niece’s doorway, coveting the fully loaded vanity table, yes. But, like me, she’d also worry about the pitfalls of a culture so consumed by selfies and snapchat and surface-level achievement.
And what about me? For the past four years, I’ve been without a mother and all the advice, solicited or not, that this role brings with it. And since my son Leo came into the picture, I am painfully aware that so many of us who have children later in life are motherless at a significant time. Underneath the artifice of makeup, the face I wear is naked and older than my years. There are days when I think, How can I do any of this without her?
It’s then when I hear her voice. “Pull yourself together and put on some blush,” she’d say, sounding like Bette Davis. If you create the illusion of competence, maybe you’ll feel it, too.
Before I leave the bedroom, my niece hands me a list written on notebook paper that she’s entitled “recommendations.” There is a big focus on under eye concealers.
Is there anything I can teach her, I wonder, as she enters the world of adulthood? That the years ahead will bring losses and crushing disappointments that no amount of concealer can cover? That to be accepted, to be popular, to have a happy life—which is all my mother ever wanted for me—is the aggregate of so much more than just the face we show the world? I want her to know that “leaning in” with shimmering cheekbones will only get you so far in a society that insists on judging women so harshly, and that cultivating the layers beneath our skin is the only way to really, truly thrive.
But for now, there’s nothing wrong with a little lipstick.