I never thought my Mother was pretty when I was growing up. She was a big woman who needed oxygen to survive and I was resentful of her weight, her mostly sour attitude as she battled the demons of mental illness and of her oxygen tanks that brought her all the unnecessary attention that later drove her to agoraphobia.
I never thought my Mother was attractive and I spent most of my childhood wanting nothing more than to distance myself from her. I relished in being compared to my Father while shuddered at being compared to her. My earliest memories of her were comparing her to Ursula from The Little Mermaid as the two in my mind had a similar haircut, built and attitude.
But my Father was not the only one who took a lot of photographs. By nature of who my Mother was, she was photographed. And it took nearly a decade of her being committed to her eternal rest for me to realize something: my Mother was beautiful, but that doesn’t mean she was perfect.
Mother was, from what my family has told me, always someone who cared deeply about her appearance. She was the first of five children and being the oldest had its perks and responsibilities. I never got to hear many stories of the woman she was before she married my Father but from what I knew, she wanted not for men or for male attention. Most of the photos I have of my Mother from the time that existed before my Father and well before I was even a concept were her with one of the many male callers that dotted her life experience.
I never understood what my Father saw in my Mother in all those strange Electra complex ways a young girl does when she thinks about her parents.
My Mother wore a ton of makeup. Personally, as a child, I resented such a thing. She was always so heavily painted that it angered me. It was like mask she wore to hide something, she was invincible because of eyeshadow or she was omnipotent because of blush. I always wondered what she was hiding or why she felt the need to wear so much makeup. The photos I have of her only seem to remind me that she had always been that way.
When I was in middle school and was getting ready for Halloween that year dressed as Maid Marion she gave me such aggressive blue eyeshadow that went from the bottom of my small lash line to the top of my eyebrow and that couldn’t have been appropriate for a ten year old. And it wasn’t I remember being scolded some at the school function I was attending for such heavy makeup on a child.
But almost all of my Mother’s photos had such heavy eyeshadow. And it was either an electric blue color or it was done to echo whatever color she was wearing. I used to think such a display was garish. Why call so much attention to yourself? Men should want to give you attention without makeup. It didn’t enhance the woman; it was a mask, a sham, a lie, a deceit.
I seldom wore makeup when I was younger. I carried much of that resentment through my life. My Mother was no saint, especially after my Father died and the way she fell reliant to male attention after her husband’s death made me resent my own femininity. She spent so much time on her hair and makeup while she dated men to fill the void that her husband’s sudden death left behind. I didn’t recognize that I carried that much hatred for makeup that was mostly rooted in a projection of angst over my Mother’s shallowness.
My Mother was dedicated to making sure she always left the house looking her best. Even when she didn’t feel good, she still did her best to look good. When planning for her funeral, my aunts and I made sure to bury her in a dress that she would feel proud of being seen in. My Mother was vain in all the ways most Southern women were. Her vanity oftentimes meant we were late for church or for appointments and I’ve always been a stickler for punctuality. It was irksome to have to wait for her to look just right when I never saw her as looking better for doing so.
But that dedication to her looks was none of my business. It was no one’s business but my Mother’s. Her doing so didn’t hurt anyone and honestly, doing so her made happy.
It took me many years to be mature enough to say that.
I started wearing makeup a few years ago and more importantly, I started wearing eye makeup last year. And recently, I’ve been going quite heavy on the eye makeup. Beauty trends tend to go in a cycle and heavier eye makeup is back in style just like the casual racism of the 1950s is still en vogue. And each time I find myself placing not one but at times two or three colors of eyeshadow onto my eyes or the delight I get now by collecting pallets of eyeshadow like a painter hoards paint; I’m reminded of the complicated woman whose strewn makeup cluttered many a childhood homes’ bathroom. I’m reminded of the woman who so dedicated to her personal level of beauty that she was willing to run late for work lest she be seen without blush. I am reminded of my Mother every time I open up a palette of eyeshadow and am delighted about what I can do with all the colors.
My Mother was not perfect. Our relationship was not perfect. My Mother was a complicated woman to love and to be accepted by. But there’s a reason that we managed to get closer after I had finished high school and was mature enough to realize that holding a grudge wouldn’t solve any issues. Time does not heal all wounds but it certainly does increase one’s propensity to simply not waste new tears on old griefs.
And when I finish doing my makeup now for a convention, a costume, a date, a special occasion or even just because I feel like doing so, I find myself wondering if my Mother would think I was doing a good job. I find myself wondering if my Mother would think I was beautiful. I find myself wondering if my Mother would still be so committed to her personal style if she was still here.
My Mother was no saint. But seeing her through the eyes of her sisters, cousins and friends who describe her so vividly, lovingly and with such a genuine heartfelt grief that she is no longer here with us helped me finally realize that she was in her own complicated way beautiful.
I’m finally glad to have my Mother’s old photographs.