Summers brought activity in the house to a boil. University aged children – offspring of family friends – came to work on the docks or in the fish packing plant run by my father. They lived with us and were looked out for by my mother who also cared for me, my sister, two brothers and my dad. Mom and my sister made lunches for all, assembling three or four thick sandwiches for each young man, enough to last the whole day. At the end of the day she did full loads of fish-crusted work pants and shirts and sweaty wool socks squeezing them through the ringer washer and stringing them up to dry in the laundry room or outside on the clothesline on one of the rare days it wasn’t raining in Prince Rupert.
Despite her unglamorous life, my mother’s red polished nails, matching red lips painted with a lip brush that appeared as she magically twisted the slim gold tube, Helena Rubenstein face powder, and cheeks rouged by applying the red lipstick daubed with her index and middle fingers made her glamorous to me. Her eyebrows were carefully arched and darkened with eyebrow pencil. I thought there was no one – certainly among my friends’ moms – who looked as much like a movie star as she did. Her look softened over the years and the lipstick tended more to pinky red than bee-stung swollen stain of the Flapper era, but she always took care with her appearance.
Mom was born about the same time that Theda Bara made the silent film Cleopatra in 1917 and whose movie make-up signalled a radical change in women’s cosmetics. By the time mom was a young woman in the late 1930’s, her personal style was established, and by the time I was born in 1957 it was so much part of her identity that I never saw her without make-up, even when hanging up laundry, ironing my dad’s plaid work shirts and all the bed linens, going to the grocery store, or making 20 sandwiches at 6:30 in the morning.
In the early 1960’s, Mom cut her own hair in the style of Elizabeth Taylor and she kept the same cut for the rest of her life. Every few weeks she’d go into the bathroom with barber scissors, stand in front of the vanity cabinet mirror with a hand-held mirror behind her and start shaping her hair. She turned her head right, left, middle, snipping and appraising as she went. To finish the look she’d plug in the kettle, let it steam and then position herself over it so as not to scald herself while letting the hot mist pouf up her curly hair. She’d run her fingers through it making sure every strand got plumped up like wrinkles on Restylane. This was a trick I’d remember in the 1970’s when Afro haircuts for curly girls were in-style. I burned my ears more times than I can remember trying to steam my locks.
The jeans revolution of the 1960’s did not catch on with mom. She never owned a pair but her penchant for ironing everything included my denims. My jeans had a crease so sharp you could cut steak with it. I bet she’d press my kids’ jeans, too, the ones with strategic rips and tears raising them out of tatters through starch and heat. But she embraced wearing pants instead of skirts so that by the early 1970’s she never wore a skirt again, not even to my wedding.
Thanks to mom, I have an addiction for crisp white blouses and t-shirts (which my sister calls white-shirt-syndrome); for red lipstick; for carefully plucked eyebrows (that no longer grow back and which I have to pencil fill); and broaches.
Mom died in her late 70’s still maintaining her look, wearing pants, a buttoned-up shirt closed with a rhinestone pin every day, self-coiffed curls in place, and short clear polished nails.
Today is her birthday.