Some magic wands are waved in the air. Others are coated with mascara.
On Saturday nights, my sister was in charge of making English muffin pizza for my brother and me. She was good at getting it out of the toaster oven exactly when the American cheese started to brown, but before it lost its stretchiness. Since we ate nothing but home-cooked food six nights a week, this unwholesome dalliance was thrilling. After dessert, we sprawled out in the rec room, like three happy pashas, laughing at Petticoat Junction, singing along to the Green Acres theme song and (me) pretending to be Mary Richards. To kids who never got to rule the roost, my parents’ date night was heaven. But what happened before they left was even better.
My father, ready half an hour early, would head downstairs to watch the news, while my mother, wearing a half-slip and bra, stood at her dresser humming softly to herself. She leaned toward the mirror, the cups of her bra just clearing the glass tray of perfume bottles that, like glorious soldiers, stood at attention, prepared to do spritzing.
During the rest of the week, my mother was practical and sensible - a second-grade teacher who wore Jones New York separates, bought on sale at Bamberger’s. She was a grader of papers, a baker of coffee cake, a knitter, a mender, and a painter of water colors that I took for granted. But on Saturdays at 6:30, she was pure glamour. With the lamps lit and blinds drawn, the room had a soft glow, broken by thin lines of late summer sun slipping in through the slats. The buzz of a lawn mower in the distance only emphasized that the world was a humdrum place in contrast to mother’s sanctuary (or, what would have been her sanctuary if I didn’t invade it every chance I got.)
“Did you sign my report card yet?" I asked, flopping onto the bed.
"I think I did,” she said, playing along.
"Oh," I answered. "So where are you and Daddy going tonight?"
I settled into a pillow. She was penciling the arches of her brows. Admitting that her brows were her best feature was as close to bragging as my mother got. She did have good strong brows. Also, gentle hazel eyes, full lips, a great figure and a San Tropez tan, thanks to her beloved Bain de Soleil #4.
She was a dish who didn’t dish, which simply made her lovely.
"Dinner at an Italian place, then coffee and at the Sinetts’." I wondered why she didn’t say “coffee and dessert” but like all things associated with Saturday night, I thought “coffee and” smacked of sophistication. And I wanted in on it. I flopped onto my stomach, leaning on my elbows as she dotted a makeup brush with blush and brought it to her face.
"Why do you smile when you do that?"
"Oh. It helps you see where the blush should go," she answered. "See? You put it here and here, where your cheekbones stand out."
By this time, I was standing at her side. She dabbed a sprinkle of soft pink powder onto the brush and passed it to me. I smiled, but only partly because I was trying to locate my cheekbones.
She dabbed her lipstick with a tissue and asked me to throw it away. As I did, I heard the unmistakable sound of a pumping mascara wand and hurried back. She raised her brows, making a little o with her mouth as she moved the wand from the base of her lashes toward the mirror. She glanced at me.
“Do you want to try?” she asked.
I nodded, trying to keep myself from bouncing on the balls of my feet.
“Open your eyes half-way and look straight ahead,” she said, her voice an almost-whisper. I stood very still, enjoying the soft tickle of the spool on my lashes. She repeated this delicious act on my other eye, and as she leaned into me, I could feel the warmth of her skin.
“Take a look,” she said, then smiled at my cartoon-like gasp of joy.
My inconsequential brown lashes had become a swanky black fringe. The transformation was astonishing. “How does it work?” I asked. “Does it, like, add lashes to your other lashes or something?” I had no vocabulary for this new world. My mother smiled.
“It’s magic,” she said.
It was magic. Not only because she let me in on how to find my nonexistent cheekbones, but also, because she let me in on a side of her I never got to see.
We didn’t talk about boys or tease each other, the way some of my friends did with their moms. But here, in this room, for a few luxurious minutes, the curtain was lifted. Here, we were more than mother and daughter. We were girlfriends; two women of the world, who understood boys and flirting and crushes. This was as close as we got to that kind of conversation; our words formed, not with syllables, but with soft pink powders and inky black spools and tissue squares kissed with red lipstick.
The truth was, I needed someone to tell me how to behave around the boys who were beginning to notice me. How to not give more credence to them than to myself. How to not fall apart if their interests waned and how to be cool and have the upper hand. But my mother may not have known how. She had met my father when she was 16, and (smart girl that she was) a college freshman. He was older and very handsome, but he knew a good thing when he saw one. She never had to play the game. All she had to do was be her kind, funny, lovely self – and that was all she knew how to teach me to be.
I turned my head, taking my new self in from every possible angle. I parted my lips like Susan Day. With a bent forefinger, my mother dabbed a drop of Chanel No 19 behind her ear, and my father yelled “Florence! You ready?” We looked at each other conspiratorially, as if to say “men!” and she sent me downstairs to tell him she’d be two minutes.
After they left, between bites of pizza, I put a pinky to my newly stiffened lashes to make sure I was still fabulous.
A few years ago, as pictures were taken before a family wedding, my mother said she liked the way I’d done my eyes.
“I thought you were getting your makeup done in the bride’s room,” I said.
“They just put a little powder on me,” she answered. “I was hoping they’d do my eyes, but…”
“I have a makeup bag with me,” I said, and her eyes lit up.
We found a place to sit.
I darkened her beautifully-arched brows a bit and then pumped a mascara wand into its tube. She opened her eyes half-way, making a small o with her mouth, and looked straight ahead while I stroked the spool from the base of her lashes toward me. I produced a gold compact filled with peachy blush and we both smiled as she brushed it onto her cheekbones.
“Try this,” I said and handed her a peony-pink lipstick. She put it on, then pressed her lips together to blot them. We sat that way, as the pre-wedding swirl continued around us. Guests began to arrive. A photographer’s light flashed in the near distance. My mother smiled. It was the smile of a woman who feels pretty. But it was also a smile of appreciation and silent understanding. Of shared language and sweet generosity. It was us, being girlfriends, using the soft vocabulary of powders and pops of color.
And wands that make magic.