By Andi Zeisler
My mother’s vanity table was, in retrospect, probably a big selling point of the house she left New York City for. I can imagine her eyes taking in the mirrored surface of the built-in piece, the dollhouse-like scale of it, the cushioned seat leaving only the daintiest indentations in the close-cut navy carpet. It had three drawers and a cabinet on the left side, and a wide mirror that met the vanity’s top seamlessly, reflecting into infinity the jars and cups and containers that took up residence there.
She hadn't wanted to leave New York in the first place. She definitely hadn’t wanted to leave her job in product development at Revlon, a job that immersed her in the business of beauty, of products, of mysterious scents and potions that she brought home to bathe in, try out, and report back on. But, her husband, my father, was determined that their children be raised in the suburbs, where they could play anywhere they wanted, spilling out from backyards and woodsy trails to commandeer the whole street in roller skates and games of stickball. So, they moved. She tucked away her career like an out-of-season piece of clothing, relegated the tools of her ambition to the mirrored vanity, learned to drive a stick shift, and became a suburban mom.
As a kid, I spent hours going through those vanity drawers, picking up vials and pots, unscrewing lids, cautiously poking the tips of pencils. There were sooty little cakes of mascara, tubes of peach-colored goop bearing French names, pale plastic cases in which sets of false eyelashes rested. Like lots of young children, I loved watching my mother get ready for nights out, sitting on the carpet and watching as she looked intently into the mirror, patting on creams and powders, leaning in close to pluck at stray brow hairs, blotting her bright-coral lipstick and then snapping shut the tube to signify that her work was done.
Given my rapt attention, it was probably a surprise to her that when I got to an age where makeup would have been appropriate to wear myself, I had little interest. A few items made their way into my bedroom as a matter of course — the terra-cotta jar of Indian Earth powder that I got at a holiday swap, a Wet ‘N’ Wild eyeliner that a friend dared me to swipe from the drugstore, a tube of greenish mood-ring lipstick that turned a raging magenta on my lips — but actually sitting at that mirrored vanity myself to brush on all those things wasn’t a priority.
After my suburbs-loving father died, my mother promptly moved back to New York, settling down blocks from Bloomingdale’s and treating every day with me as a challenge that stretched through my preteen and teen years. She wanted me to be prettier, thinner, more social, a better fit; at nearly every turn I disappointed her. The mood-ring lipstick was met with a grimace — "It’s so dark!" — and the eyeliner, which I applied in heavy chunks beneath my eyes, was "trashy." But, walking around with my fleshy, unadorned face was no good either. She constantly commented on girls my age who looked far better than me, framing her admiration as opportunity. But, I haughtily declined her offers of trips to the makeup counter, and when she left Lancôme gift-with-purchase eyeshadows and nail polishes on my bed, I passed them along to the older women I volunteered with.
High school, college, a couple of years beyond that, all passed, all makeup-free. I wasn’t living wth my mother, but in her absence I somehow attracted women who took her place in trying to make me prettier and thinner and a better fit. An overbearing boss shamed me into my first eyebrow wax; a fellow intern at a teen magazine introduced me to a shampoo that chilled out what she called my “roller-coaster” hair.
And, one day — not just any day, but my 25th birthday — I let my mother take me makeup shopping. I was home from California for Thanksgiving, in the throes of a new relationship and feeling happily, chummily indulgent. We went to Barney’s and lolled around the Stila counter, admiring the silver cardboard packaging and guessing the Hollywood namesakes of each lipstick. I left with eyeshadow, liner, lipstick, and one very happy mother; as we ate lunch, she enthused about how much I’d grown up, how proud she was. It was as though a switch had flipped in both of us. When she gave me her latest Lancome gift-with-purchase, I took it back to California with me.
After that, visits with my mother always involved cosmetics. We got side-by-side makeovers in advance of my wedding and went to Bloomingdales for their beauty sales; she booked us tandem facials at Bliss and manicures at a second-floor place on Lexington Avenue where everyone seemed giggly on acetone fumes. She’d press pots of eyeshadow into my hands like they were subway fare — "The girl talked me into this color, but I don’t think it’s flattering" — and save trial-sized creams and lotions for my visits so I didn’t have to bring my own. At my own home, lacking my own vanity table, the storage areas in my bathroom were slowly overtaken by bottles, tubes, and tins. The same pleasure I’d found as a child handling the contents of those vanity drawers I now found in almost-monthly trips to Sephora.
My mother now lives in an assisted living facility, a formerly grand girls’ school whose halls host shuffling walkers and squeaky-tired wheelchairs. My brother and I moved her there when her dementia finally made it impossible for her to live alone in New York City, when there were one too many overflowed bathtubs and disoriented 3a.m. trips to the building’s lobby. Cleaning out her apartment several Octobers ago, I found a bag shoved deep in a closet, filled with sealed plastic gift-with-purchase collections, almost identical quintets of mascara and makeup remover and what would inevitably be a frosted lipstick that looked good on nobody. On one package, my name was written in her now-shaky hand, slanted capital letters in Sharpie. I placed it in the pile of things to bring home, and put the others in a pile for donation. In her medicine cabinet, there were three tiny samplers of Chanel no. 5, bottles that had been sized down as though for dolls, in varying degrees of depletion. Those came home with me too.
So, here I am, with more makeup than I’ll ever wear unless I’m suddenly called into service as a local news anchor. The symbolism is embarrassingly obvious, my relationship to makeup flowering as my mother recedes further and further into the background of my life. The dwindling droplets of Chanel no. 5 in those wee bottles would seem like the most depressing of mother-daughter clichés if I didn’t embrace them. Are there more noble things to pass down to one’s children than a hankering for spreading chemicals all over their face? Yes. But I’m okay with it.
These days, my mother keeps a bare minimum of supplies in a black nylon pouch that she transfers constantly from its compartment in her walker to her hands, avidly checking to make sure its contents haven’t strayed. Hairbrush, glasses, bright-coral lipstick: Everything’s always still there. On my most recent visit, we ate lunch and talked, and my son showed her photos on my phone — our dog, our house, his cousins, his friends. While they chatted, I pulled out my lipstick and applied it almost absentmindedly. As I closed the case with that eternally satisfying snap, she looked up. "What is that? Is that mine?" she asked. It was a plummy pink color, a shade she’d never worn. But, I leaned forward and dropped it into her hand anyway. "Of course," I said. "It's yours."