Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mimi's Vanity


By which I do not mean to call her a vain woman, as the title might suggest; she was no more vain than the least of us who give average attention to hygiene. But I remember that my paternal grandmother, whose wish was to be called "Mimi" instead of anything sounding more grannyish (OK, maybe that pushes the envelope a tiny bit), had the most amazing "vanity," as used to refer to a dressing table, or a woman's personal toilet items. She was a large woman—mostly just by natural stature, big bones—and not particularly delicate. She walked with a heavy step; her movements were brusque. She was in her element in a busy kitchen but not overly careful with pots, pans, or utensils, which she'd toss into the sink from across the room. There was, however, one way in which she was the epitome of Southern grace and beauty, and that was the care she took with her appearance, her makeup, and the preservation of a youthful, glowing, Georgia-peaches-and-cream complexion. Mimi was born in the South, in Georgia; she raised her two sons in Alabama; she retired with my grandfather (I called him "Granddady") to the AARP enclave of Winter Haven, Florida, which is the only place I ever visited them. I mention this because I think it's a cultural marker of the Deep South, this extra care a woman pays to her skin. When I visited, as a young girl, I loved more than anything to watch her "put on her face." (As she wielded a lip liner, I remember telling her, in the blunt way of a child who thinks she's being helpful, that she'd missed a spot; she replied that she didn't have a nice cupid's bow like I did and that she had to draw it in. I thought a lot about that.) It was great fun to investigate all the tubes and jars and pencils and bottles that made up her vanity. She used, I believe, a regular dresser for the purpose of storage and not a traditional vanity table, but a large mirror was mounted on the wall just above it, and the surface of the dresser (plus its top drawer) was dedicated exclusively to beauty products, plus some jewelry. There were blushes and eyebrow pencils, mascara, lip liners, lipsticks in bright pinks, reds, and corals (never brown or beige, which are my daily choices); there were nail polishes, perfume samplers, you name it. What I remember most, though, were the skin care products. They were the time-tested classics, not hyped with extravagant packaging, not elite or expensive—they were made in the USA and sold in the Eckerd stores (now Rite Aid), accessible to women of any taste or budget. These were probably the same products her mother had used before her, and the same that littered the dressing areas of women across the South, and across the nation: Oil of Olay, Jergens rose-scented lotion, Pond's Cold Cream. I remember how grown-up and special I felt when Mimi pumped a bit of Jergens into my outstretched palm; the idea that a lady's hands should smell like roses was incredibly mysterious to me and suggested a life of garden tea parties and genteel courtship (men did used to kiss women's hands, didn't they?). The pink bottle of Oil of Olay, with its black cap or pump and its logo of a serene, elusive woman, was somehow off limits, to say nothing of the cold cream, which I still don't really understand: it's cold, yes, and extremely thick; my mother used to complain that its greasiness would leave stains on the pillowcases when Mimi came to stay with us. But this regimen of lotion, facial moisturizer, and nighttime cold cream . . . well, the result was a flawless, nearly wrinkle-free face, which mocked her age and stayed with her into her final, hundredth decade of life (she was in her early nineties when she died). What I remember about Mimi, ultimately, is the way she kept this form of Southern dignity, the careful attention to her appearance and above all to her skin, always. Whether going outdoors or staying in, whether living alone in her house once my grandfather died—she did this for a sense of herself, not because she felt she must be attractive to a man—or whether, finally, in the bed of a hospital . . . she kept her routines of self-care. Skipping down the generations, I have to admit and take responsibility for a downward trend, a loosening of standards in skin care and makeup. My beauty tools are very few, and I use them infrequently. (I am also generally ignorant of hair dryers and irons, if that tells you anything.) Someday I will likely pay the price for sun exposure, though mine is not excessive. I wish sometimes that I had the desire, the determination, or the patience required to devote such time and attention to my skin as Mimi did. Instead, I am thankful for genetics, which keep me looking a bit less than my years. But I do hope, fervently, that I am like my Southern grandmother, in elemental dignity, when I reach my last days—the contents of my own vanity be damned. 

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