Bonfire of the Vanities
I am standing in my parent’s bathroom, tall as the third of four shelves so I must be all of eight or nine. I’m not tall enough to see what is on that shelf, which I later learn was my father’s Old Spice deodorant, Aramis cologne, a bowl of loose change and the dusty soap-on-a-rope that I gave him three Father’s Days ago.
I can see the second shelf with the ceramic bowl that holds grandma’s gold signet ring and mom’s confirmation cross with its broken chain. I see the baking soda box mom uses to whiten her coffee-stained teeth, the Avon Pretty Peach dusting powder and her bottle of Channel No. 5.
Mom is leaning over her sink with a mascara wand in her hand and she turns, startled to see me standing there.
“What the heck?” I say, equally startled by the expression on her face and her yin and yang eyebrows raised in horror.
It is a ghastly sight. Not the fact that my pretty mother’s left brow is pure white, but her expression is a grievous blend of bitter and embarrassed. This is a new revelation and I am surprised that after a nearly decade of knowing this woman, I did not know this about her.
“Don’t look at me!” she practically yells as she somewhat forcefully guides me out the door with her wand hand and closes it with the other. “You should knock before you come into someone’s private space,” she hisses and I recoil.
“But the door was open!” I call out from the bedroom, “What the heck happened to your eyebrow? Were you born that way?”
“First, don’t say heck,” she says through the wood veneer door.
I almost say, “Well it’s better than saying hell,” but I don’t because I don’t want to derail the possibility of solving my new Nancy Drew mystery with a lecture and a trip to the confessional.
When she comes out of the bathroom and sits down next to me on the bed a few moments later, her brows are both Maybelline Great Lash Waterproof basic brown.
“Well, what happened?” I inquire, expecting to hear an interesting story and also wanting to make sure this isn’t something genetic.
But mom quickly and vaguely explains that a bad bottle of sunscreen instantly turned her brow white when she was thirteen and her mother washed it off her before she smoothed it into the rest of her skin or onto her other brow. She’s been mortified ever since. And not a fan of sunscreen. Which explains why we’re always the hot pink family on the beach. I’ve long been the kid who goes to school after spring break with tiny bubbles on my skin that soon turn into peeling sheets like a human snake.
This also sheds light on why my mother never puts her head under water at the ocean or in the pool and only dog paddles when she swims. Now I know why she always gets so upset when we splash her.
“Don’t tell anyone,” mom admonishes.
“Not even daddy?”
“Definitely not dad.”
Apparently, after more than a decade of marriage, my father still knows nothing about mom’s eyebrow, which means that my mother always touches up her makeup before going to bed.
Two decades later, when my mother was dying, she made me promise that I’d fix her brow before her cremation. She didn’t want to go into the afterlife deformed.
It is such a little thing, really, an eyebrow. It could have been kind of cool, had she embraced it as such. But instead, she carried this secret throughout her life, painstakingly hiding it like a shameful affair.
There is an Italian phrase, falò delle vanità – bonfire of the vanities, which refers to the burning of objects condemned by religious authorities as occasions of sin. Did my Catholic mother believe she somehow deserved the results of that bad sunscreen back when she was thirteen? Were her regular strokes of mascara some kind of penance? That was how she looked at most every sling or arrow that entered our lives. When I broke my ankle a day after getting it tattooed, mom was certain it was a message from god and the cast hiding my body art was a price I needed to pay for the sin of defacing my skin.
The last time I touched my mother, she was cold on a gurney at the mortuary. The room was dimly lit and bigger than it needed to be for one unoccupied body, covered in a sheet under a florescent bulb at the far side of the otherwise dark space.
At least it seems that way in my memory. For years I was haunted by the cinematic view from the doorway with the metal gurney altar 50 feet away, and I’m walking across the linoleum floor but never getting any closer and it feels like my body is in a riptide, my feet are in quicksand, holding me back from my final, tangible connection, that last look at the beautiful, indefatigable, faithful, flawed and fragile woman who was tied to my very being. But suddenly I am standing over her.
What I want is to wrap my arms around her. To turn back the hands of the clock like I used to do as a teenager when I missed my curfew and my father was asleep on the couch and I’d wake him up just long enough to point at the inaccurate clock then correct it when he’d safely returned to snoring. I wanted to go back just three days – three days! to when I could hold her warmth in my arms and we could each whisper in the other’s ear “It’s going to be ok.”
But instead I barely touch cold mom. I sneak the pink and green Maybelline tube out of my coat pocket and lean over the immensely familiar but vacant body before the rest of the family comes into the room, and I gently but quickly stroke her silver-white brow with the wand helping her take her little secret to the grave.
And it makes me wonder, what are our white brow secrets? Those seemingly superficial things we hide from the world and even from those close to us?
Every time I coat my own lashes with my Maybelline wand, I think of my mother. She was younger than I am when she died, and it is often her face I see in the mirror. “What the heck is going on with my neck?” I want to hide my aging skin behind zoom filters and wonder if I should invest in cosmetic fillers. I wish Macy’s sold a turtleneck maxi-dress. But I know if mom were here, she’d celebrate my wrinkles. She’d say, “You’re beautiful just as you are and you’re lucky to have these years. But how many times do I have to tell you, don’t say heck.”
But what I want to say is “What the HELL?!”
# # #
As shared at Story Salon on October 19, 2022