Recently the last family portrait my mother had taken the summer before her death popped up on Facebook, a function of the auto-memory. A thread of comments started with my sister proclaiming our mother was stunning. Cousins who were still in elementary school when she died, childhood friends all chimed in.
“I always loved that picture.”
“When I was a little girl I was in awe of your mother, she was the most beautiful woman that I knew.When I was a little girl I was in awe of your mother, she was the most beautiful woman that I knew.”
From the time I was very young, I trusted I could never be as beautiful as my mother. Her signature long red hair, often fell in gentle waves, sometimes she swept up in elaborate styling, or a simple ponytail when working around the house. She had high cheekbones, green eyes reflecting wisdom, despite being just 32. Betty Ann loved style, and she projected glamour as best she could, a young mother and homemaker maintaining a tight family budget set by Daddy’s bimonthly paychecks.
Mommy had a fabulous selection of hats, mostly inspired by actresses like Audrey Hepburn, big floppy-rimmed hats that accented the flow of her hair, her eyes, her neck. She had a small assortment of lovely gloves. My favorite pair was pale yellow doeskin with a pearl button at the inner wrist. They were a gift from Daddy when he returned from a golf trip, once he was earning enough to afford a few days away in the winter with his buddies.
When I was 5, and she was 23, I loved to watch her get ready in the afternoons for Daddy’s return from work. I sat on the toilet while she applied makeup and styled her hair. One day, after I watched her pull the brown bottle of Ms. Clairol from its mustard yellow box, I sat on the toilet without thinking about the fact that the lid was not down. All was fine for a few moments; then I sank into the hole, farther and farther until my body was in a V and I was stuck. Mommy had to pull on my ankles, her hair still dripping from a quick rinse. Finally, she yanked enough to extricate me. We discovered I had a big red ring around my butt, which made us both laugh. We were eager for Daddy to get home from work. When he came in the door, I squealed, “I fell into the toilet. I have a big circle around my fanny!” As I exaggerated the whole ordeal, all three of us laughed till we couldn’t breathe..
Later that year, my sister Valerie was born and the family started its rapid growth. My role as an only child came to a halt. Now I shared my mother. And inherently began to become a caretaker.
Mommy was active in local theater, often out for rehearsals in the evening. Being an excellent cook, at one point, she started promoting herself as a caterer for cast parties, anticipating support from the theater community, of whom many members were more affluent than our family, and would rather hire her than do the preparations themselves. She figured she would add to the household income while still being engaged with her acting passion and those who shared her love for theater. That plan did not go far, though I cannot say why for certain. When she died, she left behind a tiny brown notebook of lists and thoughts, including a party menu consisting of a variety of appetizers and finger food, and a selection of spirits for cocktail service. Swedish meatballs, crab puffs, stuffed mushrooms, Mai Tai punch, almond cookies were listed for one event; no date or name, just the plan.
Most in our neighborhood seemed to be scraping by the best they could as their families grew. Mommy became an Avon Lady, at the urging of a friend who sold Avon and also worked in an office somewhere. The downstairs half-bath cupboard was filled with her samples. Tiny lipstick tubes in a full palette of shades, pink lotions, colognes with exotic names, eyebrow pencils were stored for sales calls, along with the order forms and bags for delivery to her clients – mostly other mothers on the block – when the products arrived. That project also lasted only a short while.
Once Mommy decided to dye her hair blonde on a whim. It was a dramatic change but she wore it well. She was delighted when she rinsed the solution out and she was as blonde as Bridget Bardot.
Daddy came home from work and did not take the sudden change well at all. His objection was quite loud. The argument lasted beyond dinner. The next day she was a redhead again.
Another time, as her hair was reaching the middle of her shoulder blades in back, she developed an irrational fear that someone could use her hair to strangle her, likely fueled by the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or seeing Psycho. With no warning, one afternoon she cut it off in a bob a bit below her ears. Again, Daddy balked; he preferred long hair for both his wife and daughters. He made his plea, not out of any inherent demand, just a love of her hair. She grew the length back. It was a loving act.
Mommy sang cabaret in a local coffeehouse called The Lively Arts, near the Regent Theater on East Genesee Street, frequented by Syracuse University drama majors, local theater folks, area artists and musicians. She had an accompanist, Tran, who had studied theater at the university. They rehearsed in our living room during the day while I was at school; Tran managed to cope with the hopeless upright rarely holding its tuning.
For performances, she wore slim slacks like Mary Tyler Moore on the Dick Van Dyke Show, often a black blouse that let her move easily on stage. Tran usually wore a plain Oxford shirt with the collar unbuttoned. He always had a folded red bandana tucked into the right back pocket of his crisp blue jeans.
Every so often, she and Tran showcased in New York, hoping for a break for their act. She never portrayed disappointment when she returned, instead telling me stories of the musicians she met, and the vibrant city life she soaked up in the couple of days she was gone.
One Saturday afternoon, when I was about 11, I was deep into a book, curled up in a chair in the TV room. I looked quickly as someone plopped into Daddy’s rattan chaise lounge in the corner, dressed in blue jeans with cuffs rolled above the ankles, a white sweatshirt, and two pigtails, one behind each of her ears. My first reaction was that we had a new babysitter. I giggled when I realized it was my mother, no makeup, no need for sophistication, just a weekend at home, just a young woman being free for a bit, the sun streaming in the window as she pulled out her book. We read in silence together until it was time to start dinner.