I remember my mother saying, “Go and put on a little lipstick, darling, will you.” I would scowl, shrug, and ignore her words. I thought her vain, superficial, spending so much time on her appearance. She would begin her day by pulling on her elaborate lace and bone corset, straining and struggling to get the thing over her ample curves, pulling it up first and then down again, sweating in the South African heat. Then she would sally forth in her print frocks, her flowered hats, her small high-heeled shoes and kid gloves, her pearl earrings dangling from her earlobes. She would drive up to the shops to buy more clothes for herself or her family and friends. Her life seemed to me an endless round of dressing up, shopping, eating, and drinking with friends.
Even when she was what I thought of as quite elderly she would say, “Just look at my STOMACH! I’m putting on far too much weight!”
“Oh, Mother!” I would say.
I determined I was going to live differently. I prided myself on my intellectual achievements, worked hard at school, presenting my mother with excellent report cards which she would look at somewhat askance and say things like, “You don’t want to be too clever for your own good.” I think she thought clever people were close to the mentally ill. “Look around you!” she exclaimed exasperated on a voyage through the beautiful mountains of Switzerland while I read yet another book.
I was an intellectual snob, and I looked down on my mother because she had never read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy and I doubt she had heard of Camus. Her favorite writer was Barbara Cartland where the virgin heroine always marries the wayward hero who comes to his senses after a kiss at the end.
Yet, now at the age my mother was when she died, I have to admit that I see what she meant. Appearances are, of course, important, and are often a sign of our mental health. Taking care of our appearance, watching our weight, getting sufficient exercise, and dressing carefully, though not the most important things in my life are still very important to me. I walk, swim, or bicycle daily. I step on the scale and watch my weight. I try to eat healthy food and avoid too much starch.
As I stand before the mirror and brush my white hair I think of my mother saying to me, “Just give your hair a good brush, darling,” and I brush hard, indeed, something that I have noticed does make my hair shine. I do put on a little lipstick and even some mascara.
And I think of the courage it took to pull on that corset every morning and to don an appropriate hat, of how my mother sallied forth so bravely in her widowhood to meet the world, to look around her, and to give pleasure to anyone who might have seen her in the street in her organdy dress and her bright small shoes.
With a wonderful drawing by Jean Marcellino
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.