NDJ:4 Betty Ann Kaplan, PhD


Perched on a stool by the Lancome makeup counter, I surrendered to the deft touch of Aimee, the makeup artist. She had beguiled me into a make-over after a long, arduous day of Christmas shopping. I was used to these temporary indulgences. Exhausted and, as my mother might have said, looking like a limp dish rag, I was only too glad to permit Aimee to make me over into something more interesting, even “beautiful.” We shared the little secret that after all, she was selling cosmetics. But no matter. It was easy because we also shared the pleasure which is known to girls. A private pleasure, even in a bustling department store, with crowds swirling all around us, is intimate and familiar in a way that only girls really know. A kind of magic. Girl play, in the mirror. We looked at each other and I commented to this woman, a stranger to me, that “making up” was such fun, reminding me of delicious hours spent with my girlfriends, my sister, my mother, in our boudoirs at this self same feminine ritual. She smiled, nodded knowingly, and dismissed me with.. .”bien sur.. .of course!” I no longer felt the need to talk. I was ready to fall under Aimee’s spell.

My mother had a knack for transforming the utilitarian into something lovely and frivolous. My grandma’s treadle sewing machine, an ungainly hunk of oak and wrought iron was delivered of its innards and transformed into my first vanity table. It was painted white. On each of six button and thread drawers, a golden knob was encircled by a delicate areole of tiny pink roses. Curlicue flourishes completed the look, some blend of rococo and Cupie Doll. Lifting the lid, revealed a deep pocket which once housed the machine and now was but an empty space filled with the tools of the trade. The beauty business. Hairnets and hairclips, rollers, combs and brushes, cotton balls and swabs. A hairdryer shaped like a gun with a huge pink plastic bonnet attached to the nose with a long pink, coiled tube. There were jars of creams and oily versus non-oily nail polish remover, nail files and orange sticks and a few bottles of polish acquired illicitly by me from Jerry’s drugstore at the corner of Franklin and Chestnut. And the mascaras, black and brown, the pressed powder in gilded compacts and lip glosses and lipsticks. Shadows of all colors and tiny little brushes to match. Not that I was allowed to be seen in public painted like a hussy, but I was allowed to play. And my friends and I practiced the art of “making up.” For hours.

I was schooled at my mother’s knee. I realize my current predilection for roomy, well lighted bathrooms derives from the fact that as a little girl of six and seven I studied my mother applying her “face” in what seemed an enormous bathroom. The table, more like a desk than a vanity, spread out before her. Always practical, she had covered its surface with a glass plate to make spills easy to clean. The wall in front of her was a mirror and she had another, electrified table mirror, lit from behind. Because the work of applying eyeliner is a delicate and tedious process requiring, above all, clear vision and a steady hand. And behind the lamp, a row of perfume bottles. Her favorite, Arpege came in matching black deco containers filled with bath powder and eau de toilette. And beside this vanity stood a low tiled dividing wall, filled with ivy and snake plants and I think, a few pots of violets. The atmosphere to small and larger girls alike was exotic and intoxicating.

I thought my mother was a queen and I’m sure she aspired to be Princess Grace Kelly, the paragon of feminine beauty at the time. With her blond hair swept up in a French knot, and her lovely blue eyes accented in shades of violet, turquoise and jade, and seated on the generous pink leather cushion that was her chair, she did look regal. And I was only too happy to sit on the rug, my head between my hands and to gaze up at my mother. Its true, I was in love with her, but I was also there.. .to learn.

“Voila!” Aimee startled me from my reverie, smiling broadly with satisfaction at her creation. Her hand held the makeup brush in a careless gesture, like some cockeyed magic wand. And I, slowly turned to gaze into the mirror, a mirror lit from behind. “Who is that woman?!,” I exclaimed in exaggerated astonishment. “Ma cherie it is you!!” And in that instant we both broke into peals of laughter, sharing once again that timeless feminine ritual that goes well beyond skin deep.

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