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“Hat + 5 roses, Paris 1956 (Vogue)” ©William Klein. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.
“Have you lost your virginity yet?” my mom asked in her usual impassioned tone as she was applying aggressive red geisha eye makeup on me. I had just turned thirteen, and was thinking about the Lizzie McGuire episode I would be watching after taking the South Shore train back to my Dad’s – my home – that evening. She glared at me with her golden brown eyes that were so intense I never wanted to gaze in them for too long, imagining they would transport me in a Victorian era melodrama scene I would have to live in permanently. One of her jet black, perfectly tweezed, Kate Moss shaped eyebrows was arched heavily, awaiting the answer – while her Lancôme eyeliner brush was hovering over one of my icy blue eyes. The moment was an uncomfortable halt, overly dramatic, and funny – like a lot of moments were with my mom.
“You can tell me if you did – just make sure he puts a rubber on it,” she said, motioning the brush with each word.
“Mom, oh my God.”
I laughed, embarrassed, and stared at my eye makeup through the illuminated night/home/office mirror on her black steel sunburst vanity that had seemingly five hundred old timey expensive looking French perfume bottles on it. While she was searching for something among Clinique-green compacts and Erno Laszlo astringents, I studied her: thick black hair full of curls – that I swear don’t exist anymore in the hair world today – NARS matte red lipstick, dark plum nails, Greek olive skin she covered generously with Estée Lauder translucent powder, maroon faux snakeskin ankle boots and always, always an all-black outfit. “I see a red door and I want it painted black,” she would often sing, or scream. I was wearing a yellow Abercrombie shirt that had probably been worn by five other girls in my grade through harrowing clothes trades orchestrated by notes passed in lockers in between classes, or fervently in a friend’s room after some questionable prank calls that usually ended in tears and adolescent paranoia of at least one girl. Will they know it was us?
She started to cloud my face with pale white Anna Sui loose powder.
“Well … have you come close?”
In the sea of powder in the air that smelled like a tea rose heaven I wanted to escape to, there stood my mom’s gaze. I really was in a Victorian melodrama, but a weird one where the mother keeps asking the geisha about her virginity.
I grew up in the ’burbs in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. I daydreamed in school. I daydreamed in swim practice. I watched Limp Bizkit and Korn videos on TRL while drinking cranberry juice and eating cinnamon graham crackers my grandparents would get me from Aldi’s. I would circle the yeses or maybes on notes that were passed by a friend of the guy that wanted to “go out with me,” and even if I circled yes, I was so shy and nervous with the guys I liked I would never speak to any of them. I would see “my boyfriend” in a crowded hallway, next to his locker smiling straight at me, and I would actually feel the tangible love sparkles in his eyes. And I would walk right passed him to watch Great Expectations with Ethan Hawke after school while I ignored his phone calls.
“Tell him I’m at practice,” I would tell my brother.
“But you like him,” he whispered, his face scrunched up in disgust with his hand over the receiver.
“Just tell him!” angrily mouthing the words.
“You’re so weird.”
The next day I would ask my teacher for a hall pass just to stare at him sitting at his desk taking notes in class, and come up with my own movie in my head about our alluring romance… So no, I wasn’t close to having sex anytime soon and I definitely didn’t want to talk about it with my mom. I was way more conservative than her, still am – and I’m not even conservative. But this kind of questioning never took me off guard. It was my mom.
“Mom, no, c’mon… Stop!”
I shook my head away, annoying her craftsmanship.
My brother popped his head in the room, but noticed the tense aftermath of a mom question in the air and rushed back in the living room to watch The Sopranos on the HBO that we didn’t have at home – when we were at my mom’s he would watch HBO or Bravo (back when it was Inside the Actors Studio and obscure movies that played on repeat) while drawing comic-book characters on a drawing board that was attached to his hip. He was in his own little sanctuary while my mom would do my makeup for hours at her vanity, giving me in a deep sincere tone some of her wisdom, like “You can love someone but not like them.”
She eventually lost interest in my virginity after giving me some of her sage advice about love and men – that was so beyond my years I probably thought back on her advice when I was twenty-six and found it helped me, but at the time the only way I could process it was with the same emotions I felt from the final scene of Stepmom.She went on to talk about seeing the Smashing Pumpkins at the Double Door before they hit it big, her love for Kevyn Aucoin as an artist and as a person:“His makeup books changed the game, forever.” And the wealthy clients she had at her makeup artist job downtown, all women: the ones that were genuine, the ones that were heartless. But I was spacing out to the Mazzy Star that was playing in the background, my eyes closed – I felt my mom’s hand blending in rosy cheeks, which felt soothing in comparison to the intensity of her presence and I couldn’t help but wonder, Damn mom, when did you lose it?
She started giving me the geisha middle line on my lips and kept her monologue going while I made up stories in my head about her wild days in the late ’70s and early ’80s. I remember pictures of her then with a dyed blue-black permed ’80s mullet under the L at the Belmont redline stop with her best friend at the time, who looked like Robert Smith, kissing her cheek while she stared pensively in the camera. The photo of her, tan, smiling, on a couch – always so uniquely beautiful – surrounded by Chihuahuas when she lived in El Paso, Texas as a young teenager. I thought of her friends driving out to the middle of the desert at night in an old open jeep, with every star in the sky shining brightly, passing a joint and laughing through fits of coughing. Learning how to drive on the LA freeway, screaming with glee each time that she made it out alive. I thought that whatever world my mom had experienced in her youth didn’t exist anymore. I still feel like that.
I only knew scattered stories. Fun, wild, transoceanic stories, much like how I felt on our occasional visits. I knew my mom was the youngest of three sisters, and they moved around a lot with my Royal Tenenbaum-esque grandpa and ever glamourous, bedazzled, jeweled ring-on-every-finger, grandma. I knew she had dropped out of school when she was fifteen, and when she was sixteen she dated a musician ten years her senior. I knew she really had to make it on her own in a very punk rock way – and she did. I knew she met my dad in a bar after he had just gotten home from a postgrad architecture school backpacking trip across Europe and he was in the middle of a booth surrounded by “three women on each side.” I knew that our upbringings couldn’t have been any more different.
I looked in the mirror in the “night” light setting. She had fully geisha’d me: my long wavy dirty blonde hair in a messy Shimada bun, pale face, red eyes, black liner. From the neck down I couldn’t have been more of a stereotypical early 2000’s Justin Timberlake lovin’ tweeny beanie. The yellow Abercrombie shirt, Adidas striped snap pants, knock-off vans – should I mention the butterfly clips, and braces? I looked up at her reflection, and thought about when she gave birth to my older brother and me, how both times she told the doctor in an epidural haze that we weren’t hers because of our contrasting blonde hair and blue eyes.
She looked straight at me. “You are just to die for, girly.”
It’s funny how someone you have the most problems with can make you feel the most beautiful. I smiled. I loved it. I loved the look. I loved being in her Northside condo that reminded me of a Lorraine Kirke designed European dream: full of old world maps, crimson walls, and so many candles lit it seemed to be on a spiritual level. I loved the world she put me in – so exotic, foreign and different from my everyday life. But I was ready to go home.
It’s a strange thing that happens when your grandma that you’re extremely close to passes away, and your mom that you’re not close to at all is still here – you start to mourn her too. At least this is what has happened to me after this past Mother’s Day, the first after my grandma’s death last August. Previous Mother’s Days, I would never even think about envying smiling mother–daughter duos at brunch. But this year it was different. Was it watching Being Serena and seeing her mom take off the tennis champion’s sneakers after her difficult post birth that got me teary eyed? The “Thinking of You” Instagram post with the array of colorful bouquets of flowers and messages to those with strained mother/daughter relationships? Was it the Busy Phillips’ Instagram post about her once troubling relationship with her mom? Should I have just deleted my stupid Instagram? No, BP’s stories get me out of bed.
I realized that besides going on hikes and sporadically crying under a tree, I had not allowed myself to grieve properly. Floodgates of emotions and memories of my southern goddess grandma, and tragic free-spirited mother broke open, bombarding my head nonstop, so much so that if moms on the street saw my distress they gave me a pitying, “I will adopt you look,” although I’m a thirty-one-year-old grown-ass woman. And you thought you didn’t care that you never had a mom around. You thought you were so mom independent.
Ugh, I did not like this.
No, I have not gone to therapy after my grandma’s death. I purposefully picked out Joan Didion’s Run River instead of A Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve only brought myself to reread a few of the letters my grandma wrote me weekly since I left for college because I knew I would sob uncontrollably all over them even though I bought a Rose print binder (her favorite flower) from Hobby Lobby, and organized them chronologically after her funeral.
There are some people that handle death well – I am not one of them. I refused to grieve- It was just too painful. My dad’s mom had been such a staple and emotional rock in my life – the void she left felt unbearable. I’m lucky to have a great support system and I like to think of myself as resilient, but I truly believe when the mom or mom figure you have a deep connection with goes, you feel alone for the first time in your life. (Maybe this is different when you have kids, I don’t know.) The only thing that helped me was watching Julianne Moore interviews in passing. Every time she was asked about her late mom she’d burst into tears instantaneously. “She was just a really good mom,” she wiped her tears while trying to smile. My pain felt understood. My grandma was just a really good grandma. I don’t know what else to say.
My friend who the previous year seemed to be the only person as deeply affected as I was when his grandma died – the night she passed he tearfully called me. I met him at a bar to drink Black Russians – her favorite drink – and he talked about how she really rocked it at life and I tried my best to console him. I called him up the day my grandma died. I was tired of hearing the “Just let her go” and “She lived such a long life” murmurs I internally winced at. Will it make me stronger after I accept it? Will I become more like her automatically? Is there an “a-ha” moment? He said no. Not at all. He told me that there will always be that void, and all you will have left are the memories. You have to be grateful for them.
“You have to,” he said. He was right.
I could understand wanting to lie on my grandma’s couch, laugh with her while drinking iced tea this past Mother’s Day, but the fact that for the first time in years I thought about my mom doing my makeup and I started to also miss those times left me confused and frankly annoyed. My mom had always been an estranged enigma that hadn’t been around much in my childhood after my parents divorced when I was three. But it was overshadowed by my stable, always laughing around the dinner table, Simpsons and Seinfeld filled childhood with my laidback dad, annoying but always there for me artistic older brother, and loving grandparents. A very Norman Rockwell meets ideal ’90s upbringing that I’m truly thankful for.
When my brother and I were young we would spend the night at her place in the city, or she would pick us up from school once a month, or so. She would pull up in the middle of suburban soccer moms in a lavish, lurid Mercedes convertible rent-a-car wearing her black outfit, rose-tinted sunglasses, and a raspberry colored fur coat – for whatever reason my mom’s side of the family has always had a fixation with fur coats like it was the 1920s fur trade of Detroit that my brother and I have yet to decode. Eve!!!!!!!!! EVE!!!!!! She would scream my name repeatedly, lean on the horn, and wave ferociously while her stereo blared some obscure Violent Femmes song. It always reminded me of a rock star in apocalyptic mode. All the moms and kids would stare and I would sprint in my oversized zebra sweater, stirrup leggings, and beaming light-up gym shoes as fast as I could, papers flying behind me. Eve!!!!! HONK HONNNKKKK!
We would go to Schoops or a TGI Fridays where she would ask us about our current crushes. She’d get bored with our answers and talk mysticism, or how she loved Madonna as a person but couldn’t get into her music. “People should get over the fact that she likes to reincarnate herself – we all change over time.” She overheard two teenage girls sitting behind us calling a girl across the room a skeleton. My mom glanced over at the girl they were talking about, then glared hard at me with her transformative brown-goldies. “They are afraid of beauty. Never be afraid of beauty, Eve – it’s the ugliest thing you can do.” Then she would scream John Lennon’s “Mother” so loud that retired couples wearing Bears sweatshirts would look from the side of their booth to see what the commotion was about. She laughed voraciously, never caring what anyone thought. My brother and I would hide under the table while she overtipped the same waitress that she had complained about the entire meal.
On the way home, we would stop at the only gas station in town where they’d pump the gas for you. “I don’t like the smell of gas on my fingers,” she’d say, laughing, giving off a major Cruella De Vil vibe. She would always flirt super hard with the same young Opie lookalike gas station attendant and he would smile back and laugh. I think they’d even wink at each other. My brother and I stared in silence, giving each other confused glances. After stuffing a wad of ones in Opie’s shirt pocket, she would drop us off. We would go on living, and she would head back to the city. I imagine her smoking out of a one hitter while simultaneously putting on red lipstick in the rear-view. It seemed like everyone involved was pretty content with this arrangement, but when we got older things started to change.
Once I turned twenty-three and she remarried things got weird. My brother and I concluded this is the time when it happened. She must have realized she forgot to raise us and was stricken with a mix of delusions and ill-timed guilt which made her extremely destructive to herself and others. My mom had always been a bit manic-depressive and we always did have a somewhat rocky rapport, but this shit was on a whole other level. Her realization for the first time that we didn’t need her – or never had – sent her into a precipitous downward spiral that unfortunately pulled the fun and funny out of her personality, leaving her mean, irrational and very, very sad. I wish this upon no one.
Before we got numb to her dismantling behavior my brother and I would discuss it.
“I wish she would of had more kids at one point,” I would say to my brother.
“Me too. Maybe she would of been okay.”
The rest of my twenties involved a lot of learning how to deal with her maturely, setting boundaries, and feeling super thankful that I had a sibling to bring me back to earth. I raised you day and night! I was the best mother in the world! How dare you not answer me! She left messages with such conviction on my voicemail that I almost believed her. I would have to call my brother and ask if her accusations were true and I had somehow forgotten my childhood. No, Eve, duh. It was difficult to deal with at times, but it didn’t take me off guard. It was my mom.
Since then things have gotten calmer. She has become more at peace with herself due to time and my beautiful, and amazing blonde haired, blue-eyed niece who looks like my brother’s twin (and even at five is a better artist than him). As it turns out, my mom is a really good grandma. I recently visited her when my niece was over practicing Cosmic Kids Yoga.It was my first visit in a really long time, and it was nice.
“You two are just the most beautiful.” We both smiled.
“Namastayy,” my niece said, bowing her head to us.
I realized that the Mother’s Day saga of emotions and memories along with finally beginning to cope with my grandma’s death didn’t bring me any closer to my mom. But it did make me softer. When someone you love so much passes, it really does turn you into mush and your heart will explode. Mush. Softness. We are all imperfect. We are all human. And we are all left with only memories of the ones we love.
I am eternally grateful for the good memories of my mom – they are unique, interesting and some are so fucking funny. I’m grateful she gave me life. I’m grateful for the makeup. I am grateful she is one of a kind, and influenced me to be authentic. I am grateful she taught me never to be afraid of beauty. I am grateful for the intense, emotional talks about W Magazine photographs and life lessons she gave me when I was young that’ll probably help me when I’m forty-five. Even though my mom wasn’t the best mom, I’m thankful she was my mine – I wouldn’t have picked another one. And I’m grateful that she told me to tell him to put a rubber on it.
My brother comes in and tell us it’s time to take the L so we don’t miss our train. My mom shoves a copious amount of Stila compacts, anti-aging cream, and scented soap (that will smell up the whole train car) into my bag while we’re rushing out the door. My brother hands me a Sandman graphic novel to read while ignoring me from the seat behind. I look at my geisha face in the window as I fall asleep, smudging the makeup in my reflection. My dad picks us up listening to the Cubs game on the radio.
Walking into my house my grandma is cooking. “Hi, honey, I made some iced tea,” she says in her Tennessee accent. “Oh wow, look at that face! Are you tired, you wanna to take a nap? What’s on your mind, tell me everything. Let’s eat first.”
Eve Ayers is a musician and writer based in Chicago Illinois