When I was six years old, Cloie, our French poodle, arrived, and seeing that white ball of cotton on four legs wagging its tail reminded me of a ballerina in a tutu. She was a girl dog and like all the females under Mom’s care she had to look just right. My mom kept her pampered and coifed; she even had special doggie perfume.
Cloie followed me around the house wherever I went. When I was sad and hiding in my room Cloie would scratch on my door, begging to be let in. Then she’d hop on my bed and put her cold wet nose up against my cheek. As the tears trickled down my face, she would lick away the tears. I would smell her warm doggie breath and feel comforted.
I walked her under an umbrella when it rained. She was afraid of going to the bathroom in the rain in the backyard. With the sky shedding tears it was my turn to be there for her.
In my Mom’s eyes little girls were supposed to be reflections of their mothers. I remember sitting next to her in the bathroom on the white leather dressing bench as she made up her face. Her various colored jars and brushes reminded me of finger-paints. When I opened a blue jar and put dots on my cheeks, she wiped my face clean and said, “Blue is for the eyes.”
She then reached for a pink jar and said, “For the cheeks.”
I looked at her soft, pale white skin and said, “Why?”
She said, “To become pretty.”
I grabbed a tan jar as she rubbed white lotion that smelled like lavender on her face. I stuck my finger in the jar and made two wavy stripes on both cheeks. When I started to make a stripe on my forehead she screamed, “Get your hands out of there. I need it.”
I looked at her in shock for there were tears in the corner of her eyes. She took a blue tissue out of the box and wiped away the tears. She then stared long and hard at her face in the mirror.
I grabbed the pink jar and said, “Here, Mommie, pretty.”
She looked at me as more tears trickled down her cheeks. She pointed at the tiny lines in the corner of her eyes and said, “Not pretty. Ugly.”
I touched her hand and felt goose bumps as I said, “Yes. Pretty. Pretty with sugar on top.”
She said, “Not like this. Only when my face is dressed.”
On my fourteenth birthday Mom decided my face needed to be dressed. I remember sitting at her dressing table on the white leather bench when she said, “Look in the mirror.”
I looked in the mirror and saw my long blonde hair in braids cascading down my shoulders. Stray strands of hair escaped from my braids. My skin looked tan and healthy. I stared at my Mom’s reflection in the mirror. Her blonde hair was cut in a bob and curled up. There was not a hair out of place. Her face was made up with a thick tan layer of foundation. Under her blue eyes was a thick layer of black eyeliner. Her eyelids were covered with blue eye shadow. Her lashes were thick with mascara and reminded me of a spider’s legs. Her lips were painted red, reminding me of the shade of red a Geisha girl wore in a recent movie we had seen.
She said, “Today you become beautiful.”
“Daddy says I am,” I said.
“Michelle, you’re not a little girl anymore.”
She opened her jars of cosmetics and said, “Let me show you how to dress your face.”
I closed my eyes and said, “Ok, put a little eye shadow and lip gloss on, like some of my friends wear.”
I could feel her smearing something oily all over my skin. It itched. As she open and shut jars and smeared her arsenal over my face, my eyes felt heavy and my lips felt dry.
When she was done she said, “Look at you. You’re beautiful.”
I opened up my eyes and saw a youthful version of my mother. Somewhere under the layers of make-up was the real me.
I said, “Yuck, I look like you.”
My mother looked at me as tears welled up in the corner of her eyes. I said, “I’m sorry. Your style’s not me.”
“You look pretty. This is the way lady’s leave the house. Put something nice on and let’s go shopping.”
“I can’t go with this make-up on.”
She tossed what looked like underwear with a zipper at me and said, “Sure you can. Put this on. And take it off when you’re done dressing.”
We went shopping. She thought I was her doll, but that’s the way it had always been. From that point on when I tried to leave the house in my own clothes or without make-up she threw a fit. I started carrying a duffle bag to school with a change of clothes and make-up remover. Then she caught me and grounded me. I told Dad, who was living with Leslie. He invited me to move in.
That sent Mom off the deep-end. She started piling layer upon layer of accessories on her body and extra layers of make-up. And her accessorizing did not stop with her body. It enveloped the house. There was not a spare surface. She even put bows on Cloie’s head and bought a whole collection of matching doggie collars.
I did not realize until then that my Mom felt naked without her make-up and accessories. I think she thought as long as everything was covered up that she was safe. The more covering up she did, the uglier I felt, especially when she stared at my natural, softly made-up face, and my own fashion creations.
Through the countless fights over clothes and make-up Cloie was always there. Even when she died, somehow I knew that I would always sense her presence. In my dreams she never died. I’d see her curled up on the couch, or in a patch of sunshine which shined through the window on the gray carpet in the living room, or on the green grass under the oak tree in the backyard. In the dream she always looked at me with those warm, brown loving eyes. As I reached out to pet her, inevitably I’d wake up. It was always the same dream over and over again.
Ten years after her death I started hearing her bark in my dreams. The strange thing is that on the days when she barked, my Mom called, while I was screening my calls. Not being a good daughter I suppose, but I hadn’t felt like hearing her disapproving tone after the last time we went shopping for my birthday when she was in a particularly grumpy mood.
She wore an oversized floppy black hat that covered her eyebrows and neck. I said to her, “Bad hair day or what?”
She stared at my face and said, “You’re going to be a wrinkled prune if you don’t watch it.”
“My tan’s from swimming and running.”
She adjusted her hat and a few pieces of blonde hair poked through. She touched them delicately and said, as she stared at my long blonde hair, “You hair’s so full of spilt ends. Get it trimmed. It needs conditioning. Why do you let it get so mangy?”
Then I tried on some clothes and she said, “You’ve taste is atrocious. I wish you’d let me pick them out.”
To her we were bonding, as she referred to our time at the mall. But malls with her were hellish and filled with fights. My Mom’s harsh words reminded me of other days.
When I was a little girl I remember fighting with her in a mall parking lot. I was crying. Her hands were wrapped around mine. She said, “You don’t know what looks good on you. Trust me. And stop crying.” I said no and yelled, “I hate you.” I pushed her hands away from me and ran ahead in the parking lot. She chased after me, grabbed the collar of my sweatshirt as I nearly got hit by a car, slapped my face and said, “Stay with me. Do as your told.”
When I was teenager she took me to the mall one day to test my taste. She said in response to different outfits, “You look like a hooker in that skirt. The dress is too sophisticated. Get rid of that artsy-fartsy getup. Now you look like a flower child. For heavens sake you look fat in that matronly frock. Your chest looks too big in that sweater. That oversized shirt hides your chest. We’re wasting time, let me show you what’s appropriate.”
She picked out some clothes and said “Now try on these.” I did. She smiled, ignored my protests, and purchased what she had picked out. Later that day I threw the clothes into my backpack and rode my bike over to a friend’s house. At her house we mixed, matched, and traded clothes. I came home wearing my own version of an outfit. My Mom was pissed and said, ‘Why do you have to go and mess up your outfit with that dime store trash.” I told her, “Because I like it.”
So it was than on our birthday trip to the mall, I decided to stand up for all those other days. I stared at her floppy black hat and said, “You’re such a witch. Thanks for wrecking my birthday. I’m done shopping with you.”
And that was it. I’d had enough of her insults. But I felt guilty as hell walking out on her at the mall. But why was she wearing that dopey hat? It reminded me of the witch in the Wizard of Oz, which suited her mall mood.
But that hat was so unlike her. I could always count on her to never have a hair out of place. My Mom was not the kind of woman to have a bad hair day. Even joking about it was strange. I remember my Mom and I standing in front of a mirror at some family gathering. She was wearing the latest fashion craze from Paris and looking down at me in my recreation of the hippie look from thift shops. Her look said it all. She hated what I was wearing, hated my long stringy blonde hair parted in the middle. Of course her hair looked perfect, in platinum blonde in a Marilyn Monroe style.
That night when I dreamed of Cloie whining from somewhere in my apartment. I went in and out of the rooms, but could not find her. I heard a slap and a high-pitched yelp. Then I found her hiding in the corner of my roommate’s room. She had a dark green floppy hat, like my Mom wore at the grocery store, hanging from her mouth. Bits and pieces were in shreds on the floor by her feet. My Mom was screaming at her, “Cloie, bad dog. It’s ruined.” Then I looked in the bureau mirror and saw her balding head shining in the sunlight.
I woke up with tears in my eyes. The dream made sense. So that’s why she was wearing those dopey hats. Is it from cancer? Is she dying? As I was thinking about that the phone range. It was Mom. I asked her if she wanted to go out to lunch. She said, “Not up to it. Why don’t you pick up some take-out.”
I bought some Chinese food and drove over to my mom’s house. I range the doorbell and through the speaker she said, “Use your key, I’m upstairs in bed.”
I went upstairs in her bedroom. She was in bed wearing a lavender nightgown. It was 1:00 PM. The only make-up she wore was pink lipstick, which was sloppily applied. There were pink specks of lipstick on her teeth. She always told me she felt naked without a fully made-up face and here she was lying in bed with only lipstick. On her head was a sandy blonde wig. It was cut in a bob, but it was lopsided over her right ear.
I kissed her on the cheek and said, “Mom let’s have lunch on the patio. It’s beautiful out.”
“But look at me,” she said as she took off her wig. “I’m ugly. My head looks like a man’s.”
“No. Looks like Sinead O’Connor’s.”
“Never mind. Why are you hiding Chemo?”
” I wish,” she said.
“Well, at least it could grow back.” She yelled and said, “I’m ugly. Who’s gonna want me now?”
“You’re still beautiful.”
“All gone. There’s nothing that can be done. My head’s so ugly.”
I stared at her baldhead and thought my mom’s lucky she has a pretty shaped head. I said, “It’s pretty.”
“Ugly like those first wrinkles.”
“Remember when I was playing Indian with your make-up?”
“You looked so cute.”
“You were pissed.”
“I’d just discovered wrinkles. Now I’d trade a face full of ’em for my hair.”
“Look at the bright side. You now get an extra half hour of life back each day.”
She said, “I don’t give a damn.” She looked at my long black skirt and charcoal gray sweater and said, “That’s a switch. You’re in style. Then she stared at my purple, green, and black crystal earrings and said,”The earrings are awful.”
Before I could suppress the words, I said, “Baldness hasn’t affected your sharp tongue. You’re still spitting daggers.”
Then I looked at her. There were tears in her eyes. I held her hand. She put her arms out and I hesitated. I hadn’t given her a hug in years. For so long I had been afraid to embrace her and feel disapproval around my arms.
I held her hand as she cried. And I started crying. I missed her hugs. I got on the bed and hugged her. Then we held hands and stayed like that for a long time. We were both afraid to break the moment with words.
An hour later she said, “Why don’t you put some sweats on and watch an old movie with me.”
I said, “I didn’t bring any sweats. But an old movie sounds great.”
She said, “Carla, the next door neighbor, bought a new set for me. I think they’re your style.”
“How would you know my taste?” I later regretted saying that.
“After all these years of fighting?” she said.
“It’s ok. I’ll put them on.”
“If you don’t like them, get rid of them, like you always do.”
“Your style’s not me.”
“Why don’t you try the lipstick Carla left? The pink would look nice on you.”
I said, “I hate lipstick. It’s so fake.”
“Enhancing the beauty’s not fake. Besides it would look great on you.”
“Let’s not go there. How about lunch? Do you want to eat Chinese food in bed?”
She pointed to her video library and said, “Heavens no. Put the food in the fridge. And make some popcorn. How ’bout a Hepburn flick?”
I chose the African Queen. She said, “Good choice.”
After that we started seeing movies at her house once a week. It cheered her up.
“You think it’s cheap because I bought it.”
“True. You never had an eye for quality.”
“Well excuse me for trying to help,” I said. I tossed the wigs and scarves in the bag and left the house. I was furious. For the next few weeks I screened my calls and did not return her calls, even though she apologized.
A few weeks later I rang the doorbell to check up on her. She opened the door wearing a bright green scarf over a long burgundy-black wig. She said with the excitement of a child, “Look what I bought, “as she pointed to short and long wigs in platinum blonde, jet black, pink, wavy red, and frizzy blue. There must have been fifty shopping bags each containing colorful wigs, scarves and hats.
She looked at my gray and turquoise sweatshirt, blue jeans, and crystal pink and purple earrings and said, “Your earrings are wr…I mean right.”
I interrupted and said, “You don’t have to pretend to like them. Just watch your tongue. Hey there’s a new film from France I think you’d like.”
That night in my dream I saw Cloie sitting by a stream. I petted her head and back. Then we followed the stream as it meandered and bended along a mountainside. The last few drops of water quenched a thirsty deer. The deer trotted away, as its steps were silenced by the morning dew. Then Cloie stared at me with those warm, brown, loving eyes, and slowly disappeared in the morning dew as I woke up.