I’m not writing about writing today because my sister is on my mind. So, here’s a blast from the past.
My mother and I stood before the vanity mirror in the bathroom dressed in black. It wasn’t a stretch for me, ninety-nine percent of my wardrobe was black; this was during my theatre days. Our objective: to put on our faces. My sister and I learned this behavior from our mother, but my sister was the one who came up with all the catchy phrases in our lives. “I just need to put on my face,” she’d say, while the rest of the family hovered around the door ready to go to dinner, the movies, or some family function.
After my sister settled into marriage with two small children who spit up on, well, everything, she spent the bulk of her days in pajamas. No exaggeration. When she lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she and her best friend, from across the street, had a daily competition over who could stay in their PJs the longest. They thought it was a hoot. I begged the universe to prevent such a life from happening to me. Of course, I was in college at the time. My mission: to become a famous actress— that ended up being my personal hoot. My sister loved the PJs competition. But she never went beyond the mailbox without putting on her face.
Her face painting obsession, as I mentioned, began with our mother, but her commitment to never venturing beyond the mailbox without makeup was in direct response to our Aunt Tessie. My mother and her siblings were first generation American because their parents were off the boat Greeks— the phrase used by all my relatives when referring to anyone from our homeland. Because my aunts and uncles— only thirteen were living by the time I was born— were raised during the Depression, financial security was a priority. Tessie eliminated that concern when she married into financial bliss. Her children wanted for nothing, went to the best schools, and the family spent every summer in Greece. But no one would know this by looking at her.
Sunday dinners with the entire family were standard practice, but became a bigger to-do when out-of-state members came to visit. When this happened, everyone dressed as if a wedding was on the agenda. But not Aunt Tessie. She’d arrive wearing nothing more than a house dress, with her hair pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck, which she hid by wearing a babushka— and not even a colorful one. This irked my aunts. “Tessie, you have money. Why do you insist on walking around looking like a ragpicker?” She’d remove the babushka, slip it into her purse, look over her shoulder, as if someone had followed her into the house, and whisper, “If people know you have money, they rob you.” (This may have been my first lesson in how characters’ pasts impact present behavior— if only I had taken notes at the time.)
And that’s why my sister never went out beyond the mailbox without her face on. And why my mother and I stood before the mirror in the bathroom putting our faces on, on a day when it took all the energy we had just to get dressed, and why she turned to me before we started and said, “Leona will never forgive us if we go to her memorial looking like ragpickers.”
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to never venture beyond my mailbox without makeup, or avoid looking like a ragpicker. But the day of my sister’s memorial was the day the practice started, and it’s now an ingrained behavior. Some days I do hesitate. Makeup isn’t necessary for a trip to the Post Office and back. But in the end, I always make the effort. And I always feel better for it. Maybe because by doing so, I honor my sister, who left this world too soon, and whose disapproval of my life still haunts me. Or maybe because I’ve learned a little effort in my appearance lifts my spirit like the endorphins from exercise. If I do both, it’s impossible not to rocket onward and upward. Does that sound vain, silly, totally inappropriate for pandemic times?
Nobody wants to deal with this pandemic. It’s turned our lives upside down and inside out, and I’d give anything if it was the Upside Down Diana Ross sang about back in the day. I can’t believe I just wrote back in the day— yet, another example of how crazy this situation is making me. But the only way forward is through. And that means accepting the situation: the social distancing-glove-wearing-mask-wearing behavior required, and washing our hands until they’re raw. But we don’t have to look like ragpickers when we do it.
So, if I look ridiculous donning the hat I wore at my wedding and wearing my print bandana when I go shopping for healthy food options and the toilet paper that may or may not be available, I don’t give a damn. Because underneath the bandana, I’m smiling and sometimes I’m laughing and boy, oh, does that feel good, and that strengthens my immune system.
Just the act of writing that gives me a surge of energy, increases my hope for a healthy tomorrow, and blasts me back to that writing thing I wasn’t going to talk about. So, I’m off to the page to make notes on all the things swirling in my head about the ways characters disguise themselves from the people in their lives.
Wishing you a healthy, safe and happy forever, and may you, too, find a way to make your pandemic days brighter.