(Mom wakes in a tizzy.)
Gen: I have no idea what my hair looks like to go out in public. It needs to be set.
Mark: When are you going out in public?
Gen: I have no idea.
(She falls back asleep.)
My mother had always paid attention to her overall appearance, but as a former hand model she took particular pride in her fingernails. She wore them long and natural. No gels or acrylics for her. And always painted red. To keep them looking good, she treated herself to weekly manicures at the beauty parlor. Knowing I was a budding artist, she even let me try my hand at painting her precious nails once or twice, but most likely a day or two before a professional restored their beauty. Still, how a working mother of six kept them in such fine shape between manicures was nothing short of a miracle. And as far back as I can remember, the compliments flooded in.
Though she never sacrificed her long nails for motherhood, she did her long locks. Shampoos and sets became the new norm. Occasionally, she’d spice things up with a perm and frosting that required a reintroduction to her family. Even the dog needed a second sniff. But one was enough for me. I donned a clothespin to stomach that pungent, chemical cloud swirling about her head.
Hoping to preserve her investment, she wrapped her new ‘do’ in pink hair tape at bedtime. But more often than not, the tape instead stuck her head to the pillow. And although the battle to free herself often defeated the tape’s intended purpose, this ritual continued for years. And like Dad, Mom was a recycler. I’d often find a curly strand or two of hair clinging to the surviving bands of pink tape stuck to her bedroom mirror, happy to live another day.
Beginning in the 1990s, whenever Mom visited me on the West Coast, I took her to my friend Stan’s Beverly Hills salon for the movie-star treatment where she sat in the same chair that Betty White sat in for her movie-star treatment. They’d crossed paths only once, but Mom really liked Betty. And who didn’t? She wanted an autograph, but my mother, who was sociable on any other day, hesitated. Lucille Ball had snapped at her fifty years earlier and forever lost a fan. So, Mom asked the receptionist for help. Betty, being “Betty,” of course obliged, and my mother returned home with a cherished memento.
Highlights in Hollywood occurred so often during her trips, they came to be expected: witnessing me in action on the set of Days of Our Lives, meeting Gladys Knight and the Pips as they filmed their latest music video, eating lunch with Bob Hope sitting in the next booth. And let’s not forget bumping into Erik Estrada, semi-hidden behind his Ray-Ban Aviators, in the dairy section at my local Ralph’s Grocery where he greeted us with his patented “Hey.”
The streak of our Hollywood highlights nearly ended in 1992. But after several uneventful days, the Rodney King riots erupted and saved my derriere. Except she mistook the looting for bargain hunting and, as usual, my shopaholic mother wanted to partake.
Now Mom’s trips to the beauty parlor were but a distant memory. So, I launched the Day of Beauty to recreate that weekly pampering she so loved, and I’m sure, so sorely missed. I initially scheduled it on Sundays, but when my once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic mother objected, I promptly moved it to Saturdays. Eternity in Hell averted.
The Day of Beauty evolved into a multitasking operation. While Mom did her business on the commode, and depending on how long she took, I performed many of the chores on the DOB menu: a full sponge bath, soaking her feet in Epsom salts, shampoo, condition, and rinse—Mom’s least favorite part. Even though I warmed the water, covered her in towels, and worked fast, she shivered every time and accompanied those shivers with quivers of Oohs. Was the risk of pneumonia worth it? I thought so. She smelled good and her hair looked great.
One day, hoping to make Mom’s adventures on the commode a tad more pleasant, I offered her a cup of hot tea with skim milk, no sugar. It was a hit. And from that day forward, a cup of tea on the commode became a staple on the menu.
Once Mom finished her tea, we would move to the bed where I attended to any pressing medical needs followed by a massage with body lotion. After sprinkling baby powder, securing a new diaper, donning a fresh nightdress of her choosing, we got to my favorite part: our morning hug, which neither of us ever wanted to end. Then I would brush and blow-dry her hair as she sat in her wheelchair. Ponytails were the norm, but on special occasions I braided her hair, which had once again grown long. Lessons learned growing up with three sisters with equally long locks came in handy.
Next on the menu: her treasured fingernails. Removing old nail polish posed no problem. However, what followed did. During my childhood, I only questioned my mother’s love on two occasions: when she served her tuna casserole, and when she pushed back my cuticles. She deemed it a necessary evil. As a kid, I did not. I found clever ways to avoid her casserole, but never the cuticle torture. The thought alone still makes me cringe. Now with the tool in the other hand, the temptation to inflict some degree of payback on my dear mother was almost too much to resist. But resist I did.
Instead, I saved my energy for my next challenge: trimming those prized possessions. I had to be tactful, knowing she’d fight even the slightest pruning. And fight she did. But being at the mercy of a persistent itch from chronic pruritus and showing no self-control, those long and dangerous nails had to go. When charm failed, I resorted to guilt-tripping.
“Mom, Momma, look at me please. Before you stands your strong and vibrant son who will be nothing but an empty shell of his former self, and whose soul will surely burn in Hell if you scratched yourself with those things, drew blood, got an infection, became critically ill, or worse, and I didn’t do everything in my power to prevent it. Is that what you want for me?”
Okay, a bit dramatic. Mom could shatter my heart with just a look. But hey, it worked. My oh-so-stubborn mom yielded. They say Jewish mothers invented guilt, but Catholic mothers perfected it. Well, I learned from one of Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s guilt-tripping best. However, the epic battle to render her nails to a harmless length took several more Days of Beauty—rivaled only by the long, drawn-out surrender of her old, tattered tissues. Gracious in defeat, Mom offered her expertise.
“That’s not how you do it. File in one direction.”
I dutifully obeyed, then topped them off with a bright-red nail polish to match her soon-to-be bright-red lips.
Lucky for me, a podiatrist tackled Mom’s toenails. No clippers on earth posed any threat to those thick, funky biological wonders. Only Dr. Aronsen and his weapon of choice—an electric grinder—stood a chance. I can’t say he won, but he did the best he could. So, let’s call it a draw.
On the inaugural Day of Beauty, after completing all of my tasks, I parked Mom’s wheelchair in front of the large dining room mirror, leaned in cheek to cheek, and asked, “Who’s that pretty girl?”
She gazed in awe at her reflection. When her eyes lit up and she smiled her approval, my heart melted. How long had it been since someone treated her special? How long had it been since she looked in a mirror and liked what she saw? How long had it been since she truly felt beautiful? Why do we think these basic human needs fade with time? Day of Beauty’s profound power was a revelation. I made sure we stopped at that mirror every Saturday, and all the days in between. And every time I leaned in cheek to cheek and asked, “Who’s that pretty girl?” my mother beamed.
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