My mom doesn’t wear much makeup—no foundation or concealer. She doesn’t buy expensive department store brands of age-defying moisturizers, miracle creams, or any products with advertisements that compare a woman’s skin to freckled eggshells or hardened alligator skin. She uses the same brand of face wash—Noxema—she has used my whole life. Whenever I smell that cool menthol scent, I think of sunburnt skin in need of relief and my mom.
When I was a child, I wrote a poem comparing my hands with my mom’s. The poem appeared in a school newsletter. I remember writing about my mom’s hands washing laundry, compared her wrinkles with my unblemished child hands. I took my best shot at sounding profound, dare I say, poetic. My mom complained in her passive, motherly way that she was embarrassed I wrote about her wrinkles.
Women think about their skin a lot. In the morning, we press against the dark circles under our eyes and see if they disappear—if they do, we need more sleep; if they don’t, it’s hereditary and yet another thing to cover up on our faces. At night, we wash off the day’s mask—mascara making a raccoon out of our eyes, eye shadow smeared like paintbrush strokes. In between the morning and nightly rituals, we absorb pollutants, produce oil, and line up products—toners, lotions, exfoliates—to combat these things we carry.
My mom never taught me how to put on makeup. We missed that mother-daughter milestone like we missed how to French braid hair or the sex talk. Some things moms pass down and some things are lost to a generation. One thing my mom did teach me about was sunbathing. Sometime in her youth she fell in love with the sun. She spent much of her youth and early twenties living in California, a daughter of the sun. My mom doesn’t believe in sunscreen. She believes in coconut-scented suntan oil in brown bottles that get greasy after the first use. Every summer, some years as early as May, she makes her place in the backyard—a towel, her latest mass market paperback, and one or two almost-empty bottles of suntan oil.
On summer breaks growing up, I made this yearly pilgrimage with her to worship the sun. I usually gave up after an hour, sweaty and bug-bitten, accepting that my pale skin would never match her browned skin. Some days she stayed outside for five or more hours, while I napped on the couch with a Real World marathon left on the television. My mom has made a job out of tanning. Her first calling in life has been motherhood, something she has pursued with such rigor and dedication I can only hope to be half as good a writer as she is a mom. I want to model my writing life after her mothering—if I can treat my writing with the same compassion and loyalty as she does her three children, I’ll make a wonderful mother-writer whenever I give birth to my story-children.
I don’t know what warmth my mom finds in the sun beyond the obvious. I know that we talk about the weather like other families talk about politics or sports. I know that if I visit my parents during the summer, my mom and I will inevitably make our way outside while my dad is at work. She’ll lay perfectly still in just the right alignment with the sun and I’ll fidget and flip through magazines on the towel beside her. Occasionally, I’ll read an article out loud to her, but often we won’t say anything. Outside, in the backyard, in the summer, we don’t need to find words.
I will slather SPF 45 onto my skin and lecture my mom about skin cancer. We’ll have the same conversation we have every summer, the one that makes me feel like the parent. I’m thankful she no longer visits tanning salons, like she did while I was growing up—like I did up until about two or three years ago when an article about the growing number of young women diagnosed with skin cancer appeared in a women’s health magazine I read and I was scared straight enough to never use that little glass box of false sunlight again. The truth is, I understand my mom’s need for that artificial warmth. Winter in the Pacific Northwest means rain, gray, and weeklong stretches without seeing the sun. This is why people in the region pop vitamin D pills like candy. This is why so many people suffer from Seasonal Anxiety Disorder. We miss the sun on our skin, miss the renewal that touches us on our surface and is absorbed through our pores.
(Continued next week…)