I Am My Mother


I can admit it— I'm starting to look like my mom. It’s strange looking at my iPhoto’s wall of selfies and think, God, it’s her! It’s not always been a totally welcome thing—I mean, I just want to be me. But at the same time, it’s certainly familiar. And I’m starting to like it.

Strangely enough, for having pretty much the same face, my mom didn’t give me many tips on how to dress it up. She told me to wash, and yes, there were manual extractions at a tender age, but I didn’t get beauty tips. I mean, I’m grateful to have been raised in a house where wearing no makeup wasn’t a sign of defeat, despair, or that you’re “taking the day off.” A bare face was just your face, and it was pretty normal. But damn, Mom—I gotta buy Allure to learn about mascara?

She taught me pretty much everything else, though—she homeschooled my brother and me. And with my Navy dad at sea much of the time, I can really say that everything I know I learned from her. I remember her face back then as bare by default, although I guess “ au naturale” sounds better. But there were windows of time, usually about two months before Dad would come home from deployment, when Mom would start a new skincare regimen. She’d take me to the all-in-one mini-department-store on base (the PX to you military brats) and head straight to the Estée Lauder counter. She’d perch on those strange, white wobbly stools that make you prop your feet up and fold your hands like a child, and she’d let a woman with no eyebrows dab Advanced Night Repair eye cream on her. She’d buy the whole line.

At night, I’d waddle into her bedroom with my L.L. Bean pajamas and angel wings on and see her putting on all her creams. She’d always explain it in the context of my dad—“I’m doing this to make me look pretty for when your dad comes home,” or “This is going to help my eye bags. Your father hates my eye bags.” People give the weirdest explanations to children. Dad would return and the skincare regimen would slowly fall out of use—the little brown bottles shoved and piled to one side of the medicine cabinet, their caps off, lost, and perhaps eaten by my brother. But a while later, Dad would go back to sea, and two months before his return, she’d start the whole thing again.

I learned that skincare is something you do to prepare yourself—to take small steps to forestall some future, whether it’s inevitable wrinkles, bags, spots, the anxiety of not looking like yourself, of looking different, the fear that “different' can only mean “worse.” I see now how nervous Mom must have been to see my dad again after a long absence—even as much as they loved each other—how the weeks leading up to our little family reunions must have been staked with anxiety. The unease you feel when you haven’t seen the person you love in months—whether everything’s the same, whether someone’s changed—you can’t know until that moment. Every layer of Lauder serum was bringing her another day closer to this moment; it was preparing her for it, making her ready.

I use Advanced Night Repair now too, although the eye cream's package and smell I remember so vividly has been pulled. I use it mostly on days my skin’s looking blah or the night before a meeting, date, or other very normal thing that still manages to stress me out. It’s not even about feeling better immediately, it’s about taking steps to build up to a different conclusion—a happier future.

Mom’s moved on now—she’s less about night treatments and reeks of sunblock when she hugs me. She insists I slather on the same. OK, Mom, go ahead and pass the No-Ad—I’ll do whatever you say. Because although she’s my mom—and she’s weird and amazing and not me—I want my face to look just like hers someday. Love you, Mom.

—Trace Barnhill

Photo courtesy of the author.