I have a conflicted relationship with vanity, I have to say. I daresay we first learn about vanity from our mothers. Sadly, my own was not the tutor for such things. For other things, yes, such as knowing what to read and understanding music and poetry. But vanity? I would have to learn to look elsewhere.

My mother, a devout Catholic raised during the war, was always all about the care of the soul. All our lives, she had one going-out dress. She didn’t like having more than three pairs of shoes. "Cleanliness was next to Godliness," and that was it. In fact, it seemed almost sinful to want more than just to be clean. To want to be beautiful was a superficial desire. Who needed trim eyebrows if one’s heart was trimmed of desire?

When we played dress-up, it was no real fun raiding her closet. There was that one going-out dress, which we had to fight over, first of all. She had one pair of earrings, colored orange, and there was that one pair of high heels. There was perfume given by a relative, but we weren’t allowed to touch the one and only perfume bottle my mother ever owned.

Growing up, my mother bought me clothes that made me cringe. She bought them because they were cheap, they were on sale, or they were a bargain too good to pass up--which basically meant they were out of style and hideous, as far as I was concerned.

My mother never read fashion magazines, and her aesthetics for such things were never educated. It was different when it came to music, where her understanding was at its deepest. But colors? "Whatever for?" she must have thought.

At my Junior-Senior Turnover Ceremony, my mother had a dress made of vomit brown from our regular seamstress, which was from the remaining cloth of her own dress. But it was not my place to complain. I did not have the heart to tell her that the dress she had chosen would not help elevate my social standing, which at that point was almost non-existent.

I sat at that ceremony wanting to die. Everyone had come in pastel colors, the trend of that season. I had come in vomit brown. How was I to make better of the situation? I could not ask people to look into my soul, either. They would surely find the anger in my heart, and even then I knew that was most unattractive.

It suddenly dawned on me that my mother must have a conflicted relationship with vanity too. Having grown up with beautiful brothers, she was perpetually compared and found lacking. My mother was more farmer than beauty. She was more the type to know how to fix a carburetor than know how to bat her eyelashes. She rode on horseback with her father and planted thousands of trees in her youth. As a young adult, she trained as a conductor on her father’s fleet of buses. At 17, her father gave her a convertible, one of the very first in the country. And did I tell you she was one of the first women to wear jeans? It boggles the mind how she managed to survive all those dancing balls of her youth knowing that she was not at all vain.

But people always saw through to her good soul, and she was loved by all for the most important qualities she possessed: intelligence, wit, humor, a natural flair for storytelling, and a way of reigning over situations with such ease. You could say she compensated well. There was something about decorating the soul.

At some point in our lives, my mother totally stopped caring about how she looked like, preferring her secretary to buy everything for her, from her lipstick to her bag. The actual things that were bought never mattered to her, as she insisted that most things were the same anyway. Maybe it was also because, by this time, she was half blind and could barely see. We, her daughters, treated her like a doll, always thinking of her whenever we went shopping. During events that required more care, her outfits were meticulously chosen and approved of by at least one daughter.

It is disconcerting to live with my mother for many reasons, but the one thing I am most grateful for is the contrast she gives me so that I can better shape the kind of woman I would want to be. There is great joy in changing lipstick colors, for sure, but every time my mother takes out her own tube and I see how she has finished it until its very last possible swipe, it makes me look at my six different lipsticks with regret.

I would not give up my heels for anything in the world, but every time I see my mom’s plain and unadorned shoes, her aesthetic of simplicity appeals to me. How wonderful it must be to be so unattached from the importance of the way one looks. What would that feel like, 24/7?

On some days, I would come home with a new blouse for her, and I am thrilled to give it so she will have more choices in her sparse closet! I run to her and together we "ooh" and "aah." She is genuine in her delight, but I am certain it is not because of a new blouse, but rather because I thought of her. She will wear the present until it is old and faded, not particularly aware of its beauty, only trusting that if I found it beautiful, and therefore, it must be.

In her childhood pictures, I think my mother could have been an LVN star. Her hair was so jet black it almost looked blue. Until now, she has perfectly shaped eyebrows. Her lips are full and naturally pink. Growing up, I always wanted a glamorous mother, and these pictures show me that she could have been glamorous, but it was not her habit. I am aware that the word "habit" conjures other words such as "habit" as an item of clothing religious people wear.

I suddenly remember that the one thing my mom did desire was to become a nun. I wonder if her having chosen otherwise was a painful sacrifice. I wonder if she wonders if it was worth it. If she had been a nun, no one would have minded her lack of vanity. It would be not even applauded, but rather expected. Perhaps now that she is older, she has simply eased into her most real self. The simplicity of her being eludes me, beguiles me, calls to me, scares me, attracts me, and teaches me. And in this way, she is mother superior.


(Photo of dress by 8 Eyes Photography via Flickr Creative Commons; photo of lipstick by KayVee.Inc via Flickr Creative Commons)

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