It’s a hot summer night. I am in my pink nighty, fresh out of my bath, and hanging around my mother’s room as she readies to go out. I am six years old, the youngest of her 13 children. I know I am being a nudge, glomming onto her every move and pestering her with questions, but I can’t help it. She tells me I am an itchy glitch!
Tonight Mom is dressing up for a big event at Westchester Country Club. I hate it when she goes out. Sometimes I can’t sleep and have to crawl into bed with my oldest sister, Mary. Now Mom lets me be as I sprawl across her king-sized bed.
Wearing a grey silk slip she takes a bright orange evening gown and matching sash out of the walk-in closet with its mirrored door and spreads it across the bed. Her arms and thin legs are tan and firm from the laps she swims daily in the Long Island Sound at the Club, where we spend our summer afternoons. Her fingers and toes are freshly painted in an orange-pink tone.
I love to sit with Mom and stroke her hair, running my little fingers through the short, soft black and silver strands again and again. But today the puffy waves are stiff with hairspray from the beauty parlor and I know she won’t let me touch them or they’ll flop. Stepping in front of her bureau, glancing into the gold-framed mirror, she lifts a bottle of Chanel No. 5 and spritzes it into the air, then steps into the scented mist. “You don’t want to spray perfume directly on your skin,” she says. “You want just a hint.” I take a whiff of the sweet fragrance and close my eyes, savoring the smell. To me this was her scent; it lived in her silk scarves and lingered in the corners of her room.
I follow Mommy into the steamy bathroom where she stands in front of the mirror over the sink while I sit close by on the toilet. She dots creamy foundation on her forehead, nose and chin and onto the dark circles under her eyes and rubs it in smooth circles. Pink liquid blush is poured onto a cotton ball, which she sweeps across her fine, high cheekbones. Then she lines her shapely mouth with an orange-tinted lipstick. I hand her a piece of toilet tissue and she blots her lips, leaving an orange ring on the paper. I know Mom can apply her lipstick perfectly without a mirror because I’ve seen her do it lots of times. She leaves her deep-brown eyes and their thick lashes alone. “No mascara,” she says, “or I’ll look like a raccoon by the end of the night.”
I wander back to the coolness of her bed, admiring the glorious gown. I spy a pair of pliers on her nightstand, which were probably left there by my father or one of the boys, and I reach for them. I take the orange sash in my hands and place it between the teeth of the pliers and firmly squeeze around the silky fabric. To my horror it leaves a greasy stain, and I drop the tool just as my mother emerges from the bathroom and stares at me in disbelief. “Eileen! What were you thinking?” she says, her head shaking in disbelief. She grabs the sash and dashes back into her bathroom. My face grows hot and reddens. “I’m sorry,” I whimper.
Mom tends to the stain and, satisfied, comes out. She picks up the gown, steps into it, then turns so her back is to me. I stand up on the bed, reach for the zipper and slide it all the way up to her neck. She takes the sash, turns to the full-length mirror and ties it in a perfect bow over her hip, the greasy stain hidden. She slips on a pair of silver sandals and chooses a white shawl from her closet. “Well, how do I look?” she asks. “Beautiful,” I reply.
Mom lifts my chin. I purse my lips and she gives me a quick peck, saying, “Good-night. I love you.” I follow her down the front-hall staircase and through the library, then watch from the door as she and Dad, dressed in a white dinner jacket, white pants and shiny white shoes, climb into his gold 1970 Cadillac Seville and drive out of sight. I rub my lips together, feeling the creamy smudge of her lipstick on my mouth. My mother’s love settles over me like the steam from her shower and the aura of her perfume; it tethers me to her like the sash she’s tied round her waist.
Eileen McGovern Carey was raised in White Plains, the youngest of 13 children—a frequent topic of her family stories. She resides in Tappan, NY, with her husband, John, and their three children. Eileen has worked as a writer and publicist, and has been published in Woman’s Day as well as local parenting publications. She is a certified yoga teacher and vice president of True Balance & Mobility, a company that provides physical therapy and yoga services to a range of clients, including people with special needs.