A Mother’s Day Memory

Jane Wagner, her mother Jane, and her sister Elaine

‘I always thought mother looked like Claudette Colbert. For the three of us, this was the best “good hair” I think we ever had. My hair has rarely come out right since. We had all used an apple cider vinegar rinse on our hair to make it shine and I have a memory of smelling vinegar fumes — perhaps because it was so humid that day or maybe it was just that I still had vinegar in my hair, because I recall using a vinegar rinse but I have no recollection, at all, of rinsing out the vinegar. I wondered if the photographer from Parks Belk department store could smell the acrid air around us — but then, he didn’t smell so good either. Those were my thoughts as he snapped the picture. Oh, and the thought of how darling my little sister looked in that sausage-curl do which I’d never seen before — or since. I’d seen sausage curls before, but they had always been vertical — up until that day. It took two bus rides to get home, which was in a country area outside Knoxville. By the second bus ride, it had started to rain and we were coming unraveled. Elaine’s sausage curl was damp and had collapsed on her forehead like the little girl who “when she was bad she was horrid.” The humidity had caused my white shoe polish to moisten or something and it was coming off on everything. I had snagged my dress on some ill-placed hook in the restroom at the bus stop and it made me look particularly pathetic — a little like Peggy Ann Garner in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” but more like a waif from a Dorothea Lange WPA photograph. I glanced over at mother, expecting a critical look, but she had opened her purse and was checking her makeup in the mirror lodged in the inside flap. I smelled a whiff of Toujours Moi. I loved that smell because it was so “her” — even though it often made me car sick. I watched her apply a dark red lipstick which she didn’t even need: she would look like Claudette Colbert no matter what. Mother died in her early 40s. She was in a hepatic coma for weeks, months it seems. Even there, in the hospital bed, no lipstick or pressed powder, her hair undone, she still looked like Claudette Colbert. Mother loved compliments. Why did I never tell her how beautiful I thought she was? Why were easy compliments so hard for us to give each other?

Children, if Mothers could understand them
Want their Mothers to be proud of them.
Children being Children realize too late
That compliments can be used to communicate.
Compliments should be easy to give
Especially when they are true.
I’ll regret as long as I live
That it’s something I just didn’t do
For Mothers, if Children could understand them
Want their Children to be proud of them, too.
Strangers would often stop and stare
I’d smile to share how we both were aware
That my mother looked just like
Claudette Colbert.’

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