Friday, October 21, 2011

A Nightly Ritual

When I was young, I used to love watching my mother perform her nightly ritual. I say 'ritual' because to merely say 'getting ready for bed' or 'washing her face' would not do the act justice. In the bathroom—the big bathroom, as I thought of it, having my own, private, 'small' bathroom off my bedroom—she would meticulously perform the task each night. Often, I would chatter to her as she did this, her hair pushed off her face by a thin cloth headband she kept in the sink drawer. Often, as I talked to, and watched my mother transform from the made up—but never overly made up—teacher to the paler, shinier, more vulnerable nighttime version of herself, I would play with all of her mysterious, grownup, womanly tools. She was a Clinique fanatic, and never missed a night of their famous 3-step facial system. Using a washcloth, she would take the small, unscented yellow bar and lather her face, followed by the pink astringent, rubbed across her face with a cotton ball. As she would sweep the cotton ball across her face, often she'd raise her eyebrows in a funny, completely unpretentious manner, and I'd wonder at how her skin shined in the bathroom light. Next came the moisturizer. Just as with her morning foundation, she would apply the yellow liquid to her face by patting it on her face in small, strategically placed dots, then slowly, surely, blend it all in.

Over the years, and based on what Clinique samples she'd get with her regular purchases of reddish brown lipstick, mascara, and her skincare products, she would work in other aspects to the nightly routine: an eye cream; an exfoliating scrub. Like with the rest of her seemingly magical, quintessentially "grownup" tools placed in her plastic container that she'd pull from the bathroom closet and place on the lefthand side of the sink, closest to the toilet, my perch, I'd study them when she wasn't using them, wondering. I'd pick them up, gingerly, and twist off the caps just as carefully.

I don't know what I was expecting, or just what I was thinking as I toyed with all the skincare products. I wish I could remember every conversation we had in those moments. Later, when I was a teenager, and she and I were both using self-tanning lotions (it was the new thing to do at the time) she'd call me in to help her rub the self-tanner on her back. It was another addition to the nightly ritual. In those days, her nighttime self was made more vulnerable by the addition of the oxygen cannule. The thin, plastic tubes wrapped around the backs of her ears, a very different sort of "grownup" wonder.

I never thought to question my mother's preference for, and loyalty to, Clinique products. It seemed natural, an obvious reality: She planned her "necessary" purchases around the Clinique "Bonus" times, which I loved as I got older, because it meant I would get whatever she didn't need or use. My first experiences with makeup were Clinique eye shadows, eye pencils, and my favorite, their "Almost Lipstick" in Black Honey. Imitating my mother, I'd lean forward slightly at the mirror and apply: a sweep across the right half of my upper lip, then left; a careful sweep across the bottom lip; press lips together; then take my pinky and wipe away any excess.

Not surprisingly, I, too, was using the Clinique 3-step system from a young age, diligently washing my face with that yellow bar each night and placing it back in the pale green case. I'd run my fingers across the words, "Clinique" inscribed on the case, and even though the pink astringent burned my face, wanting to be like my mom, I'd dab it on the cotton ball and sweep it across my face, cringing. But my favorite part was the moisturizer. Wide-eyed at my own reflection, I would pat the yellow liquid on my face in small, strategically placed dots, then slowly, surely, blend it all in.

As a teenager, I quit using the yellow soap and switched to a creamy face wash, but the yellow moisturizer and pink astringent always stayed in the bathroom cabinet. When I left for college, my mom made sure I was stocked with numerous sample bottles of the moisturizer, eye makeup remover, and Clinique eye shadows and lipsticks. But after she died, I couldn't bear to dab those yellow dots across my face. I switched to Ponds moisturizer, which I still use to this day. My college roommate used the Clinique moisturizer, though, and I'd often catch myself staring at in a daze. I'd go home for the weekends and open the bathroom closet. For years, the plastic container filled with all those products was still there. Waiting. I hated it and was comforted by it all at once. Why couldn't Dad bear to get rid of it? Why couldn't I bear to use the Clinique moisturizer, but I still used the eye shadows, eye makeup remover, and lipsticks?

I wasn't sure, but I had a feeling.

Over the years I've still stayed stocked with Clinique products and makeup bags, all thanks to my Aunt Kerry. She doesn't really wear makeup, and I've never actually asked, but she must also use the skincare products and take advantage of the "Bonus" time. Nearly every time I visit my grandma's house, she'll say, "I have some Clinique stuff for you that Kerry sent home with us." I act nonchalant about it, but I absolutely love opening the brightly colored makeup bags and peeking inside to see what I'll find. I haven't had to buy eye makeup remover in a decade. It's always in the bag—eye makeup remover, a lipstick, and sometimes eye shadow or mascara.

Every time I get those Clinique samples, I find myself grinning, once again the little girl watching her mother wash her face. I open the lipsticks, slowly, waiting to see what shade "Perfect Grape" or "Spiced Apple" really is. When I pull the Perfect Grape lipstick out of my Clinique makeup bag, in the car, I pull down the mirror, lean forward slightly and apply: a sweep across the right half of my upper lip, then left; a careful sweep across the bottom lip; press lips together; then take my pinky and wipe away any excess.

My mother would probably be horrified if she knew how many times I've fallen asleep, mascara still on an unwashed face. Lately, I've been rather horrified about it, too, and have been thinking more and more about my skin care regime. A few weeks ago I went to Target and bought a special astringent and night face cream. It wasn't Clinique, but it was still adding to the nightly ritual. At night, after I wash my face, I slowly twist off the cap of the bottle of the astringent, place the cotton ball to the top, and turn it over. As I sweep the cotton ball across my face, which looks shinier, younger, and fresher than in the daytime, I raise my eyebrows slightly and smile. Often, my cat Mufasa perches on the toilet and stares at me as I do this.

This week, I bought Clinique products for the first time. I considered going to Macy's, so I could buy them from the Clinique counter, a place I had visited so many times as a girl with my mother. I couldn't quite bear that idea. Instead, I ordered the products online: an eye cream, and two lipsticks. One of the lipsticks is new, a product my mother never got to see. But the other is still the same—Almost Lipstick in Black Honey.

The packaging is exactly as I remembered it.


  1. Your writing reminds me of what a huge impact I'm having on my daughters. I can only hope they love me as much as you love your mom when they grow up.

  2. About halfway through this I remembered her laugh-just like it was yesterday. That laugh is unforgettable and warm. Such sweet memories. -Eileen