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Miriam Mandel Levi

The Makeup Lesson

I had the glow of youth, the glow of pregnancy, the glow of young motherhood, and then, as if from one day to the next, I turned fifty and looked old. No matter how much I slept, how much water I drank, how much I exercised, my skin looked sallow, like I'd been locked in a basement for years or suffered from multiple vitamin deficiencies. People started to ask me if I was tired when I wasn't, sick when I wasn't. Someone misconstrued my dark circles for black eyes.

I needed makeup.

In the Seventies and Eighties, when my peers’ faces glowed with bronze tanner and their lips shimmered with iridescent gloss, my look was au naturel. That this avoidance of makeup might have been a poor life choice was brought to my attention by great Uncle Max at my sister’s wedding. I was twenty-eight and single when Raisy, twenty-three, got married.

“You know vy you’re not married?” Uncle Max asked, leaning in so close I could smell the gin on his breath. I girded myself for the answer.

“Because you don’t do nothin’ with yourself,” he shouted. “Put a little color on your face and you’ll ketch a husband too.” He nodded once, as if to indicate that the matter had been decided upon and tossed back the rest of his drink.

Twenty-five years later, husband long secured, I remembered Uncle Max’s advice. The Mac store in the Mamilla mall in Jerusalem was dimly lit with black floors, counter tops, and chairs. A saleswoman around twenty, dressed in black with a vampire Goth look, was my consultant. “I want to look natural,” I told her, “like I’m not wearing makeup.”

I climbed onto a high director’s chair. She rubbed lotion onto my face with her fourth finger, then dabbed a thicker cream under my eyes and across my nose with her third finger. I wondered whether the finger choice was significant. From a selection of some twenty brushes, she chose a thick one and applied powder to my cheeks, forehead and neck. The suspense built.

Uncle Max would have been pleased had I opted to look like his wife, Aunty Tessie, the most glamorous of my great aunts. Whereas the others aunts’ faces were pale and puffy like kreplach, Aunty Tessie's eye lids were colored blue and her cheeks a lickable pink. Her white hair was stiff with spray and her neck, wrists and fingers ornamented in gold. She smelled like an entire hedge of lilacs. Aunty Tessie reminded me of an ancient movie star, though she had been a housewife and mother all her life.

I never tried to emulate Aunty Tessie. Among my immediate family and friends, no one fussed over appearances. My mother dressed with understated elegance, but stopped short at face moisturizer and a coat of lipstick. My friends and I were Seventies flower children with a social contract—we didn't shave our legs, blow-dry our hair, wear jewelry (except beads) or apply makeup. Our only indulgence was the Eastern-scented Patchouli oil we dabbed on our wrists. In our ripped jeans and Greb boots we mocked the girls who prissed and preened, who weren't satisfied, as we pretended to be, with their unadorned selves.


“That's it,” the Goth consultant said, swiveling the mirror my way. A familiar face looked back at me.

“I look the same,” I said.

“Well you said you didn't want to look like you were wearing makeup.”

“Um, could you add a little more?”

She shot me an exasperated look, then turned the mirror away and began again. More powder, pencils, palettes.

“How's that?” she asked and I looked in the mirror again. Alice Cooper came to mind. I sent a photo of myself to my daughter for a more objective appraisal.

“NO MOM!!” She wrote back. I thanked Drusilla, went into the nearest public bathroom and wiped my face clean with five individually packaged hand wipes from Café Joe. Walking back to the parking lot I looked at the women passersby in my age range. Most looked lovely—pink-hued, bright-eyed, glossy lipped, as if some inner light had found its way to the surface. Was it so much to ask?

During my teens and twenties, I’d walk through the cosmetic departments of stores (on my way to other departments) and saleswomen from Cover Girl, Maybelline and Yardley would accost me. Plain-faced, I was the perfect prey. I’d outrun them but not before they flung a sample or two my way. I’d take the small jars home, unscrew the lids, sniff their contents then tuck them on a high shelf in my mirror cabinet for some day far in the future when I might be the kind of person who wore makeup.

My avoidance of makeup was not entirely hippie dogma. I also didn't like the way I looked. I wanted to avoid giving my face any more attention than it absolutely deserved, so I kept self-care routines to a minimum: teeth brushing, face washing and nose blowing. I suppose I felt about makeup the way an obese person might feel about shopping for clothes. No fabrics, cuts or colors are flattering if there's something inherently wrong with the model. There was no point trying on faces.

As the years went by, I became entrenched in my non-makeup ways. My plain face fit my bohemian image. I couldn't very well eat tofu and brown rice, listen to Bruce Cockburn, read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance…and pencil my eyebrows.

Soon after the fiasco at the Mac store, I travelled to Toronto to attend my nephew's wedding. My sister suggested I have my makeup done for the event.

“No,” I said, unequivocally.

“Come on, you're going to see relatives and friends you haven't seen for years. Why not look your best?”

“This is my best. It doesn’t get any better”

Ten minutes later an email arrived: Kirsch Cosmetic Studio, 500 Marlee, Monday, Dec 28th at 1 p.m.

In contrast to the Mac store, Kirsch was brightly lit with white counter tops and display cases selling scarves, hair ornaments, jewelry, nail polish and makeup. The receptionist escorted me to a small waiting area with an espresso machine and assortment of herbal teas. “Samantha will be with you in a few minutes,” she said.

I sat on a leather couch. In front of me, on a glass table, Sofia Vergara looked up from the cover of Glamour. “Go home,” she mouthed. I got up and peeked into the makeup room. There was a swivel barber-style chair and a mirror bordered by small lights, like in a Hollywood dressing room. Beneath the mirror on several shelves were jars and palettes in an astonishing array of colors.

Samantha arrived and introduced herself.

“You look like Scarlett Johansson,” I said, staring at her lips.

“Thanks,” she replied. “Sometimes I get Sandra Bullock. It depends on how I do my makeup.” Seriously? Could I request Julia Roberts? Angelina Jolie?

I gave her The Speech. I don't wear makeup. I don't look good in it. Nobody has ever done my makeup well. It has to be subtle. Not too subtle that it's not noticeable. But not overdone, either.

“Your sister warned me about you,” she said with a smile. “Don't worry. I won't do anything you don't approve of.”

She worked methodically, explaining each step of the process.

“We'll start with moisturizer then add base and concealer.”

She dabbed the lotions with her fourth finger on my cheeks, nose, chin and forehead. Slowly the blemishes on my skin disappeared and the dark shadows receded. I looked a little pale but my skin had a smooth, even tone.

“I know it seems crazy,” she said. “We take away the color then add it back again.”

She brushed on bronze and rouge and the color returned to my face, not my former mottle, but a healthy flush as if I'd spent the summer with Heidi and Peter herding goats on a Swiss mountain top. I was beginning to like this.

Next she applied eye liner and mascara and my brown eyes grew wide and flashing. I looked so much better than my old self that I wondered how I'd ever go back. “I love it,” I said. “Can I take you home with me?”

She laughed.

“You don't have to. You can come back for a lesson and I'll teach you how to do it yourself. An hour and a half. I do one side of your face, you do the other.”


I didn't even ask the price.

A week later I had my lesson. My application was not as expert as Samantha’s but not bad for a novice. When we were done, I purchased a one year, $250 supply of makeup. Samantha handed me the bag of clinking jars, I thanked her and headed toward the door.

“Oh, I forgot to ask,” I said, turning around, “What if I cry? I mean, you know, the eye liner and mascara.”

“The makeup is waterproof,” she said. “That's sweet, though. You must really love your nephew.”

I did, but I wasn't thinking of him. I had just caught a glimpse of my radiant countenance in the store window. It was enough to move me to tears.

Miriam Mandel Levi lives in Israel with her husband and three children. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction's anthology Same Time Next Week, Literary Mama, Brain Child, Under the Sun, Poetica and Tablet.

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