The thing about beauty is that it’s never just about beauty.
In a pre-war Brooklyn building on Ocean Avenue, I watched carefully as my grandmother, Jenya, prepared for a night out. It was 1992 and only three years since we immigrated to the US from the USSR. As a five-year-old, I didn’t know much about beauty rituals but I was fascinated by all the bottles on her dresser. I couldn’t help but think they were an assortment of mysterious potions. She sat in front of her mirror and carefully applied her lipstick, usually Revlon or Maybelline, whatever was on sale at the local drugstore and usually in a shade of pink.
I loved watching her go through each step, meticulously applying powder with a vintage large round powder puff. Using a gold Yves Saint Laurent palette, she applied shades of black and grey eyeshadow to create a smokey eye. She is glamorous, I thought. It was as though she immediately transformed into another version of herself. She stood a little taller, stronger and the world became a little simpler. An extra oomph when everything was uncertain and foreign in a new country.
As I meticulously reorganized each drawer, the sound of plastic hitting each other as containers shifted, I asked her incessant questions on what she was doing. What is that for? When do you use it? She turned away from the mirror and smiled at me, with soft, kind eyes and unconditional love. Oh you know, this and that, my grandmother said.
My mind keeps wandering to my grandmother’s apartment, the setting of my childhood, of simplicity. She had beautiful clothes that I would hide in during games of hide-and-seek, easily camouflaging my childhood self between skirt suits and soft fabrics. There’s something about the pandemic that makes me crave simplicity, games of hide-and-seek and endless laughter. I would pull out the most colorful scarves and try them on my tiny frame, leaving a trail of fabric behind me. One purple fringe scarf in particular was so long that I could wrap myself in it five times over, with room to spare. Although you could barely see where the dress ended and I began, I remember feeling very sophisticated, wrapped up in sequins and color. She would laugh and call me her Shayna maidel in Yiddish, her pretty girl.
My parents and I eventually moved from Brooklyn to New Jersey but on Friday nights, we would drive back to spend the weekend with my grandparents. Many of those weekends involved birthday celebrations at banquet-style Russian restaurants of the 90s. Women arrived in mink coats draped over their shoulders, walking into the restaurant as though the streets of Brooklyn were their personal red carpet – confident, strong, beautiful. Inside the restaurant, showgirls performed cabaret-style in two-piece sequined sets and bands played Europop songs mixed in with Russian ballads. As a Russian child of the 90s, it was considered normal to attend these nightclub parties and dance until 2am, or fall asleep on three chairs pushed together while your parents danced all night along. My grandmother often had at least one outfit change per night. For me, the most memorable part was the time we spent preparing for each event.
My mother, grandmother and I would often go to a nail salon on Avenue M in Midwood. I didn’t have much need for a manicure but looking back, that wasn’t really the point. She would ask me about my new school, new friends and eventually, boys. We sat in three pedicure chairs in a row. Russian women from around the neighborhood crowded into the tiny salon, anxiously waiting for their turn. Arguments would often erupt when someone claimed to have gotten there first. At the time, I found the process to be an annoyance. Now, I look back with nostalgia and miss it terribly. Oh, to be standing shoulder to shoulder with a stranger and not worry about contracting a deadly virus.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, our weekly beauty rituals were a way for my grandmother and I to connect. She loved knowing about my life, as trivial as I’m sure it was, and cared tremendously about the details. Our beauty maintenance sessions were a conduit for being together.
For some reason, I keep thinking about these moments, every morning when I get ready and every time my daughter decides to investigate my closet. I see her looking at me as I put on my makeup, trying on my clothes, walking around in shoes that are twice as big as her feet, asking to wear my lipstick. Just a little, mama, she says. Dresses that were once neatly hanging in a closet now fly past me out of the corner of my eye. I imagine this moment from her perspective and feel both intense adoration and nostalgia. Grief overwhelms you at the most unexpected times, even when you’re telling your daughter about the trials and tribulations of mascara.
A silent voice whispers to me, this used to be you. My grandmother and I can no longer go to the nail salon together and all the products on her beauty counter are long gone. There’s no way to go through her makeup or try on her purple scarves. She can’t hold my tiny hand in hers and she won’t be turning back at me with a smile or wrapping me in her arms. Her Brooklyn apartment is empty.
Beauty is my connection to my grandmother. Beauty allows us an opportunity to be transported to a more carefree space, an occasion to celebrate and dance all night long. It is a daily escape and connection to our loved ones and in a pandemic, maybe we all need one. Among all the ambiguity and disappointment this year, there is one thing that remains certain. When I slowly put on my own lipstick, I do so to add levity in the midst of impossible decisions.
My daughter, now five-years-old, walks into the room in her pajamas and messy hair as I finish getting ready for a night out. What are you doing, mama? My husband and I are about to leave for an engagement dinner. My favorite Yves Saint Laurent saharienne eyeshadow palette rests next to the sink, almost empty from daily use. She hugs my waist and looks up at me as I apply mascara. I put on some pink lipstick, turn towards her and smile lovingly,
Just having some fun…
This article is dedicated to my grandmother, who passed away two days after her 81st birthday from COVID-19 in March 2021.