“Want to watch me put my face on?” Grandma calls from the bathroom.
“Yes!” Five years old, I skip into the bathroom and sit on the toilet lid.
Grandma stands in front of the mirror dressed in her robe. Grabbing a small plastic rod, she dips it into a glass bottle of white liquid marked Countess Isserlyn Liquid Makeup. She withdraws the stick slowly, then uses her fingers to collect the makeup.
As she rubs it over her face, Grandma’s skin assumes a uniform, porcelain pallor.
Picking up another plastic dipper, Grandma extracts beige tint from a second bottle. With the tip of a finger, she paints a disc on the apple of each cheek.
She pauses and turns to me. “Like my clown face?” she asks, one dark eyebrow arched high over a twinkly eye.
I nod enthusiastically.
She expands the circles of beige tint across her face, and any similarity to a clown disappears. Despite her age, she has few wrinkles. Her hair is silver, wavy, and immaculately groomed. It frames angled cheekbones and a generous mouth. Her eyes are intelligent and, occasionally, mischievous.
Years later, I will learn that Grandma’s unusual, two-step foundation was created for movie stars in the 1920s. The fact will make perfect sense to me. After all, my grandmother is as beautiful as Claudette Colbert or Greta Garbo.
Checking in the mirror first to make sure she’s evened out the color across her face, Grandma rubs in a bit of rouge and carefully applies lipstick in a shade that matches the outfit she has already stretched out on her bed.
She smiles at me, and as I smile back, I hope that one day, I will be as pretty as Grandma.
Charm is deceptive, and prettiness is ephemeral; but a God-fearing woman, she shall be praised.
When I introduce friends to my grandmother, whether I’m five, fifteen, or twenty-five, they frequently comment upon her remarkable beauty. Each time it happens, my heart swells, both because I love Grandma and because maybe I can finally be beautiful, too–if only by association.
I am too tall, too plump, too clumsy, too freckly. My head is too small for my body. My nose is too small for my face. No one who is not a blood relation ever calls me pretty.
In high school, when boys don’t ask me out, I am lonely, disappointed. However, I do not blame them, because practically every other girl is prettier than me.
When a boyfriend in college insults my appearance, I just take it, because deep-down, I fear it’s true.
I try wearing makeup, like Grandma, but I forget to apply it in the morning rush. I resolve instead to take a little more care in the way I dress, but I feel like a child playing dress up. I hope my personality makes up for my face.
A couple years later, I marry. When my husband tells me I’m gorgeous, I’m so overwhelmed with happiness, I burst into tears.
The older Grandma gets, the more beautiful she seems to me. Her back hunches over, she cracks a tooth, and the wrinkles finally arrive–but she still charms everyone.
For years, I think: Genes! It must be good genes! And I hope that I’ve inherited them.
Maybe, in the long run, I will lap other women in the beauty race.
The week I turn 39, I look in the mirror, and I see my first wrinkle. After the initial panic, I start to think about what really makes Grandma beautiful. Despite a busy schedule, she always looks happy to see me. She’s a snappy conversationalist. She listens to what I say, and then months later, when she asks me a follow-up question, I realize, “She remembers that? She must really have been listening!” She volunteers for causes, she volunteers for her synagogue. She remembers birthdays and anniversaries. She has firm values and sticks to them.
Yes, she pays attention to her appearance, but she isn’t only her appearance. She is a person of dignity, giving, and intelligence. A person I can emulate.
It is spring, 2018. Grandma has just died, a month shy of 98. Before the memorial service, a funeral director asks family members if we want to sit with the body privately for a few minutes.
“Can you let me know when you replace the lid of the casket?” I ask. “I’d like to go in, but only then.” I don’t want my last image of Grandma to be of her empty shell.
“Sure,” he says, but then somehow there’s a mix-up, and when he beckons me to enter, they have not yet closed the casket.
Although I am 42 years old, I have never attended a viewing, have always avoided looking Death in the face.
I start to back away, but then I think: Perhaps, this mistake is divine providence. Perhaps, I’m supposed to look at Grandma one more time.
I creep closer.
Placing my palms against the side of the simple pine coffin, I beg my grandmother for forgiveness for all the times I failed her in her last few years, while dementia confused her and made her demanding. I apologize for the times I wasn’t patient enough, understanding enough.
And then, for the last time, I look at Grandma’s face. It’s still beautiful, but in the absence of her soul, it is merely a sculpture, a sculpture which will soon decay.
There is nothing the right makeup can do about that.
A half hour later, we sit in the chapel, ready for the eulogies to begin.
My uncles discuss Grandma’s drive, her intelligence, her patriotism. They describe her love of God and delight in Friday night dinners with the family. Mommy shares her earliest memory: Grandma lighting her Sabbath candles and praying for the wellbeing of each family member. My sister praises all our grandmother’s accomplishments–her years as sisterhood president, the business she founded and ran at a time most women were stay-at-home mothers, her political activism.
That was my grandma, I think from my position in the pews, a tissue clutched to my face. That was my amazing grandma.
Give to her [the Woman of Valor] from the fruit of her hands; and her works praise her in the gates.
There is only so much I can do about my too-small head, the wrinkles beside my eyes, my thin lips–and any efforts I make to “repair” them will begin to disintegrate the moment I am laid to rest. Yet, I can emulate Grandma’s actions, her beautiful actions, and by doing so, extend them far into the future.
Rebecca Klempner is a wife, mother, writer, and editor living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared online in Tablet Magazine, Kveller, Hevria, and JewishFiction.net, and in print in many Jewish publications, including Hamodia and The Jewish Press. Her latest book is Glixman in a Fix (Menucha Publishers 2017). You can learn more about her work and where to find it on her website, rebeccaklempner.com.