Giving Mother’s Day Beauty Gifts Is Complicated for Me
The Avon shop — a small, windowed space that used to stand in the middle of Cortelyou Road — was only five blocks away from my childhood apartment in Brooklyn. It was a distance I knew very well, as my mother often sent me there to pick up her orders. She had the Avon lady’s phone number saved in her phonebook, sharing lines and pages with childhood friends and relatives miles away in Ghana. There is a certain joy between Avon ladies and other black women, especially in the ’90s. Let me take care of you, this connection whispers. Let me help you choose how to take care of yourself.
My mother kept the Avon catalog in the bathroom, where, unsurprisingly, some of the best daydreaming and musing occurs. She’d circle her favorite products (and the ones she was interested in trying) in blue or black ink, transforming the pamphlets into constellations of desire. Satin lipsticks, glistening nail polishes, fragrances in abstract bottles, and luscious face creams were all haloed by my mother’s perfect ovals. It was a blessing to be chosen.
These are the earliest memories I have of my mother taking time to indulge in herself. To this day, fawning over Avon is still her “me time.” It’s a moment for her to escape the heat of the kitchen; the rush of working; and the everyday bustle of being a mother, a wife, and a moneymaker — to think of self-adornment.
These are the earliest memories I have of my mother taking time to indulge in herself.
I didn’t start loving skin care until seven years ago, when I discovered the secrets of life — shea butter, black soap, and coconut oil. These natural alternatives kissed my kinky curls and made my skin glow. Before that, I was loyal to apricot or grapefruit scrubs and a variety of drugstore brands. In high school, I relished Victoria’s Secret’s body sprays and lotions that lent me a sense of my developing sensuality while shrouding my pubescent funk — a kind of flowery scent that oddly articulated my teenage angst.
One day, I noticed my mother admiring the “Amber Romance” flavor — a sweet and fruity brew — in the bathroom mirror cabinet.
“Are you still using this?” she asked, but her expression suggested that whatever was mine was ultimately hers. My mother kept it, and from then on, made bi-annual requests for refills of the whole Amber Romance line — for Christmas or her birthday, and of course, Mother’s Day. It became our modest, yet nostalgic, tradition; we found ourselves within the perfumed mist, a reminder of one of the many ways our DNA overlaps.
My mother has an interesting relationship with money. She’s the kind of woman that pays with exact change.
My mother has an interesting relationship with money. She’s the kind of woman that pays with exact change. This used to make me uncomfortable when we held up lines while she counted coins or argued with cashiers over coupons and sales mistakes. Now, I see this as one of her ways of claiming space in public, of being precise and meticulous and demanding monetary respect. Now, I feel a burst of comfort when I hear the clink of silver and copper in my wallet. There’s something satisfying about coins, about grasping them, the numbers that can’t be evenly rounded out or carried over.
As I began exploring beauty writing, I wanted to share things with my mom. I started gifting her skincare and makeup products I received that I thought would be suitable for her skin type (she has sensitive skin, just like me, but her complexion is more resilient). She’s thankful for them, but she doesn’t really use them.
We talk about each product: moisturizers, retinols, cleansers, exfoliators, masks. How to use them, when and how often, how much at a time. I’m into minimal routines, so I can relate to her hesitations over putting so many things on her face and body. But often, I watch these gifts remain on her dresser unopened and forgotten. Sometimes they expire.
Growing up, we called stuff like this bougie and high class, removed from the accessible staples we bought at the drugstore or the black- and Latinx-owned beauty supply stores we patronized on Flatbush Ave.
I wonder if her hesitation lies in the products or their prices. She’ll eagery request that I restock her Victoria’s Secret, but is sometimes neglectful of the more recent things I bring her, things in shiny, dramatic boxes and bottles. Growing up, we called stuff like this bougie and high class, removed from the accessible staples we bought at the drugstore or the black- and Latinx-owned beauty supply stores we patronized on Flatbush Ave.
“These are really nice. Pretty packaging,” she says of the dewy moisturizers I bring her. “Smells good, too.”
“I read some good reviews about it,” I reply.
“Okay. But, I beg, don’t forget to get my Amber Romance. I think it’s three for $25 online.”
I smile. My mother is a creature of habit.
I don’t earn a lot of money, or live in the place of my dreams. As a black woman of immigrant parents, I’ve spent most of my life proving that the sacrifices they’ve made for me weren’t in vain. Thankfully, my mom has been the number-one fan of my writing, before I even started getting published. And she still believes in me, even when I want to give up. Giving her beauty products is the least I can do to show my devotion to her, until my paychecks swell.
Black mothers are traditionally encouraged to be the backbone of the family unit, the leading person that makes substantial sacrifices for the prosperity of the family. She is strong, she is generous, she is fiercely kind and intimidatingly firm in her decisions and strictness. My mother is all those things and more, and sometimes, she is things I wish she wasn’t. I often wonder how her prioritizing of others over herself impacts her emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health.
Romancing my body, mind, and soul are important parts of my routine and peace of mind. They are also things my mom probably views as luxuries, or indicators of my American privilege. She, a matriarch of three (four, if you include my father), was always preoccupied with caring for us and tending to our needs. As a Ghanaian woman, she holds strong, traditional values that dictate that women, especially mothers and wives, should hold their families first — gracefully and protectively above their heads, like baskets filled with produce and water.
She is strong, she is generous, she is fiercely kind and intimidatingly firm in her decisions and strictness. My mother is all those things and more.
“How come you never tried that mascara?” I ask her, remembering that I gave her one because she complained about her eyelashes falling into her eyes.
“I don’t know. I just…forget.”
Recently, I stopped in Victoria’s Secret and picked up some Amber Romance products, and a new, summery scent that doesn’t stray too far from my mother’s staple. Later, her face glows at the sight of the pink striped bag.
“What’s that?” She asks, already knowing the answer. It’s the middle of winter, with no special occasion in sight, so her curiosity is warranted. I hand her the frilly package with a smile. No thank-yous necessary.
“Was there a sale?” she asks, and I chuckle because yes, there was a bra sale, but not a fragrance one. I’ve learned to hunt for sales, an acquired skill from my mom. But, I didn’t buy any bras for me, because this trip was solely for her.
A few days later, we’re on the train, commuting to our separate work stations. She looks at me, a smirk spreading across her face, her almond eyes sparkle with excitement.
“I’m wearing the concealer you got me,” she announces, a news report amongst sticky subway poles and crowded commuters. “And I tried the night cream, too.”