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Kabuki Beauty
By Ellie Devers

When my mother got terminally ill with liver cancer, from an excess of bourbon and rage, I, along with the doctors treating her at the time, decided to put her into a nursing home.

Towards the end of my mother's life when we both were informed that she had approximately six months to live, I felt that it was imperative that we say to each other anything that we always wanted to say. One of the most important things I was able to tell her was that everything in this life that I hold dear, everything that gives me joy and comfort, I first learned about from her.

She taught me about literature, and humor, and God and communication, all the things that I love today.

I'd be sitting next to her and holding her hand telling her that no matter what, she was my mother and even though we definitely had some tough times I was very grateful that she raised me all by herself and that I loved her dearly.

I would go on and on while she looked at me, stared at me actually, with such intensity. She had these Buddha-like eyes filled with understanding and wisdom, the kind of wisdom one is only privy to in the last stages of one's life. One day as I was sitting there talking for what seemed like hours, she suddenly began to speak. I remember holding my breath, waiting for some kind of revelation that would give my life meaning and then, with moist eyes and quivering syllables, in a voice so low that I had to put my head down near her to hear it, she said…

"Ellouise, how do you get your teeth so white?"

For some reason during the last six months of my mother's life she became obsessed with my looks. This really shouldn't come as a surprise as we are talking about someone who wore industrial strength tape on her face for most of her life.

I think it's important at this point to explain that almost all of her adult life, my mother wore visible tape on her face as a makeshift face-lift. No matter what the season, the time of day, or occasion. Not illness, nor high winds, no, NOTHING came between her and her daily application of face tape. She often, because of her vanity, would not wear her glasses, so she had mad dashes of makeup here and there, with absolutely no attempt at blending it in. She had kind of a Jackson Pollack way of applying makeup.

All of a sudden, this woman who I thought was too weak to form a sentence, was talking non-stop. "Ellouise, why so downtrodden? There is a lot a girl can do nowadays to really look beautiful. You are a celebrity, darling. You must take care of your looks! You owe it to your public!"

I hardly think that doing a couple of feminine hygiene commercials constitutes stardom, but she was so adamant about it that I started to feel -- why yes, I am a star! "What a good eye you have, Mother!" Plus I had reached a point in my life where I realized that sometimes it is just better to surrender to what is actually happening as opposed to forcing your agenda on the situation. And although I did feel that our 11th hour conversations should be more along the lines of forgiving each other and clearing the resentment-filled air between us, if my mother wanted to be in a world of lip gloss and push-up bras, then who was I to fight her?

Plus, I realized that I only had a little time left with her and I wanted to do anything I could to please her.

So, I started to wear a lot of makeup. I mean, A LOT of make-up. It started slowly at first, a little concealer here, a dash of eye shadow there, you know, subtle touches. But it seemed to delight her so much that as time went on I really went for it. I dyed my hair as black as I possibly could. I wore highlighting cream on my cheekbones, deep ruby red lipstick with lip liner, a good sturdy foundation, I even flirted with the idea of false eyelashes for awhile.

Suffice it to say that by the end of my mother's life I looked like I was made up for Kabuki theatre. The aides would come in to give my mother her medicine and my back would be to them. But when I would turn around and they caught a glimpse of me, they dropped their trays and went screaming out of the room. What the hell is going on at bed #33??

One of my mother's last requests was for me to buy her a "good thesaurus." I loved that about her. Up until her very last day of life she loved words and would have me look up any word and test her on it. "SUPERCILIOUS, Mama." "SOLIPSISTIC…" She always got it right. Sometimes it took a while, but she always got it.

Being with my mother by her bed during those final days as I watched her sleep, reminded me of a much earlier time, when she and I were both in bed, but no one was sick. We were still living in Bronxville, and in my room there were two twin beds where my mother and I slept. My father slept, or I should say slept it off, in the master bedroom. I think my mother was working overtime to make up for the mistake of marrying an alcoholic. She was always trying to distract me from being worried about him. It didn't work of course, but I really don't think she knew what else to do. At one point in her continuous quest for beauty and a little magic, she put glow-in-the-dark stars all over the ceiling. I think she was going for the look of the ceiling in Grand Central Station with all the constellations and astrological signs. We really didn't have enough stars for that effect. We only had enough for Gemini and Sagittarius -- our signs.

I have such a clear memory of looking up at those glow-in-the-dark stars when we would be hiding out from my father in our little twin beds. The lights would be out, but the stars still glowing, and Mom would say, "Honey, let's meet each other in our dreams. I think a good way to do that is to have different color balloons and that way we can identify each other. I am going to have a deep indigo balloon like the night sky, and on one side it will be indigo and the other it will be indigo with the beginnings of sunrise; a deep orange and magenta and just the tiniest trace of yellow starting up from the bottom of the balloon the way the sun would rise up over the horizon and within that there will be lightning striking throughout. Silver streaks of lightning. That's my balloon, Ellouise. What balloon will you have?"

"Gee mom, I was just going to go with yellow."

My mother always wanted to make things prettier. I'm sorry she didn't always succeed. But I loved that she always tried.

At the end of my mother's life, I'd sit by her bed, all dolled up with my jet-black hair and ruby red lips, and read to her from the thesaurus.

As she gently fell asleep, I'd whisper, "Look for my balloon, Mom."

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