do not hail from a family of wise women.
great-grandmother Maria Steenebeken had 14 children and on her way
to America, she accidentally left two behind. I guess this was before
they invented the "head count" and it must've been a lot
like a field trip gone awry; the bus stops to gas up at a mini-mart,
a couple of kids run to the bathroom and don't make it back in time.
So for my family, instead of a mini-mart, it was Poland.
of the lucky ones to make it across was my grandmother, Annie. Despite
Annie's ability to leap from shipyard dock to freighter bound for
freedom, she was not fast on her feet intellectually. She was mild
and without opinion so it at least showed spunk on her part when
she later embraced bigotry and paranoia, turning suspicious of answering
machines, Connie Chung, men in sandals and birth control. Which
brings us to my mother. Emma Lee. Emma's advice to me growing up
was not about guarding my dreams, or that happiness was my birthright.
I wish I could say it was something like Tennyson's 'Knowledge comes,
but wisdom lingers.' No, her advice was "Stand up straight.
It shows off your boobies."
My mother was a maniacal seller of Tupperware, a pusher of Avon,
a dealer of Mary Kay cosmetics. She'd invest in these starter kits
-- $150 for a box of lipsticks, rouges, nail polishes, powders,
perfumes - perfumes that lingered in the shag carpet and plaid couch
of our wood-paneled rec room. You know the room: brown, musty, just
killing time until it would rock with Van Halen and become the teenage
dry-humping den of every suburban home.
The Carpenters would sing about rainy days and Mondays while we
helped with the inventory. We were complicit in my mother's dreams,
my sisters and I. Here's what we were going to get for just $150
down: Glamour! Diamonds, caviar, pink Cadillacs, a pair of standard
poodles named Henry & Orestes, martinis, a two-pack-a-day habit.
Glamour spelled o-u-r. My mom did work up to two packs a day, Winstons,
but we were a little shaky on the rest of it.
she never made a dime. First off, she was terrible with money. She'd
miscalculate her orders or loan out items, then be too embarrassed
to ask the neighbors to pay up. "It's crass to talk about money,"
she'd whisper. If someone gave her five for a $20 dollar order,
she'd say, "No, no, it's no biggie, hon." She'd tally
her orders on Sunday nights, sigh, then ask my dad for money to
pay the electricity and phone. Come Monday, she'd forget that the
check was for the bills and look at it like she'd never seen it
before. "Mad money!" she'd squeal, our cue to jump in
the Ford Fairlane (a burnt orange Starsky & Hutch piece
of crap), and head into town for a shopping spree at Sears. Toughskins
and halter-tops. Oh, yes.
for me, the highlight of Mom's business ventures was when I got
to accompany her to her "beauty parties." There's the
legend of how Mary Kay Ash, divorced, broke, with kids, took a job
as a bookkeeper for a man who tanned hides. People tan hides for
a living. It happens. It's Texas. The ambitious divorcee noted how
he made the skins of these dead animals so soft and supple. He'd
hang them on a clothesline, scrape them and then rub mineral oil
into the skins. This disgusting Hannibal Lecter-like tableau actually
became the Unique Selling Proposition of her billion dollar cosmetic
industry -- Mary Kay's, not my mom's. So my mother would be in the
middle of her presentation about hides and how you work the oils
up, up into your own skin, when she'd point to me across the room
where I'd inevitably be trying to steal a Hummel figurine, one of
those cute "windswept girl on skis." She'd point and say,
"with the Mary Kay skin care regime (she meant regimen) you
can turn back the hands of time and expect skin like that."
The women would turn my way and I would blush, not for the attention
but because I'd already pocketed the "little boy feeding ducks."
Even with this genius selling tool of whoring her own daughters,
my mother still lost money.
she used the samples on herself and we three girls. The rec room
was soon nothing but product. Product that was our ticket out, man.
Suitcases full of plastic burpable storage canisters and vacuum
cleaners and Amway and greeting cards and more makeup. Saleswomen
were encouraged to buy as much as possible. Many ended up with maxed
out credit cards but there were always these incentives that required
buying more products. Mom would buy more, reach a prize level and
"win" a scarf, a brooch or a small mirrored compact that
she would snap shut with the authority of an Austrian spy. These
little trinkets promised a life straight from the pages of Vogue
-- the life of Coco Chanel, of the Left Bank, carafes of wine and
inevitably, when she was an 80-year-old grande dame being pleasured
by the yet-to-be-born Orlando Bloom, a biography would be written
about her called Scandal! I hated these pyramid schemes that
sucked an entire desperate subculture into their empty promises.
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