Every day, my 19-month-old daughter Layla requests to flip through an old school photo album my dad gave me as a present in my early twenties. He made one for each of his children and each has thirty or so pictures of us at various ages with our mom. Over and over I have told her who is in the pictures, “Granddad, Grandma Wendy. Mommy, Aunt T, Uncle Pete, Grandma Wendy. Yes, Mommy was a little girl once, too.”
Maybe it was PMS, maybe it was the current stress of my job or our upcoming move from our apartment or some part of me wondering how I’m going to explain my mom’s death to my daughter some day, but on February 23, I hopped on eBay and ordered “Vtg 1970’s Estee Lauder Youth Dew Body Satinee Lotion 8 fl oz Glass Pump Bottle.”
It was the lotion my mom always had in her bathroom. It had a signature scent. It smelled like my mom. I didn’t even know that was what it was called. I googled “Estee Lauder Green Bottle pump” and there it was. The pale green. The old logo. Your memory changes things over time but this remained the same. It looked exactly the same. I was hoping I could find a newer bottle, perhaps from the early 1990s. The seller’s description relayed that about seventy percent of the lotion remained. That was good enough for me.
The bottle arrived on February 28, in a flurry of other packages. I quickly hid it in the bathroom Layla and I share, in the cabinet under the sink. I wasn’t ready to tell my husband: “hey, I bought some gross lotion from the ‘70s to attempt to feel close to my dead mom.”
I peeked in on it periodically. I got as far as opening the box, taking a quick whiff, and carefully putting it away. It was wrapped in bubble wrap and then a clear plastic bag and some of the lotion had come out of the pump and seeped into the bubble wrap.
I finally opened it on March 5, when I was home sick from work with bronchitis.
I can smell it before I even take out of the box. I wait to take the bubble wrap off. My eyes well up. Is it exactly the same smell I remember? It is clearly close enough.
I open it carefully. I’m treating it like a fossil, something much more fragile than it actually is. A potential tactile connection to my mom, for the first time in 27 years.
I remind myself that this wasn’t my mom’s bottle. Her hands never touched it. This bottle is at least 35 years old. The lotion isn’t fresh but it is enough. I close my eyes and try to picture my parent’s bathroom. No, Mom never did her make-up in that one. She put her red lipstick on in the powder room downstairs. Clinique. With a lip brush, never a quick swipe from the tube. She almost never wore any other make-up. She had olive skin, was never pasty like I am. She had a pointy nose – traces of it can be seen in my profile- and a mole on the back of her neck on the bottom right. Between professional hair colorings, she used Loving Care to hide her greys herself, accidentally adding a fuschia tint once.
Such trivial details! I want so much more. I’ve spent years trying not to think about her, think about how much I miss her and now I want nothing more than to remember it all.
I don’t want my daughter to know her solely from pictures and the odd video from the ‘80s. I sit here crying, holding some stranger’s bottle of ancient lotion and wishing, willing for so much more.
I think about my mom playing the upright Baldwin piano, a gift from my dad on their first wedding anniversary, which my sister and I ultimately played. Mom wrapping gifts, tying her own homegrown miniature roses or snapdragons into the ribbons. Mom kneading dough for potica or pizza. Mom making crafts as thank you gifts for our elementary school teachers. Mom sewing costumes for my many dance recitals or clothes for my sister and me. Mom holding articles or recipes at arm’s length near our sunny kitchen window, her silent refusal to get prescription reading glasses. Mom and I painting with bits of sponge on snow days, AM radio on in the background. Mom thumbing through her small wooden recipe box, which now sits in my kitchen cabinet. I remind myself to find a real place of honor for it in our next home.
At my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday party last April, we sat in my husband’s childhood den and watched a video my brother-in-law expertly assembled with sound bites from all of us. Our favorite memories of her, our favorite foods she makes. Her children apologized for incidents from their younger days that may have upset her. We thanked her for all that she does. What an amazing mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother (“Meemie”) she is.
Afterwards, I cried as quietly as possible in the room in which my husband, daughter and I were staying.
“I’m so sorry, hon. I didn’t realize,” he said.
“Today is not about me. It’s not. I’ll be fine in a few minutes.”
I was so supremely jealous of them. All of their memories. All of that wonderful life. Every milestone that they have experienced with her. Graduations, weddings, pregnancies, children. Even the bad stuff, too.
I take a pump from the bottle. Whatever remains of the lotion is thin and clear. I rub it into my hands anyway. I look around our living room, as if expecting some apparition of my mom to show up. I consider grabbing some actual things of hers, her charm bracelet or a few of her gold rings that I never wear because all of my jewelry is silver. Maybe that would do it. But I feel just as without her as I always do and envy those people who can find or maintain some sort of palpable connection to someone they’ve lost.
What details will my daughter associate with me? My hair, my watch, my engagement ring, the bracelet my mother-in-law gave me with my daughter’s name that I never take off? Most mornings, I buckle Layla into her carrier on my torso and talk her through my make-up routine while my husband gets dressed. I never really had the opportunity to get ready with my mom. Will Layla and I do our make-up together when she’s older? Is that something moms and adult daughters do?
Sugarcube. When I was a little girl, my mom called me Sugarcube.
The bottle is heavy. I turn it around. The description on the back makes me smile.
Youth Dew Satinee is the perfect adjunct to your bath. It satin-smoothes every inch of you as it wraps you in the all-over aura of the hauntingly beautiful Youth-Dew fragrance.