I was literally the last girl in my high school allowed to wear makeup. Mama didn’t campaign for my right to self-beautification until I was nearly fifteen. Even that battle was really a diversion. I capitulated when Daddy agreed to let me pierce my ears, and the battle was forfeit, at least temporarily, for the greater cause of the war. Until that time, makeup was an abstraction I mostly doodled in my diary.
Makeup and me is really another story. This is about one of the things Mama argued that night that stuck with me long after Sir Lanced-a-lot did my ears a couple of months later. Daddy still calls makeup whore paint to this day, but the argument Mama gave him to chew on along with his overcooked roast, was that a woman makes herself pretty from instinct, not from some desire to attract boys. The fact that boys like him were attracted to it was incidental. Daddy just grunted and chewed, but her argument gave me pause for one of my rare moments of teenage reflection.
Nature or nurture?
Back before we moved to Great Falls, I was enrolled in a preschool. My teacher, Miss Lacey, knew my family. She was the first woman besides Nana I remember giving me a real hug. Miss Lacey called me Florence in front of the other kids, though it was a few years before I figured out why. Looking back, it’s probably good I didn’t understand the unfairness of how much extra attention she gave me, but at the same time, it’s probably why Nana paid to enroll me there.
Next to Miss Lacey, there wasn’t much I remembered about preschool – milk and cookies, Robert peeking at my underwear at nap time, kids who’d rather poop their pants than tell Miss Lacey they had to go, and some giant plastic building blocks William liked to hit everyone over the head with. But I remember the first time Miss Lacey gave us fingerpaints. I’ve explained my travails with Daddy, so it bears no mention I’d never played with paints, or crayons, or anything else that would likely subject me to fantasies. Miss Lacey was well aware, but she insisted I paint too, and it would be our little secret.
The paints were an explosion of red, yellow and blue delight squeezed from little tubes. What my four-year-old vocabulary would have dubbed such a thing, I don’t know, but I remember thinking the bright yellow was like liquid sunshine in a little dimpled dish. The sun, to my thinking, was a giant eye. I imagined it hiding behind a giant magnifying glass trying to burn us all the way Carla’s brother showed us to burn ants… But anyway, it was an eye, and that gave me an idea.
Miss Lacey showed us how to mix the colors, thin them with water, clean our fingers between colors without wiping them on our clothes. Then she gave us paper and set us free to create. I listened with swelling pride to her comments as she stopped by each painting in turn, asking each artist about their inspiration, praising each child’s efforts. The other kids all said things like, house, and bird, and mommy. The most inventive thing anyone said was, “That’s you, Miss Lacey!” It was nearly time to put the paints away when she finally realized with some excitement that I was missing.
“Oh my God! Where’s Florence? Has anyone seen Florence?”
My heart raced with adrenaline as I was suddenly sure I was in trouble.
“She’s in the bafroom,” said Robert. Underwear-peeping rat fink.
Miss Lacey flung the bathroom door open and surveyed the scene. I had climbed up onto the bathroom sink to get in front of the mirror. My paper had been abandoned in favor of a more interesting canvas, and I had carefully painted all around one of my eyes with the watercolors.
“Florence, what on Earth are you doing?” It was probably obvious I was nearly in tears, as she quickly corrected, ” I mean what are you painting, sweetheart?”
“It’s posta be God,” I remember saying a little shakily, mad that it suddenly sounded just as boring as everyone else.
Miss Lacey gave my artwork a wrinkled expression. “Why is God crying?” she finally asked.
I looked at myself in the mirror, puzzled. I’d never seen anyone’s mascara run from crying so I had no idea what she meant. “He’s not crying,” I said, shaking my head. “He’s shining frough the window.”
“The one in the sky,” I nodded. “Nana says eyes are windows to the soul.”
Miss Lacey gave it a moment of thought. “Sunshine,” she said at last, sounding somewhat bewildered. “What are all the little colored dots?”
“People!” I said, pointing proudly to my reflection, unaware that she couldn’t tell what I was pointing at. “The red ones are on fire, cuz he burned ’em wif his mag’ifyin’ glass.”
Miss Lacey stood quietly for a while to admire God’s soul with me. Eventually, she took a picture of me, and then made me wash my face so the other kids wouldn’t get any ideas. She kept her promise, and so my parents never found out about our little secret.
Nature or nurture? I’ll leave that up to you. Answers are just places where great questions go to die. But sitting years later, listening to Mama’s argument at the supper table, two things were for certain. One, at age four, I’d had an instinct to paint my face. Two, it had nothing to do with attracting boys.
As I said, I capitulated.
© 2013 Anne Schilde