The Eye of the Beholder

In a recent post I touched upon how I don’t normally participate in Facebook memes, but last week I was tagged again to participate in yet another one. This time the culprit was my younger sister, Saundra.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or you don’t have Facebook), you might have seen this meme making the rounds on your own personal newsfeed – it’s the “Natural Beauty” meme. It’s usually aimed at women and what it does is encourage the tagged user to post a photo of herself in her natural, beautiful state – without makeup or other enhancements. The photos are also not allowed to be edited by tools like Photoshop.

Up until Saundra tagged me, I’d successfully avoided participating. Women all over my feed were posting makeup-less, filter-less photos left, right, and center. My feed was full of natural, fresh-faced women, smiling in their selfies.

Every time one popped up, I cringed. Every single one of them was beautiful, but I cringed because I was terrified I’d be tagged. The last thing I wanted to do was post a hideous, “natural” picture of myself on Facebook for 200+ people to see. No thank you.

When it comes to makeup, I was an “early adopter”. Looking back, I’d pinpoint the time I first starting using it around the age of twelve. I started simple, using a colourful eyeliner and Lip Smackers lipgloss for fun, but once teenage acne settled in and took reign of my face I quickly upgraded to using foundation (a non-comodegenic one, of course) and pressed powder. The foundation covered my blemishes but it also washed out my already-pale skin tone, so it paved the way for cheekbone-enhancing blush. Then came eyeshadow and mascara to play up my eyes. I liked experimenting with different colours and shades. I couldn’t draw worth a damn, but I had a knack for working with makeup. For once in my young life, I felt like an artist.

But it was a double-edged sword. I enjoyed wearing makeup, but at the same time I knew I did it to cover myself up. When I was a child, I used to watch my mother “put her face on” whenever she’d go out on a Saturday night. By the time I was fifteen I was “putting my face on” every single day, whether or not I had anywhere to go, because I was embarrassed to be seen without it. I didn’t want anyone to se the mess of blemishes and scarring underneath. I was ashamed of how I looked.

To be honest, I’m still ashamed of how I look. My teenage acne has only morphed into adult acne. I’m almost thirty, but my skin still thinks it’s thirteen. If I have anywhere to be – work, out running errands, even the gym – I make sure my face is covered. You’d think Saundra, my sister, who’s known me for all her almost-24-years of life, would know that there was no way in hell I’d post of photo of myself sans makeup.

But she went ahead and tagged me anyway.

When I saw the notification and clicked on it, I swore. Audibly. Obviously just because I’m tagged doesn’t mean I have to do it. I wasn’t being held at gunpoint or anything. I told Saundra it was bloodly unlikely she’d see a photo of my makeup-less face gracing her newsfeed anytime soon, even though she encouraged me to do so. She’s so kind, my little sister. She told me she loves the way I look without it. She sees the good in everyone – always has, always will. Even though she’s the youngest in our blended family of five children, she is the shining light. She is the common denominator; the glue that holds us all together. Sometimes I think I love her a little too much.

And because she never asks me for anything, I feel the need to oblige her.

It took some talking myself into it. It helped a little when I decided to look at her request as a challenge. Sometimes I like being pushed outside my comfort zone – I find it therapeutic. But, as with most things challenges I take on, I’d rather do it in a go-big-or-go-home manner, so this post was born.

In case your curious, here’s my normal war paint:

War Paint

 

This pile of makeup is what goes on my face on a daily basis. The routine takes roughly twenty minutes to complete.

This is the result:

Made Up

Oh, hello!

No matter what, if you ever see me anywhere outside of my house, the above is what will greet you. I’m pretty sure I ran the entire Mud Hero obstacle course last year with a full face on, which I readily admit is absolutely ridiculous.

I realize some of you dear readers might think I’m completely ’round the twist to care about what I look like to such an extreme. Part of it is because, yes, I admit my self confidence isn’t at the level I’d like it to be. I was picked on quite badly throughout elementary school and junior high, especially regarding my appearance, and the taunts and teasings have never really left me. I still think of myself as the ugly duckling, never once believing I might now be a swan. I honestly just became comfortable with wearing my glasses out in public within the last two years. That saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is bullshit. I’ve felt ugly most of my life.

But today, even if only for a moment, I’m reclaiming my face. I’m reclaiming my sense of beauty; my sense of who I am.

This is me:

Natural

No foundation to cover up the flaws. No eyeliner and mascara to make my eyes appear bigger. No blush to lend my cheeks a rosy glow or gloss to plump my lips. There’s even a blemish on my forehead.

This is me.

This is me. 

A Date With Nostalgia

My nana, my mother’s mother, died almost four years ago now. It was a Monday evening in early November. I was at Dave’s house when my mother called to tell me the news.

I’ll never forget that phone call.

My mother and my grandmother had been at odds throughout the entirety of their lives together. The animosity between them was palpable. I grew up knowing that something wasn’t right between them. Nana visited every Sunday morning and spent almost every Christmas with my mother and I, but every visit was awkward and fraught with tension. I mean it when I say every single visit would end in an argument.

Even though my mom’s relationship with Nana was strained, my relationship with her hadn’t been. I loved her, but that love was kept at a distance by my mother’s rancour. I didn’t know how to process my feelings for my grandmother. It was glaringly obvious that my mother didn’t trust her. Because of that mistrust Nana and I didn’t spend much time together, only those Sunday mornings, but the air was always thick with animosity.

Even still, I loved her.

I loved her clipped Quebecois accent and how she said my name. I loved her impeccable red lipstick and penciled-on eyebrows – she was like a time warp from the 1940s. I loved the way she smelled. I loved that she always dressed up, no matter where she went. She always wore stockings and silk scarves around her neck. I loved that she always brought us something, usually homemade. in an old wicker basket. I loved that I could always predict her Christmas presents – every year I’d get a new nightgown and a new bath towel. And I loved how every Christmas, without fail, she would always make date squares.

My mother always felt indebted to hers, even though she couldn’t explain why. For instance, even though she’s the youngest of her siblings, once Nana’s health started to decline it was up to my mom to provide care and support. My mom’s oldest sister lived almost three thousand kilometres away and couldn’t be there to help. The other two children, another aunt and my uncle, kept their distance. It was common knowledge in my family that Nana hadn’t been the best mother to them and each of her children had their own demons to sort out with her. Half of them had given up long ago, but not my mother.

She resented it, but she cared for her. Mom maintained the sentiment that, although she didn’t wish her mother dead, there’d be no love lost once Nana passed on. She felt that way until the final moment – that moment when you can no longer take back all the harsh words and hurt feelings.

I was at Dave’s apartment the night Nana died. We’d only been dating for a few months at the time and our relationship was a long distance one – we were separated by a three-hour drive and only saw one another on weekends. I was at his place on a Monday evening because I’d taken a week’s vacation from work. We were so happy to be together, watching a movie in his room.

And then the phone rang.

I couldn’t make out a word my mom was saying from how hard she was sobbing.

I’d told her for years she’d be inconsolable when Nana died and she’d always scoffed. She hadn’t believed me, but I knew. I knew that my mother, for all her harshness, would never make it through the loss of hers without feeling it. I was right. She was gutted, and rightfully so.

When Nana died, I didn’t go home right away – I stayed with Dave until the morning of her funeral. I didn’t stay away because I was sad, I stayed away because I didn’t want to deal with the mixture of emotions I knew would be running high through my family. I didn’t want to deal with my mother’s tears and the rehashing of her childhood with my aunts and uncle, the same thing they always did when they all got together. I didn’t want to deal with the confusion that all my cousins surely felt, seeing their parents in their varying stages of upset.

Most of all, I didn’t want them to see that I was decidedly not dealing with it.

I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t sad. My last memory of Nana had been a good one and I was grateful for it. I didn’t know how to describe how I felt. I just went through the motions, talking to my mother on the phone to make sure she was okay, ensuring her I’d be home for the funeral. No, I didn’t want to see Nana one more time before she was cremated. Yes, I was fine. It wasn’t about me.

On Friday morning, Dave and I got up early and drove home. I’m sure he was nervous – he was about to meet my entire family – but if he was he didn’t show it. We cranked the music loud and drove straight through PEI and New Brunswick, arriving in Halifax with an hour to spare. I hastily threw on a black and white dress and a black cardigan and he sloppily roped on a tie.

The service was non-denomenational, but it was really nice. I was surprised at how many people were there. Nana had so many friends I’d never known about. I remember Dave held my hand, but my eyes were dry and they stayed that way until the reception afterward.

We made our way into a large room, set aside for everyone to gather and pay their respects to my family. There were tables full of food – crackers and cheese, sandwiches and sweets. Never one to turn down a brownie or two, I made a beeline to the table piled high with them, which is exactly where my resolve left me.

On one platter, right in the middle of them all, were date squares.

And I

just

lost it. 

I starting sobbing because Christmas was six weeks away and there wouldn’t be any date squares that year. At that moment, looking down at those pitiful little sweets, it finally hit me that she was gone.

Because I loathe crying in public, I was thankfully able to pull myself together quite quickly. Dave hugged me, wiped my cheeks, and that was that. Emotions back in place, tucked neatly away, I carried on.

Fast-foward three years. Dave and I are married. It’s August and we’re in Montreal. We stop in to Saint Hubert, a chain restaurant popular in Quebec, because I hadn’t been to one in years. There used to be one in Halifax before it was driven out by Swiss Chalet – I used to go all the time with Nana and my parents. I think it reminded her of home and for nostalgia’s sake, I wanted to check it out.

I shouldn’t have been shocked when I saw date squares on their dessert menu. Nana was Quebecois through-and-through, right down to the food she made, and I was hanging out in her motherland – of course they’d be a popular dessert option. I ordered them without hesitation. I hadn’t had any since she’d passed away and right then, I needed those date squares. I was walking around a city she used to live in, constantly wondering if she’d visited any of the places I had, and I just needed them.

Just last month, Dave and I were in Montreal again.

We went to Saint Hubert twice.

Twice more I ordered and demolished those squares and I’ve been craving them ever since.

Tonight, I made my own.

Strangely enough, tonight, even though she’s been gone almost four years now, I’ve never felt closer to her.

It was my first attempt at making them. The recipe has oat-based crusts and seemed to resemble apple crisp (which I’ve made before), so I wasn’t worried about messing them up. What I was nervous about was the filling – I had to chop pitted dates, mix them with water, brown sugar, and lemon juice, and then bring that mixture to a boil. Once boiling, the recipe instructed me to throw in half a teaspoon of baking soda. I followed the steps to perfection and when the mixture quickly started to bubble I sprinkled on the baking soda.

Enter: Panic.

The date mixture foamed up like mad and looked nothing like what I was used to. I was terrified I’d ruined it. As instructed, I kept stirring and stirring, counting down the required five minutes apprehensively, convinced I’d botched it.

Five minutes later I had a saucepan full of dark, beautiful, delicious date filling, a brain full of wonder, and a heart full of longing. I was full to the brim with questions: Had Nana felt the same the first time she’d made them? Had she put in the baking soda, seen the foam, and started to doubt herself? How old had she been? Was she a child, standing at her mother’s side, or was she older, like me?

And the worst one of all – how come I’d never asked her to teach me how to make them?

Right now, there’s a pan of date squares cooling on my counter. I’ll be taking them to my mom’s house tomorrow - they’re the dessert to pair with whatever she’s making for our traditional Sunday evening dinner together. They’re sure to be delectable, served warm with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel. Just the thought of biting into their rich, creamy texture brings a smile to my face and a rumble to my tummy.

But tonight is bittersweet. Tonight I’m missing Nana something fierce.

What I wouldn’t give to have her here again.

nana

Dear Winter

Dear Winter,

I think it’s time for our relationship to come to an end.

We need to break up.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Dear Winter,

I must start this by telling you that despite your freezing chill, despite your frigid winds, despite your ice and all your snow, I love you. I do. I love your glorious morning sunrises; how its reds blend with its purples and oranges and arc out across the sky. Your air is as clear as a ringing bell, which makes your sunrises all the more spectacular.

I love you despite your bleakness; in fact, I love you for it. I love your frozen landscapes. I love how the trees, now bereft of their leafy summer coats, stand stark and bold against your grey skies. I love the frozen rigidity of the earth and fields, made so by your briskness, lying dormant until the spring rains come to wake them up again. I love the sound of your howling wind raging through the dried, no-longer-tended, too-long grasses.

I love your darkness as much as I miss the sun. Just as the dawn looks more magnificent in your light, so does the rising moon. It seems brighter, somehow, and the stars seem to burn with more intensity than they do on those warm, endless summer nights. Every morning during the month of February upon leaving my house, still enveloped in darkness despite the six ‘o’ clock hour, I was greeted by the sight of Venus in the eastern sky, so bright I thought it to be a misplaced streetlamp (or maybe – just maybe – a UFO). Without you, robbing the mornings of precious daylight, it just wouldn’t have been as beautiful.

I love how, on occasion, you cover the land in snow. In my opinion, there’s nothing more lovely than a fresh, untouched snowfall. I’d rather walk around it than through, just to keep from disturbing it. Every morning on my way to work I drive by a large cemetery, where gravestones just skim the surface of their ethereal, snowy blanket; a landscape I’ve come to love. Sometimes during your dark, cold months I envy the slumber of the dead, tucked in tight under the depths of the earth.

Dear Winter,

It really isn’t you – it’s me.

I’m just so cold all the time. The land can stand your chill, but my tendons and sinews, my skin and my bones, cannot. You are robbing me of my warmth; warmth I so desperately need and crave.

My body is drying out. My hands are cracking and sore and no amount of lotion – medicated or non – can sooth them. My legs are flaking away as if they’re made of ash. My lips are burning, but not in any way I’d like them to be. I smell like too-much camphor and my eyes sting from its penetrating stink.

No amount of tea or coffee or other concoctions can warm me. Oh, they work for a minute or two or maybe thirty, but then I need more. There aren’t enough blankets or flannel pyjamas in this world to wrap myself in. My hands are always so cold my husband jumps in surprise when I touch him, pushing them away.

I can’t remember the last time I felt my toes. I feel like my feet are being constantly doused by ice water.

Even my hair, despite being tucked up inside a wool hat whenever I venture out into your chill, is protesting. Its ends are splitting at an alarming rate, as if trying to escape you.

Dear Winter,

It’s not you – it’s me.

I promise you, next year, as I always do, I’ll eagerly await your return. All summer long I will crave your rawness and your crisp caress. I will long for days spent curled up under down blankets with a good book and copious cups of tea. I will close my eyes and dream of your bleak, white landscapes. I will rejoice when the leaves start their annual descent back to the earth, knowing you’re waiting just around the corner. I will pull my down-filled vests, knitted pullovers, wool jacket and toques and gloves out of storage with delight.

Dear Winter,

My love for you is waning, it’s true, but it will never die. It’s the thought of you that keeps me sane through summer. It’s the thought of you that soothes me as summer’s sweltering, cloying heat bears down, for I’d always rather be too cold than too hot. It’s you who provides me with perfect running weather. It’s you who supports my love of sweaters and leggings and boots. It’s you who accepts my love comfort foods like spicy chilli and warm gingerbread and doesn’t judge when I gorge myself silly. No other season gets me like you do.

Dear Winter,

In about nine months time I’ll be ecstatic to see you again, I promise, but for now we must go our separate ways. Please. I love you – I do! – but secretly, I long for spring. I’m finding myself inexplicably missing the sun and the chorus of songbirds and the emergence of flowers in fields. I need to be warm again.

Dear Winter,

I think it’s time for our relationship to come to an end.

We need to break up.

It’s not you, it’s me.