My grandmother, says one of my aunts who is old enough to remember, was a very stylish woman in her youth. I only remember her years of widowhood, so I can only imagine what it must have been like, but I’m inclined to believe my aunt given the evidence of her talcum powder.
My aunts would get her fancy compacts with little mirrors in them and every time the sisters got together there was always an impromptu make-up lesson with the lot of them exchanging tips on technique: blending, brushing, smudging and so on. Grandma would listen with great interest but her first love remained her bottle of talcum powder.
Everyday, twice a day, sometimes thrice if she had nothing better to do, she would sit in her favorite armchair by her bed, and swirl a big powder puff around its battered pot (faithfully refilled from a giant bottle every two days by her devoted sister) and brush it all over her face. After repeating this over and over again for five minutes, she’d stop and flick her head at her sister, who’d pick up a hand mirror and show her her reflection. If no hint of natural color remained, she would sit back, satisfied and go on to other things. Otherwise, it was back to the powder. She had very fair skin to begin with, but by the time she’d rubbed powder into it for eighty years, it’d turned a sort of pasty white and the powder itself had resisted all efforts of soap and water (of which there was plenty because she was a germaphobe) and managed to integrate itself into her skin.
If you touched her face, it felt like parchment paper except it was really soft and smelled of roses. At times you felt, if you watched her long enough, you would see her face flake, powder and crumble away. Not in a creepy way, though – it all felt fascinating and wonderful.
The un-fascinating and un-wonderful part of it came during the summer holidays when I’d look up and find her intently studying my face. “Why can’t you put on a little powder?” she’d say once she was sure she had my attention.
“Uh, I don’t want to.”
“Little girls in Madras always powder their faces,” she’d counter.
“I don’t live in Madras,” i’d point out the obvious.
“They powder their face, line their eyes, wear a nice bindi and put flowers in their hair,” she’d continue rapturously as if I hadn’t said anything.
“That’s nice,” I’d say. Well, what else could I say? “Gee, Grandma, have they ever thought of suing their parents for cruelty to dumb children” would not have gone down too well. Although it must be admitted that there really was no adequate response when she was in one of these moods.
“Nice?” she’d scoff, ignoring my extremely noble attempts to humor her. “What do you know about nice? Just look at you!”
In all fairness, I wasn’t going through my most spiffy period right then. The onset of adolescence hadn’t brought about any desire to become a hooker or turn into a junkie (I really have to stop watching Lifetime and Hallmark) but I would frequently refuse to brush my hair, figuring I’d done my duty by shampooing it, and my idea of a nice outfit could be very simply explained as “the opposite of whatever my mother thought appropriate”.
So I’d hunch my shoulders and return to my book. Sometimes Ma would wander in and be caught in the crossfire.
“It’s a judgment on you,” Grandma would observe with satisfaction. “Your daughter is just like you!”
Ma would look daggers at me – an empty threat, I knew. When the mood came upon her mother, she could find just about anything to complain about. I was just a handy excuse.
“Why don’t you teach her something?” Grandma would go on.
Once or twice I’d make a tactical mistake and tell Ma about the plans Grandma had drawn up for me. “She wants to put big orange flowers in my hair after drenching it in coconut oil and plaster my face with talcum powder,” I’d complain when the cribbing became unbearable and manners forbade me from giving a 70-something year old a piece of my mind.
This, of course, would immediately tickle my mother’s funny bone and she’d spend the next half hour teasing me about it, while simultaneously making my grandmother think she was on her side. “And what is wrong with that?” she’d ask. “We’ll start with the top of your head. We’ll dribble some warm oil and it’ll drip down – drip drip drip,” she’d emphasize, knowing just how much I hate the feel of grease dripping on to my skin. “And when it’s slowly trickled down your face, I’ll massage it into your cheeks. Rub it on your forehead. Maybe smear some on your neck. It’ll make your skin soft and supple.”
Grandma would nod approvingly.
Finally, I would be forced to either carry the attack into the enemy camp by making fun of them or get up and leave the room. Even worse was when Grandma would start talking about my lack of girl-smarts when her other daughters were in the room.
“Look at her,” she’d command like I was some kind of particularly repellent venom-oozing caterpillar. “Look!”
Dutifully, the rest of them would turn to me and look.
“Why can’t she put on some powder at least?” she’d moan like she was asking me to remove a dagger from her chest.
My aunts would look me over carefully as I belligerently stared back at them from under my wild tangle of hair.
“Well, yes, you could put on some powder,” one of them would finally say in a disinterested voice, saying the expected thing.
A weak chorus of assent would go up but that was enough to put Ma on the defensive.
“You don’t know how difficult it is to bring up a daughter,” she’d inform them, full of the righteous indignation of One Who Has A Female Child Unlike The Other Unfortunates In Front Of Her.
That would vanquish the aunts but my grandmother, who’d pretty much brought up six girls on her own, was another story entirely.
“Nonsense!” she’d thunder. “You are simply not strict enough with her.”
At which point they would invariably remember all those occasions in my infanthood when they’d tried to be strict with me and all discussion would come to an abrupt halt. I’ll tell you one thing – when you’re a baby, go ahead and have a filthy temper. It’ll hold you in good stead amongst your family members when you’re older. You can always curb it later. Just remember to be charming and cute and giggly and affectionate when you’re not throwing a tantrum, so they don’t “accidentally” drown you in the tub or something.
How odd then, that one of the first times I felt truly adult was when I bought a bottle of talcum powder. It might not reach the levels of kabuki my grandmother would have approved of, but guess what? It really keeps the dreaded grease out.