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Tuesday, Feb. 01, 2005 - 1:17 p.m.

~ a whiter shade of pale ~

I grew up in a family of Made-Up Faces.

My maternal grandmother -- who had nary a maternal instinct nor a maternal bone in her body -- was a big fan of pitch black hair dye and waxy red lipstick. I'm not sure what Grandma looked like without her lipstick, hairsprayed helmet head, dentures, and flowing "Then There's Maude" housedresses. Each weekend morning she would re-pouf her over-processed hair and douse it with half a can of AquaNet while I cowered behind her against the powder-pink tile wall, hand over my nose and mouth, wincing and cringing to avoid the chemical fall-out but unable to break free from the fascinating aerosol display. I knew her dentures lived in one of the two ceramic old people denture holders on the bathroom sink counter. I saw my grandfather's candy-pink gums and Chiclet teeth in there all the time, but Grandma must have had some denture sleight-of-mouth going on that kept me from ever seeing her teeth anywhere except in her smile. With her hair cemented in place and rouge rubbed on in circles from a little pot, Grandma would produce a brass tube of lipstick. Identical tubes lived in the bottom of every one of her vinyl purses, in the bathroom sink drawer, and in the tissue-filled pockets of each one of her mink coats. Uncapped, each lipstick had pencil-point sharp crayon-red tips protruding from the brass cyclinder. This red kept Grandma's lips permanently stained a rosy hue even when her face was washed at night, as if she had been kissing sandpaper. Grandma had a knack of applying her lipstick in such a way that the sharp tip was never blunted. This pointy precision allowed her the freedom to paint on her mouth as lushly and liberally as she wanted to -- my grandmother could go from Meg Ryan (pre-collagen) to Angelina Jolie in fifteen seconds flat.

My mother was a natural redhead with an abundance of freckles and a scarcity of eyebrows. Her makeup bag was never farther away than her car keys. Neither rain nor snow, vomiting children nor broken alarm clocks, fire in the apartment below nor surgery recuperation prevented my mother from applying her face immediately upon waking. My mother believed in makeup basics. No fancy lip liners or blended foundations for her. Her makeup bag, which was replaced yearly usually as a Christmas gift from me, contained a rouge, a lipstick, an eyeshadow, a brow pencil, Maybelline Great Lash mascara, and a rainbow cloud of loose powder that might've been Make-Up Fairy Dust for all I knew. With a compact mirror in one hand in front of a window, my mother methodically brought the blank canvas of her face to life in very vivid color. Mildly surprised thin brown eyebrows were drawn over sky blue eyelids. The mascara wand was dragged over and over her invisible lashes until the blackest black clumped and thickened. Mauve creme rouge was feverishly swirled with tinted fingers over and beyond the apples of her cheeks and rosy-auburn lipstick was swiped across her mouth. Only then was her hair -- now more brown than the copper she was born with -- released from its prison of pink sponge rollers. Grown up -- all of nineteen -- I once tried to give my mother a makeover, hoping to introduce her to a subtler palette that would let her real beauty shine through. After poring through my own meager collection of cosmetics, I approached my mother's bare face with excitement and hope. I relied on plums and beiges to accentuate the contours of her face and highlight the royal blue of her eyes. I chose a deep brown mascara that I applied sparingly and I followed the natural line of her eyebrows with smudges from a dusty-brown pencil. The result? My stepfather, unaware of my make-up experiment, came in from outside and stopped short, stunned by what he saw. "You beautiful," he said to my mother. And she did. Gone were the harsh colors that washed away her real colouring. Instead, she was radiant and youthful with a glow in her cheeks and eyes. But my stepfather's reaction must have triggered something and my mother lurched forward to grab up a nearby washcloth. Crying, she scrubbed at her face until it was bare and she could begin her regular rainbow ritual again. That Christmas, I bought her yet another makeup bag.

My sister, born with a longer-lasting version of my mother's red hair, bought into the makeup harlequin masque of the eighties and the shellacked veneer of the nineties. Born with the generous features and coloring of Julia Roberts, my sister White Rained her hair into a feathered and curling-ironed mass of waves as soon as she bought her first pair of Sergio Valentes. She smoothed on three shades of eye shadow and powdered her face to a faretheewell. Candy-pink blush was pushed on in short, jagged stencilling hits with a wide brush until a post-jogging glow was achieved. My sister favored flavored lip glosses outlined with dark lipliner pencil and when she whispered to you, little clouds of rootbeer or watermelon would drift over you. Black Cleopatra-like eyeliner, melted with a match, would eventually work its way into the inner corners of her spidery eyes -- mascared thickly on both upper and lower lashes. I would sit on the edge of the tub, watching my sister tease and paint, and I would wonder how it felt to be one of the popular crowd.

Until recently, I only wore make-up to go out dancing. Now that I work in an office and am surrounded by the new millenium's popular crowd in the form of stiletto-heeled up-and-comings with their Clinique and Sephora faces, I've found myself squinting in front of a mirror five mornings a week. I don't do much and in photos of me with and without makeup, the difference is minimal. With makeup, I look a bit healthier. Without makeup, I look a little tired. I rely on my own version of basics and try to mix in fresh colors every so often. My colouring is pinker than my mother's and sister's, with darker hair. My eyebrows, brown-black and tended with precision tweezers, would laugh boisterously at any brow pencil that might come near them. I use black mascara on the upper lashes only and when I'm feeling fancy, I'll feather on coal eyeliner. Eyeshadow is my admitted weakness and I have a twilight plum, a frosty soft green, a heather gray and a woodsy beige that I rotate through happily. Lipstick I still save for going out dancing. This Winter, with its blizzard and sub-zero temperatures has kept me inside more than I'm used to. When I've looked in the mirror, I feel washed out and wan. Yesterday, I caved and bought a powder blush in a soft dusky peach-pink to add to my daily routine. I don't look like I've run a marathon, I don't look like I have a fever, and I don't look like a marionette from the Swiss Alps. I have what my Grandma would say was "a nice little color to my face."

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