I want to watch my grandma wash her face. For me this is akin to saying, I want to be held, I want to be fed, I want to be warmly tucked into bed. Watching her wash her face is one of the pure, primal comforts of my life. I’ve been doing it—sitting on the closed toilet while she stands at the bathroom sink—for as long as I can remember. My grandma was my guardian throughout my infancy and childhood while my mom, a single parent, worked at the grocery store. I was lucky to have her, and I hope she liked my company. Her own lastborn baby had died, so I like to think she was somewhat healed by the act of holding me in her arms. The Crow Indians have a word— káalisbaapite—which means “grandmother’s grandchild.” It describes someone who is attached to her grandma, and who learns about the old days and ways from her. My grandma’s word for such a person would be “Dumpling”—which is what she always called me. I was very much under her wing and, consequently, her influence. I wish this meant I had grown up to behave more like her but—on the surface, anyway—I am as shy as she is vivacious, as pensive as she is lighthearted, as dark as she is fair, as retiring as she is apt to become the golden nucleus of every gathering she attends. The one obvious way in which I take after her is in face washing: she taught me how to do it. I want to watch my grandma wash her face.
The scent of camphor fills the air when she dips her fingertips into a canister of cloudy Noxema and smears it onto her skin. She started using the stuff over seventy-five years ago, at around age ten, after she’d been adopted and began becoming a lady of sorts. Prior to that she’d been a self-described “street kid” of Los Angeles whose teenage mother had died of TB and whose fisty ex-Marine father was a wino and—I’ll understate it—an altogether bad dad. She holds a washcloth under hot water, applies it to her cream-coated face, and rubs, just as she taught me to do when I turned ten. After she was taken out of her dad’s care and adopted, she learned to wash her face this way every night, and she’s been faithful to Noxema ever since. It seems fitting that a child of such a lush, flora-filled paradise as L.A. would use a cleanser concocted with trees and plants—the aforementioned camphor, plus eucalyptus, and menthol made from peppermint oil. It smells like safety: her newfound safety at ten, and mine anytime I’m with her. It smells like caring for yourself in a way nobody else ever has. It smells young and clean, like a redeemed street kid in a new house with new parents. She pats her face dry with a towel, then wrings out the wet washcloth and hangs it up.
She remembers how mannerly wives used to slip away from big, boring family functions to sneak cigarettes together in immaculate bathrooms, blowing smoke into wet washcloths that caught the odor. She observed this after she married into an enormous tribe of full-blooded Lebanese-Americans. Her husband, my grandpa, had been the first among generations of men in his family to take a wife who was not Lebanese. He had to have the tan, laughing swimmer with blonde pigtails—she was quite a “humdinger,” he once told me wistfully—and they tied the knot when she was just sixteen. The Lebanese were traditional, Catholic, old school: you were supposed to marry the person your parents picked out for you and never get divorced. At huge get-togethers the food and hospitality were abundant, the Turkish coffee strong. The wives were elegantly dressed and perfumed, and my grandma, the skinny child bride, laughed at how they snuck smokes with the help of wet washcloths, but didn’t smoke herself. She fit in easily enough, endeared herself effortlessly, but when the truth came out about her—that she was not, as she and my grandpa had fibbed, the biological child of the nice couple who had adopted her, but was actually the daughter of a dead Spanish girl and a wayward Irish alcoholic dad—her in-laws were upset. It was bad enough she wasn’t Lebanese, but this was troubling. Her background was too mixed up, too murky. What sort of blood was she bringing into the mix, anyway?
Whatever its composition, her blood is indisputably a liquid form of loveliness. She has an enviable openness to other people, a friendliness uninhibited by self-consciousness. I’ve always marveled at her ability to make a friend out of a stranger in mere moments. If the glow and charisma she’s radiated all her life are any indication, her blood is a beautiful fluid. “Beauty Fluid” is the fairy-tale description printed on the label of her Olay face lotion, the rose-colored salve she has used for nearly as long as the Noxema. When I was a child it was called “Oil of Olay.” Back then, it came in a glass jar that charmed me with its vintage look and seemed to contain all the mysteries of the past. She dotted it on my cheeks, chin, and forehead when she showed me how to wash my face. “And don’t forget here,” she said, playfully putting a dab on my nose. “Every night, before bed,” she said.
And that’s what I’ve done ever since. Every night, before bed, I’ve stood before the bathroom sink, washed my face, dried it, and slathered it with something silky. I’ve probably skipped this sacrament fewer than ten times in nearly three decades, not because I’m obsessed with the cleanliness of my skin, but because it connects me to her. For a long time, I used the same products she did—until, being a 21st century girl, I switched to paraben-free, non-toxic toiletries from companies that don’t test on animals. These days I wash and moisturize my face with items from the kitchen that I can, and do, eat: oatmeal and plant oils. Still, although the ritual’s ingredients are different, the gestures are the same. They are my inheritance. I cover my skin with yogurt the way she once covered it with her pink potion from a jar, with the same sort of touch, at once tender and no-nonsense.
That is how she anoints her own face now: softly, but without fuss. These days the Olay comes in a plastic bottle. She rubs it over the crescent-moon lines that cup the corners of her mouth, caused by her frequent and boisterous laugh. She rubs it over the little lines lightly etched above her lip by cigarettes, which she used in middle age when she accompanied her second husband, a commercial truck driver, on cross-country trips and smoked to pass the time or, when she took the wheel, to stay awake.
And she rubs it over the lines that live on the outskirts of her eyes, laid there by grief. She and my grandpa were fertile. She was pregnant eleven times, but six of those pregnancies were miscarried or stillborn. She bore five living children and the last of those, her baby, died at the age of six. Due to a high fever she’d suffered as an infant, that child had been disabled, frail, and truly like a baby all her life. For years after her daughter died, my grandma got up in the night. Even after she was divorced from my grandpa and living in a trailer she’d bought in Riverside where the wind blew over an arid landscape and the brown hills were bare, my grandma would wake in the middle of the night and jump out of bed, sleepily certain she had to go check on the baby who was no longer there. Then, after a while, a baby was there: me. I was there, in the night and in the days, a grandmother’s grandchild.
As I grew, she told me the stories of her life—not just these ones, but hundreds of others, and not just stories, but secrets, things she had never told and would never tell anybody else, not even her own kids. She told them to me while we sat in her trailer, eating canned fruit cocktail or drinking instant hot cocoa freckled with miniature marshmallows. She told them to me during the road trips we took together in her big van up and down the state of California. She opened herself like a book, tore out pages, and handed them to me one by one: stories that made me laugh with her and at her, and secrets that made me cry with her and for her. I memorized it all. She had been the vessel for my mother, and I became the vessel for her stories—a glass jar containing the past.
And every night, she washed her face. I sat and watched. Anytime one of us manages to traverse the thousand miles that separate us these days, I watch her wash her face. When she does so, she is exposed, vulnerable—especially now that she has to do it with just one hand because after nearly nine decades of use the other one, understandably, doesn’t work right. It’s a comfort for me to watch her wash her face because, like being held, fed, or tucked into bed, it communicates our closeness. When she washes her face, she shows herself to me. This is what she’s always done, so I’ve seen not just the surface of who she is—outgoing, lighthearted, popular, boisterous—but what’s underneath after she rinses the surface away. And despite all the ways that I seem to be unlike her, I know—when I’m sitting on the closed toilet watching her stand at the sink, me 38 and her 88—that I am her. I am her because she has given her stories to me, so she lives in me. All the facets of her that do not manifest on the face of her personality, that cannot be rinsed away—her love of solitude, her private spirituality, her quiet seriousness, her novelistic life experiences—are visible in me. I see her there, when I stand alone before the bathroom mirror and prepare to wash my face, every night, before bed. I see her shining through my skin.
Rose DeMaris is a novelist, essayist, and poet. You can follow her work and see slices of her writing life on Instagram and Facebook. Here’s an interview I did with her before she adopted the pen name Rose.
This is part of our ‘Style Lineage’ series. We’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share your own story about style or ritual that connects you to your female lineage. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org