While I'd love to look back on a cherished silk blouse still smelling of my mother's favorite perfume, and give pieces of her most precious jewelry to my daughters, I can't. Memory hands me a past barren of her possessions but filled with recollections of fruitless hours trying to convince her she earned . . . deserved . . . so much more than she allowed herself. She regarded most material things as luxuries to be shunned, as if they reflected character weakness, or worse, waste. It's taken 25 years to understand exactly what she passed down to me.
Two bottles, forever in the medicine chest, were her sole concessions to female vanity. The fourth Friday night of every month, regardless of the 12-hour day she worked in my father's Brooklyn cleaning store, found her slipping on way-too-big yellow rubber gloves and painstakingly applying Clairol No. 43, Sun Bronze, to her hair. She would do that all her life, no matter how many times my sister and I begged her to have her hair colored professionally.
The other bottle, a large-sized Oil of Olay, completed my mother's beauty regimen. While anyone would swear the bottle was empty, she could eke out three more applications. I sighed at her frugality then, yet I'd hate to show anyone the condition of my toothpaste or my moisturizer before it lands in the garbage now.
My daughters, now adults, are appalled that the products in my makeup drawer are the same ones I've used since last century.
"What's wrong with brand loyalty?" I ask.
"Go check out Sephora in the Americana shopping center," they plead, hardly believing I'm not curious about that bastion of beauty products in Manhasset, less than a mile from my home.
I do get manicures and have my hair professionally colored, but not until both are obviously overdue.
I recently cleaned out the hall closet and found my mother's pocketbook, the one I took home from North Shore Hospital the day she died. It contained a wallet that didn't close properly because it was crammed with too many photos, a small mirror, a Bed Bath & Beyond coupon, lipstick about ready to be scooped out with a fingernail, a packet of tissues, and a pad and a pen -- almost cloning what inhabited my own bag (minus cellphone) that day.
Looking through her things reminded me of the long-ago afternoon I cleaned out her night table before her house in Brooklyn was sold. I found years' worth of Mother's Day cards, a dozen unread magazine articles, reading glasses whose prescription had long since expired. Every item eerily had its twin in own my night table.
I look down at my mother's wedding band, complete with its original 65-year-old-guard. "Why bother to have it sized?" she used to say. "It feels just fine." The ring has a second lifetime, sitting snugly around my finger.
I fight the urge to use a tea bag more than once. I use Brillo and "elbow grease" to clean up after dinner, when both are overkill. I struggle to stop myself from saving plastic containers, rubber bands and shopping bags I couldn't use in two lifetimes.
It's a losing battle. Like the birthmark my mother and I share on the inside of our wrists, and the perhaps too passionate emotions we harbor for those we love, what I inherited from my mom, for better or worse, belongs to me forever.