Esther Laurie and the fountain of youth; stories of my mother

The author on a fall day at the Experimental Farm

By Sarah Prospero

My mother’s beauty regime consisted of first applying one of perhaps 50 shades of coral to her lips, then blotting most of it off on a Kleenex, leaving behind an open kiss, followed by a deft twist of her hands through her hair, sweeping it up into a bun before securing it with tortoise shell hairpins and combs. And although she always wore earrings, simple studs of gold or turquoise or jade, on rare occasions her double strand of pearls with the dainty silver clasp and chain, she generally left the house with little more fuss or ornamentation than that.

So you might imagine the mild surprise I felt upon recently discovering an expensive brand – read Estee Lauder – eyebrow pencil and a retractable lip brush, still with just a trace of her signature coral lipstick on it, buried deep inside a little pouch, tucked away in the back of her suitcase. I wondered at the origin of these little treasures; I have no memories of her using either one – can’t imagine her even doing so, let alone purchasing them. That is, until I remembered how my mother used to buy that venerable brand’s expensive bath oil and dusting powder, products she loved, shared with her aunt at Christmas, and whose scent I came to associate with her happiness.

Let me introduce you to Estee Lauder’s Youth Dew – a rich, woodsy, fragrant floral scent that permeated our upstairs hall whenever my mum emerged from the bathroom in her robe and slippers, hair wound turban-like in a towel, cheeks a little flushed, skin a little warm. My mother loved a long, hot soak in our massive old tub, luxuriating in all the pleasures of the ritual, and she indulged in it at least one night every week. I loved that she loved her bath, that it was a gift she gave to herself.

Perhaps while she was purchasing her favourite bath products one day, maybe a new lipstick too, just for fun, mum fell under the spell of an especially clever saleswoman at the Estee Lauder counter in Simpson’s downtown store, a sly beauty whose savvy sales pitch managed to pierce my mother’s usually impervious veneer and deep suspicion of flatterers. Maybe in a moment of weakness she succumbed to the suggestion that she could apply her lipstick with a brush “for a finer line,” and then while she was at it, fell for the idea that “oh, just a hint of colour on your eyebrows will frame your face,” and ended up leaving the counter with two items she’d never before owned.

I can see that she must have used the lip brush at least a few times. I wonder if the eyebrow pencil has become too hard with age for me to use to “frame my face” too. I laugh when I think of my mother’s dear old aunt, a simple woman from the Scottish Highlands who, for the life of her, could never manage to remember Estee Lauder’s real name, so inconceivable it was to her, and who consequently re-christened her Esther Laurie. Ever after, my mother and sister and I used to enjoy remembering the story and never failed to use the moniker whenever we could. I loved it when we became girls together, the three of us, discovering the fountain of youth in our shared laughter.

Sarah Christie Prospero is a recently retired English teacher who’s been waiting to begin her next incarnation as a writer since she was six years old. Her first book will be about her years teaching high school kids (to mostly great success) and lessons learned. In the meantime, she is happily writing memoirs focused on growing up in an extraordinary family.

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