I have a wonderful new story from Nurit Henig; I am so thrilled to have another contribution from such a wonderfur author. This story is so utterly visual, so unusual, and so touching, and it relates the mother/daughter experience during hard times in such a positive and uplifting way, I find it quite unique. Enjoy!
By Nurit Henig
Mother looks at her face in the round mirror.
She moves to the side, disappears, and then comes back to me, inspecting, moving forward, backwards. She smoothes one cheek back, straightens it, and then the other, as if she was kneading, in soft plasticine, a face she promised would soon be beautiful.
The apartment is always crowded with people and children, sounds and noises inside and out. During summer our street is buzzing with human voices, on the sidewalks, the road, in the backyards; coachmen are crying their wares, neighbors chat from balcony to balcony. The houses are white, three stories high, and their roofs white with laundry. Noontime in Tel Aviv is hot and humid, only in the evening you can enjoy the western breeze as it comes from the sea.
My mother and I stand by the mirror that hangs on the wall in the long corridor. We must hurry,
every minute counts, because the corridor is now empty and no one disturbs us.
Mother furls her forehead, relaxes it and inspects it again, studies herself as if looking for something she cannot find.
I know this ceremony well. Many years later I would be reminded of it when I stand next to the easel, looking at my pictures, trying to sketch her with charcoal.
“I am going to draw myself a face, Nunin’ka; wait and you’ll see how beautiful I am going to be soon.”
I stand next to her, barely reaching the pocket in her housecoat; I glance from her face to the mirror and back – two mothers.
Other noises come from the kitchen and from behind closed doors.
Three families live her in this apartment that contains three rooms, along the corridor that serves as a highway for this tribal labyrinth. Everyone meets on this highway, sometimes ignoring and slinking away from each other. Seven souls, parents and children, long standing citizens and new immigrants, a small urban commune that came together through lack of choice or shortage of partments. Eventually I would understand that mostly it was lack of money.
Light enters the corridor through a single window that faces the backyard. Pale morning rays hit the mirror; dust particles dart inside them like tiny butterflies.
Our room is at the end of the corridor. A table with chairs, a buffet and a couch that converts into a bed at night, an old wardrobe with three doors. On the central door a long mirror, cracked and discolored with rust stains, covered with black and white family pictures from Mother’s childhood in Vilna. Grandfather and grandmother, a brother and a sister; all gone, but they watch over us seriously, anxiously.
Behind one of the doors a child is crying, refusing to eat. Another voice, grown-up, scolds him and I want to go and help him, but Mother motions me in the mirror not to interfere.
Mother lights the yellow bulb that hangs above the mirror and immediately turns it off.
She puts on her makeup in the half darkness. The laugh lines disappear all at once. Also the dark spots and new freckles on her fair skin, despite the layers of cream she puts on her face whenever we go to bathe in the sea, on the Opera beach.
I follow the new development as if it were a show. I am familiar with the “play” and I know the
ending. In the last scene she will be young and beautiful.
New down grew above her upper lip and three hairs are discovered at the bottom of the chin. She
quickly picks out silver tweezers from a tattered makeup bag, and expertly removes the superfluous hair. This is how the first scene begins in the “play.”
In the second scene she applies to her face a light-colored face powder which makes it look like a
mask, like a picture from a Japanese theater I would see in years to come. The color is white or vory; there is no mouth, no eyes, no eyebrows, just a white surface. She adds a second layer of powder that clogs her pores and remains faceless.
In the third scene, the drawing starts.
From the makeup bag she quickly pulls out a black pencil, as if she is worried that her face would
disappear if she would not draw them before that.
It’s just a stub of a pencil with a blunt point, and she struggles to draw two thin eyebrows, rounded and amazingly precise above the eyes that she soon would expose and carefully circle.
The children of the Schorr family burst into the corridor, stare at her, and run away, confused, back into their room. We both laugh.
“Thank God it’s possible to continue,” she emits from her mouth which has no lips, and replaces the black pencil with another –a new brown one, well sharpened, her sister from America had sent.
My aunt sends us as gifts things that do not exist in Israel, like this handy, self-sharpening pencil and a nylon blouse for me, made from synthetic fabric that is easy to launder, and a transistor adio with batteries that works without electricity, and a special tool for grooming the lashes which Mother lends her neighbors. America of the miracles and wonders.
“America, such wise guys…” she says in Yiddish, rolling her eyes to the sky with hopes that some day she would be privileged to go there…
Ten years would pass before she would meet her sister again and discover America with all its wonders.
With the brown pencil, the fourth scene begins. Mother designs two eyes for herself. With rounded lines she carefully draws thin, brown lines, stretching like speeding trains under the eyelids and over the lashes.
Two new black, shining eyes look at me from the mirror, and Mother immediately curves them upwards and emphasizes them with the lashes’ grooming tool and now I think she resembles Jane Russell from my movie stars’ scrap book, where I paste them after cutting the pictures from the pages of the magazine, Film World.
Mrs. Schorr comes out of the kitchen and asks Mother to lend her the soup pot.
When Father comes for vacation from the army, he prepares a cooking corner for her in the terrace, with a primus, a bench, a working surface, and a line of hooks to hang the cooking pots, and she does not have to cook in the communal kitchen anymore.
I love the next steps.
Now she scatters with very light touches a bit of blush which she calls rouge as diagonal spots, and a little on the forehead near the hairline and under the chin.
She looks at herself and adds a small spot on the tip of the nose (“it shortens it”), the way she learned in the cosmetic training course, one of the courses she finds as she searches for ways to make a living and have financial independence.
“You see, Nunin’ka, you must spread the rouge over the face, equally, not too much like a clown…”
Of course I see and learn every detail, and I would do exactly the same years later, when she buys me my first makeup bag.
The last scene of the play, the grand finale.
Mother takes out a lipstick and applies the shiniest red on her lips, careful not to pass over the
Mother has a beautiful face, like Carmen Miranda, or a gypsy. Her hair is black, her skin fair, her eyes are bright and her lips red. On her head she wears a broad-brimmed hat, decorated with a pair of cherries, and sometimes she wraps her hair with a floral yellow scarf; she always puts on a pair of gloves to protect her hands from Tel Aviv’s burning sun to which she would not become accustomed until her dying day.
“So that I would not have dark spots, you know Nunin’ka, the hands are the mirror of the soul.”
No, I did not know, I was sure her mirror was the one hanging in the corridor.
With the lace gloves on her hands and a polka dotted cotton dress, fitting her body tightly, she conquers the stalls in Carmel Market and the hearts of the admiring tradesmen. Youth is behind her, but she is careful to maintain a fresh, light-hearted, mischievous appearance, even when she is carrying heavy baskets on a hot day.
She has almost finished the job, and the one last thing is to remove with her fingers the residue of the lipstick left on her white teeth. She puts on her sunglasses, passes a comb in her raven-black hair, fixes a few curls on her forehead, and now she is almost ready to leave –
Not to the Champs Elise or Fifth Avenue, but into the busy Allenby Street, and from there to the Carmel Market, where she would instruct me where to shop and how to save, and she would not forget to find a meter or two of white lace fabric – a remainder that is a good deal, to sew a dress for me for the holiday of “The First Fruits Festival” in school.
During the lonely nights (when Father is officer on duty at the Base), she would embroider a line of blue geese, like the parasol in the poem of “Ayelet the Girl with the Blue Parasol” in the book of the children’s author Kadya Molodovsky, which I knew by heart.
“What do you say, Nunin’ka?” she asks as she turns her face and bends over so I could see her face clearly.
“Mother is the most beautiful,” I answer. “And now me.”
She applies a little lipstick on my lips, laughs and hugs me, and we go out into the wide world beautiful and strong.
I am looking at my face, in the mirror that covers the wall in the bathroom. My mother is there for
a second, then vanishes. If she were by my side, she would pull out her lipstick and request,
“Look how pale you are… why not apply a little lipstick…”
But I put on a little light pink lipstick, careful, like her, not to go over the lips’ outline
and I go out. One must know how to say goodbye.