Searching Sephora for an Antidote to Aging — and Grief

Five years after her mother’s death, while still grieving and suddenly middle-aged, Abby Mims turns to beauty products to cure what ails her.

Abby Mims | Longreads | January 2020 | 12 minutes (2,959 words)

The Sephora sales girl was in her early 20s. As she took off my makeup, I was marveling at hers, not to mention her flawless, creamy skin. Her smoky eye was perfect, all layers of dark blue, grey and black, a look that whenever I attempt it is a smeary, bruised-looking mess. Her eyebrows were expertly plucked and reinforced by a Kardashian-sized amount of brow pencil, creating arcs not found in nature. Glancing around, I saw that nearly all the salesgirls’ faces contained these same elements.

“I really need something for this situation,” I said to her, drawing a circle in the air to indicate everything between my 45-year-old chin and collarbone. “This is happening.”

“Oh, no, you look great!” she said, giggling. She was sweet, but when I turned my head, and caught my profile in the well-lit mirror, it was unmistakable. It was my grandmother’s neck, it was my mother’s neck, it was my neck. It was the beginnings of a wattle, and it was happening.

I had escaped to Sephora, which is housed in the same mall I’d haunted as a teenager, during a trip home to Portland last spring. I’m sure I arrived at the store looking a bit like a ghost myself — I was visiting from California with my 4-year-old son Jamie to help my stepfather, Jim, clean out the house where I grew up. My mother had been dead for five years, and Jim had moved in with his girlfriend, and while all the packing and sorting and moving in with girlfriends was entirely the natural course of things, I wasn’t prepared. I pictured the house preserved as it had been since my mom died, which was essentially as it was when she was alive. To his credit, Jim had tried to warn me, letting me know he’d been getting rid of things and making small improvements to the house for months, but I was stunned all the same.

When Jamie and I came through the front door, our footsteps echoed into the house’s emptiness. There was only a smattering of furniture left, and nearly everything was in boxes: there wasn’t a fork or wine opener in the kitchen, let alone the ancient bandaids or nearly empty shampoo bottles that had always lived in the far corners of the bathroom cupboards. The half-dozen or so Hindu-style altars my mother kept around the house were dismantled, and nearly all her beloved books had been packed up or given away. There were no family photos left on the walls, and the flickering electronic picture frames, the ones that I’d focused on during the four long years my mother was dying, were gone. I pictured them perfectly in my mind’s eye: alternating glimpses into my awkward teen years (spiral perms, stiff, hair-sprayed bangs, clear braces, skin a shade of orange only found in tanning beds, over-plucked eyebrows), my estranged sister’s wedding and my parents’ trip to India in 2008, six months before my 63-year-old mother was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. For now, the house will be rented out, but eventually, it will be sold. Hopefully, my husband and I will be able to buy it, but that transaction will be at some murky date in the future, if ever.

All of this was amplified by the fact that the room where Jamie and I slept was my old bedroom, and some modifications aside, the same room where my mother died. We slept there because that was the one room with a bed left in it, and it felt like a hassle to move it on top of everything else. Plus, strange as it may sound, the experience wasn’t morbid. This was in part because the room looked nothing like it had in either incarnation: the walls were a different color and it was nearly empty, aside from said bed, an old dresser, a lamp and a rolled-up area rug. Also, the room contained so much more love than sadness for me because, by the end, despite how much I loved and depended on my mother, all I wanted was for her to be free. My point of view was buoyed by the fact that she had spent her career in geriatric and hospice social work and studied Eastern religions for decades. This is to say that her views on dying were far more evolved than most: she simply viewed it as another phase of life. We were also able to give her the “good death” that she wanted — at home, on her own terms, surrounded by the people she loved. This didn’t mean she was entirely at peace about dying, or didn’t lament her impending death.

“I mean, we all die, but I don’t want to miss anything,” she often said.

Instead of the quintessential grief or sadness I had expected to feel sleeping in that room with my son, I experienced an alchemy of memories that drifted between my youthful existence and her dying process. It tended to happen in the half-sleep of early morning, as Jamie and I lay together in bed. Under a corner window, we’d listened to the caw of crows, the chatter of squirrels, and the tap-tap-tap of the occasional woodpecker – all sounds that brought back my childhood. As I looked up into the gray sky through a web of spruce branches, the window became something of a portal from the past to the present for me. I realized it is a window out of which my first love, Brian, escaped, mid-coitus, on a lazy Saturday afternoon when I was 17. My parents had come home hours early. It is the window that hosted the hummingbird feeders that captivated my mother’s attention in her final months. She would often lose her train of thought when birds alighted there, her face radiating joy when they lingered, seemingly soaking up their weight in sugar water. It is the window I looked out of during my teenage years and dreamed of being anywhere else. It is the window I looked out of with a similar desire in my mid-30s, when my mother’s diagnosis came back terminal and I was sure I could not exist in the world without her.

***

When I was in my darling 20s, I always thought of middle age as around 56 — maybe even closer to 62. What I realized recently, is that, if you do the math on life expectancy, little old 40-something me, if I’m lucky, is smack dab in the middle of life.

I’m sure I arrived at Sephora looking a bit like a ghost myself — I was visiting from California with my 4-year-old son Jamie to help my stepfather, Jim, clean out the house where I grew up.

When my grandmother was alive, I remember that nearly every time she saw her reflection, she would say, “Who is that L.O.L.?” meaning “Little Old Lady.” She said this in her 60s, 70s and 80s. She would then turn to me and explain, “I feel about 30, so I’m always surprised to see that wrinkled, saggy face.”

She coveted my youth, especially my eyes, the whites of them. They are so white, she would say, pointing to her own, which were yellowed and clouded by sun and life, and covered in fine, broken blood vessels. I was 12 or 15 or 22 or 28, and didn’t understand.

Now, of course, I do, and never more so than that day at Sephora. I was there seeking out the promise of a lotion or potion that would not only cure my developing wattle, but also my semi-permanent under eye circles and the recurring puffy sack under my left eye that never seems to recede, crow’s feet of course, and whatever it is that is happening to the increasingly lined skin that comprises my décolletage. I have no idea how it is my face looks like it currently does, and each morning when I’ve managed not to drink all that much and have gotten eight hours of sleep, I wake up and expect my previous face to greet me in the mirror — but no. This might be one of the most surreal things about aging: no longer looking the way you imagine yourself to, and being able to do little, if anything, about it.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


I’m not a stranger to unreasonable beauty standards — and I have yet to meet a woman who is — and freely admit that I’ve been trying to achieve them since I first glimpsed ESPRIT ads and Seventeen magazine in elementary school. What is different now is that I have tangible evidence that all those years of striving and reaching and obsessing have effectively added up to nothing. I never met those largely unreachable benchmarks: air-brushed dewy skin, cellulite-free everything, perfect hair, size 2 jeans. At middle age, time’s up, so I won’t ever. Now, I have to mourn the lost possibilities of my younger incarnation while staving off the realities of my aging self. If I try and find a work-around or deny what’s very much happening, it is my grandmother’s neck, my mother’s neck, my neck, that reminds me. In fact, my mother is showing up all over my face and body lately, most prominently in the patchwork of moles across my chest and shoulders, the backs of my hands, the angles of my face. It is strangely comforting when I look at myself and aspects of her come into focus. These new-old parts of me are made even more obvious as I watch my son change and grow. As my skin ages, his remains without a mark, flaw, wrinkle or sunspot. I take any chance I can to feel it, to put his cheek against mine, wrap his fingers in my palm, or put his toes in my mouth.

This spring, though, the crossover from the past to the present, and the idea that strangers would soon be living in my childhood home triggered in me an odd, grief-induced panic about aging. For a crazed moment, I thought if I could freeze time on my face, maybe I could do the same with the essence of my mother, like this act would preserve the last bits of her I felt I was losing in the packing and sorting and stepfathers moving in with girlfriends. This meant I was all the more willing than usual to buy whatever Sephora was selling, no matter its questionable benefits. Cold Plasma Sub-D for my neck for $170? Yes, please. (I have no idea what Plasma Sub-D is, but the salesgirl assured me this was the best thing for my wattle.) An additional Retinol theorem for nighttime at $89? Done. Dior foundation used by models for $90 and eyeshadow with tiny bits of real crystals and minerals for $68? Sold. Ditto expensive mascara, under-eye cream and concealer, and a brow pencil from the famous Anastasia collection, from a woman who has plucked only the most famous of eyebrows. I see now that the deeper pulse underneath all of these actions was not just a fear of aging and losing what was left of my mom, but a fear of dying. It is ironic to me that I was trying to stave off my own inevitable demise while I somewhat fearlessly chose to face my mother’s head on. In an attempt to soak up all of her that I could, I threw myself into tending to her in what I believed were her last months, which miraculously, turned into years. I did this in part by moving in with my parents shortly after her diagnosis to help with her care, since she was partially paralyzed by the tumor sitting on her motor strip. In the time that followed, I did my best to mother her as she had me. I held her hand when she cried, I dried her tears, I changed the dressings on her arms that protected skin made paper-thin by steroids. I clipped her fingernails and applied ice packs when the tumor went crazy, and sent her into hot flashes worse than menopause. I filled in the blanks when she couldn’t find her words, I slept in the room below hers and listened, gratefully, to the roar of her snoring. I took her to the movies, I read to her, I made her meals. I dressed her, I got her in and out of wheelchairs, beds, bathrooms and showers. And in the remaining years she survived, we talked, laughed, grieved and reminded each other that no matter what else happened, in that moment she was still there, which meant we still belonged to one another.

In the wake of her death, I have accepted that the loss of her will never leave me. There is no moving that rock, now lodged permanently within my being, somewhere between my throat and my heart. The only answer has been to rebuild myself around it. Some days, this reconstruction of self is effective enough that I think maybe my grief has faded to nothing. Then it comes roaring back with a force that makes it new again: an anniversary, a birthday, the emptying out of my childhood home. For my mother to have been gone five years seemed both impossible and piercingly real.

***

I am lucky: my stepfather, who was married to my mom for 25 years, is an incredibly kind and thoughtful man, who also took beautiful care of her when she was dying. When I came home a few years after she died, he still hadn’t gotten rid of her clothes. He took me to the closet downstairs and we stared at them together. He asked me if I wanted anything, and I chose a long brown sweater with soft velvet on its cuffs and lapels.

“What about the rest?” he said.

“Goodwill,” I said. “I’ll do it.”

“Thank you,” he said, his eyes filling. “I think I just needed someone’s permission to let them go.”

“Granted,” I said, and went back upstairs to find some garbage bags. I did take the sweater home with me though, and wore it once or twice in the weeks afterwards. The next time I went to pull it out of my closet was maybe a year later, and moths had chewed a sizable hole in one of its sleeves. It too, found a home at the Goodwill soon after.

During my more recent trip, although so much was already gone, Jim had been sure to put aside for me anything he thought might be of sentimental value. He piled it all in the room that used to be her office. I avoided it for several days, as these were the final pieces of her, and going through them was daunting. I had also already hoarded what I could right after she died — her journals, what I thought were all of her works of calligraphy, dozens of photo albums and my baby book — and I didn’t know what else I could possibly need.

This spring, the crossover from the past to the present, and the idea that strangers would soon be living in my childhood home triggered in me an odd, grief-induced panic about aging.

For some reason, $500 worth of product at Sephora had steeled me enough to start the process, and I did so right after I got home from the mall. But before I went through the piles, I noticed that her desk had been left untouched. I rifled through its drawers, sifting through the trappings of a life: cards from coworkers wishing her all the best, fistfuls of forgotten wallet size school photos of my sister and me — second grade here, seventh grade there — boxes of letters from my mother to one of my great-grandmothers, to her parents as a young wife and then a divorced mother of two, along with piles of ancient black and white photos of relatives whom she would be able to identify that I never will. I found things that weren’t mine to find, like the sweet nude photos of my mother and stepfather, goofy shots taken in the shower during the first months they were together, the year I turned 16. Then, in the bottom drawer, I came across an unframed piece of her calligraphy from the 70s that I’d never seen before. She and I both loved Joan Didion, and it is a quote from her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” It reads:

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

Although my mother captured this Didion quote more than 40 years ago, I can imagine why she did so at that point in her life. She was trying to remember or rediscover who she was before my father and her children, and reflect on where she’d come from, perhaps as a way of seeing where she was headed. My desire to stop the relentless march of time was derived from a similar impulse. I was trying to connect my life when she was alive more firmly to my current existence; I was trying to remember who I was when I had a mother; I was trying to stem the sense of that loss that has become even more acute since I had my son. But as we all know, but rarely acknowledge, loss — like aging, like dying — is not only unstoppable, it’s inevitable.

In working to fully accept this reality, I’ve been left with no choice but to revel in the here and now to the best of my ability. So here I am, with my son’s arms around my sagging neck as he looks adoringly into the not-so-whites of my eyes and their growing collection of crow’s feet, the sound of his sweet and small 4-year-old voice saying, I love you, Mama. I consider the flutter of his impossibly long eyelashes, something like that of a hummingbird’s wings, those birds which will likely return to the window again and again, no matter who lives in the house.

* * *

Abby Mims‘ work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times (Modern Love), Creative Nonfiction, the Washington Post, Brevity, Ploughshares, Salon, NAILED Magazine, The Normal School and The Rumpus, among other publications and anthologies. She is currently at work on a memoir and considering the possibility of a novel.

Editor: Sari Botton

* * *

Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Barely There
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper
Whole 60
Conversations with My Loveliest
What is Happening to My Body?
Keeping my Promise to Popo
Hello, Forgetfulness; Hello, Mother
Old Dudes on Skateboards
I’m 72. So What?
Learning From Perimenopause and a Kpop Idol
The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People
We Are All We Have