My mother was a lot of things. I mean really - actual careers.
She was a single mother, with six small children (in 1978 she had six kids aged 12, 10, 4, 3, 2, and a new baby), during the height of the global economic crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. For those of you who don't recall: the Bank of Canada rate was 21% in 1981 and the GDP dropped 5% in that same year. The national unemployment rate was 12% in 1983.
My mother did not have a university degree (although when she was in her 50s, she went back to school and not only became an ESL teacher but also got a degree in computer programing) and she had to be inventive as to how to earn money during this very difficult economic time. With few options and the need for a flexible schedule, she worked a variety of jobs to provide for her family. I remember when she worked the lunch shift at one restaurant, came home to change clothes and worked the dinner shift at another, came home to change clothes and went to clean office buildings overnight. She'd get home about 2 am, sleep for a few hours and then start breakfast for us all - and we always had a cooked breakfast; she was morally opposed to cereal from a box.
We all helped out; my older sisters were of an age where they could babysit us while Ma was at work, and the younger kids had to look out for each other to get to school and ensure things like dishes were washed and housework was done. Yes, I learned to clean a bathroom at the age of 6, I learned how to wash floors at 7, I learned how to cook at 12, and I learned how to do my laundry at 13.
Through all of this, my mother always found opportunities to earn an income. Her list of actual careers is long: seamstress, housekeeper, bus driver, sawmill labourer (yes she piled lumber), waitress, line cook, cashier, office cleaner and, later, receptionist and then office manager. Her one field of work which inspired me the most was her time as a hair stylist and aesthetician. Of course, back in those days, a person could be trained on the job - so for my mother it was a great choice: no school, flexible schedule, and great tips (we lived on those tips).
It was a logical fit for her as well because through all of the tough times, the one thing my mother never compromised on was her femininity and her desire to present her best self to the world. She never complained about her stress, and except for a very short period of time - just a couple years - she was a single parent. In fact, she was essentially a child-rearing single parent from 1978 - 1996. Through all of her stress and hard work, my mother always dressed beautifully and always followed a very specific beauty regiment.
So to see her work as a beauty technician, it just made sense to me. She was, in fact, my first teacher in the world of beauty, skin care, and make up. I could write all day about the things my mother has taught me: tenacity, accesing strength, work ethic, dreaming, kindness, always remembering that someone has it worse than me (and that I should always be grateful for what I have), life skills (banking, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning), negotiation skills (I negotiate for everything), and honesty.
But the most important lessons she taught me gave me a career and a company.
Very recently I was asked what were my first lessons in the world of beauty. I thought they were from my formal education. I realized they were not. This is what Ma taught me- from as early as I can remember:
Ma used to tell me that I only have one face and if I care for it with the best skin care I can afford, it will be strong. She, of course, was correct. She was the person who taught me how to wash my face. I use the same technique she taught me, when I was 10 years old, today. Ma always said the most important part of taking care of the skin was using a quality, alcohol-free cleanser and using it properly. She also taught me to buy the best quality I could afford. I remember the first time we went shopping for skin care together. Her exact words: "There's lots of things where buying the cheapest product is fine; skin care isn't that place. Buy the best you can, without breaking the bank."
My mother never left the house without her nails, hair and make up done. Not overdone, but her nail polish was never chipped, her hair was always styled and her make up was always appropriate for her activities. In fact, Ma always closed her bedroom door for about 30 minutes, every morning, and emerged looking and smelling amazing. She would sit at her vanity and followed her ritual: moisturizer, dusting powder, make up, hair, perfume.
This way of life always impressed me. No matter how busy she was, she was never too busy to find 30 minutes in the day to make herself important to herself. I will always remember her announcement (made while us kids were sitting at the breakfast table): "I'm closing the door. No one knock on it. I mean it."
We weren't rich, not even close. Ma only bought cosmetics when she ran out, and she had very few actual products. One good cleanser, one good moisturizer, a good foundation, one dusting powder, a great black mascara, only two lipsticks (and she used them as blush as well) - a neutral and a bright red, one palette of eyeshadows and her favourite perfume: Babe by Faberge, long since discontinued. I think it was about $7 a bottle at the drugstore; to this day I adore the smell of white flowers (roses, lilly of the valley, carnation, jasmine).
The point is that for about $100 a year, my mother had a full beauty range to create her looks. I learned, very young, that fewer products can yeild many results.
Ma is not a vain woman. Never has been. She taught me that beauty care should not be confused with vanity. What I did learn is that self respect is actually the driving factor behind presenting oneself in the best possible way. My mother always looks beautiful (then and now), and no one has ever confused her with a vain, self centred person. At the same time no one has ever mistaken her for a fool, a person who does not have convictions or a person who doubts who she is. I personally think that when I dedicate time to take care of my personal appearance it communicates the level of respect I have for myself and, in turn, the level of respect I require from those around me. Ma always respected herself, even when she was faced with difficulties; financially, emotionally and even sprirtually. She always stood tall (with her entire 159 cm), she always presented her physical self with appropriate pride, she rarely gave into doubt and most importantly she taught me to do the same.
It is my true belief that those 30 minutes, which my mother reserved every day, used to complete her beautifying ritutals always gave her the confidence to face a tough world.
Which leads to the most important lesson -
Never once did Ma tell me that being good looking was a result of cosmetics. In fact just the opposite - she always said that I was born beautiful and I will die beautiful. What she did tell me is that I will always remind myself of my beauty by caring for myself and a fun way to to that is to use skin care and cosmetics. The products are just the tools with which to access the already existing truth.