My mother's makeshift mascara
Updated: Apr 30
One lesson I took from my mother was 'be resourceful.' She might be living in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany after World War 2; she might be wearing cast-off clothes; she might have a toddler (me) pulling at her skirt... but that didn't mean she couldn't look good.
Looking good, for Mama, started with the eyes. There wasn't a lot of mascara to be found in the refugee camps after the war. So my resourceful mother improvised... with soot and candle wax.
After the war, when we were settled in Northern Ontario, she would share her technique with friends. Years later one friend recalled the lesson. "I asked her where she learned that. In the camps, she said."
I remember Mama showing me how to mix the soot and the wax together to form a gooey, black mess. She’d pour it into a container. Once it hardened, she would spit on a little brush, run it over the makeshift mascara and apply it. But not before she forced her eyelashes upwards expertly with a small dull paring knife.
One day, when I was maybe 11 years old, Mama asked me to write a letter to Helena Rubinstein, the famous Polish-American who founded a cosmetics empire. She was positive that Helena Rubinstein would buy her soot and candle wax mascara formula. After all, she reasoned, Helena Rubinstein was Polish, just like her.
Mama stopped making mascara a few years after we immigrated to Canada. It was faster and easier to buy it in the stores.
By the way, Helena Rubinstein never replied.