Watching BB (pronounced Bebe) glance at herself in the overly bright Ladies Room mirror of the Sheraton off the Jersey Turnpike; I thought she was the epitome of elegance. Her white hair was always coiffed and her bright red, perfectly manicure, nails matched her red lips. Her formal navy-blue suit was beautifully tailored and exactly right for that evening’s event. Despite being 80 years old, her posture remained ramrod straight and her statuesque figure was imposing. Her appearance told you that she was a woman of the world and then you heard the French accent and knew.
My husband’s Great-Aunt BB was the person everyone in the family wanted to impress and wanted to be. She was the last in a long line of girlfriends who his Great-Uncle could not keep straight, so he called them all Bebe, French for Baby, and the nickname stuck. She was opinionated and independent and adored by her husband. She never had children, but her nieces were like daughters and their children like grandchildren. Twice a year she went to Paris to buy clothes and stayed at the Plaza Athenee.
Did she see the same confident woman I saw when she looked in the mirror? Was that inner confidence or just haute couture armor or perhaps a little of both? Only the fiercest of women could wear true red lipstick against alabaster skin. However, I knew that she had recently had her ‘eyes done’ for a second time. This was an indication of some vanity and perhaps some doubts. But it was hard to reconcile doubt with a woman who refused to convert to her husband’s Jewish faith, even when it meant the Children’s Aid Society would not allow her to adopt a Jewish orphan after WWII.
How could I obtain some of that confidence? Having grown up as a chubby, curly-haired girl in the time of Twiggy straight-haired thinness, I had little self-confidence and lots of doubts. I would glance in the mirror and then look away, never happy with my reflection. I preferred to be a people watcher, rather than the center of attention.
I knew that confidence was a sense of worth that some people had, and others struggled with despite accomplishments. I knew that it was less about outward appearance and more about inner strength. But I also knew that inner strength could be bolstered by clothing and make-up. Audrey Hepburn remarked that she felt awkward and unsure, and that fashion helped her feel the part of an actress with international fame.
BB looked more carefully at her own reflection. As I joined her at the sinks and mirror, she reached into her purse and found her Guerlain Illuminating Powder compact. Brushing the Guerlain expertly on the tops of her cheeks and across her forehead, she admired the slight twinkling of the powder; like fairy-dust.
“Ellen. Come here.” She commanded.
She turned me towards the mirror and swept some powder on each of my cheeks and smiled.
“Everyone benefits from a little sparkle.” She stated.
I felt fortified.
She took my hand and heads held high, we walked back to the party.