Grief, Guest Posts

Bone Structure

August 5, 2016

By Susanne Paola

She would tilt her face up to me.

And close her eyes. Like a cup brimming, steadying its restless surface. She didn’t easily give any part of herself to anyone else, to touch, to alter.

Her head tilted the same way laying out at the funeral home, before they shipped her to the crematorium. When did I cry? Only when I learned the fire did not burn her to ash but to bone, bones then ground in a human-grade grinder.

When my mother tilted her face to me I had my things, my colors, my brushes, laid out. We would probably be in the bathroom, her seated on the closed toilet. I started with the lips. Once the lips had color, the architecture of the face showed itself, and other shades came into focus.

My mother had the same eye shape as me. We share the deep lidded and very round orbits with wisps of brow, though my eyes are dark brown and hers, hazel. Or that was her word for them. Like all eyes of that color hers actually had flecks of many shades and could look different colors, depending. If I chose green eyeshadow it drew out specks of wet leaf. Blue, a greyblue like flint. I suppose in my way I chose the shade of mother I wanted and filled her in.

I had gotten skilled with makeup. In middle school my friend Alice and I stole it from local five-and-dime stores almost daily, and finally had to hitchhike to other towns to do what we called our “hocking.” No store near us would let us in. In my mid-teens I sold Avon for drug money for a few months, and I got samples. I followed drawings of faces and eyes and learned where to put the light colors and where to put the dark, the highlights, the shadows. As I say, I got good at this. My mother was helpless with anything beyond lipstick in a tube.

I can’t recall when I first did her makeup—I know it was first my idea, for some occasion like a wedding—but after that she would ask me, if she went out somewhere and there were people beside my father involved. She had wonderful bone structure, and looked striking with just a little help. Or makeup made her more obviously pretty, in a way that surprised her that first time, then pleased her after. And since I would not otherwise have been welcome to touch her, that made the whole thing feel solemn , like a worshipper who pours over Shiva the milk and butter on one holy day every year, the only time he gets to approach.

On the table at the funeral home, my mother lay with her eyes shut, her face tilted up. Her hair was wrong, pushed back into a roll from her forehead, and she wore thick black glasses I’d never seen before. Through these strangenesses, that old pose of relinquishment and expectation. I can’t remember now if I thought at the funeral home about putting makeup on her face, or if I thought afterward that I should have thought of it. Somehow it came into my mind, and it has never left, how I could have pulled out the small bag of products I carry in my purse. Viridian red on the lips, a pinker gloss. A light streak under the brow. Medium brown on the brow-wisps. Dark shadow brushed along the back of those eyes, to give a beautiful depth, if only they could open. A dust of blue along the lid. Powdered mineral makeup. Contour. Blush. Tilt.


Susanne Paola’s most recent book, Make Me a Mother, ranked a Top Ten Book of the Year by Image Journal, was published by W.W. Norton. A digital chapbook, Curious Atoms: A History with Physics, is forthcoming from Essay Press in 2016.

She is also the author of Body Toxic, A Mind Apart, the novella Stolen Moments, and four books of poetry. Some awards include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, an Oprah Bookshelf pick, a Pushcart prize, and others. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Orion, The New Republic and many anthologies. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.  She can be found online at




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  • Reply Mark Liebenow August 5, 2016 at 6:26 am

    Touching focus on your mother’s face. Specificity of colors. My mother died recently, a painter. Her face and eyes were where my focus was, too. Thank you, Susanne.

  • Reply Susanne Paola Antonetta February 12, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Thank you for your response, Mark! I really appreciate your comments.

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