From bombs to beauty

Reflections in Mom's eyes.

It's a good thing my mother could design weapons of mass destruction, because she would have made a crappy cosmetologist. She could not even curl her own bangs, for one, let alone those on other heads. And don't get me started with the false eyelashes. She never wore them herself, but she brought home sample after sample and glued them to my eyelids, not to mention those of my sisters, along with every other sample of experimental beauty product they were passing out at the community college where she took night courses in cosmetology. It was to be her fallback career, she kept insisting, when the day finally came that her job building bombs for the government proved unreliable.

That day never really came, but she kept preparing for it nonetheless, practicing her newly acquired beauty techniques on my sisters and me. She once gave me a perm that simply injected my long hair with some kind of super frizz so it stuck out horizontally on either side of my center part. That, in combination with my skinny limbs at the time, caused her to joke that I looked like a walking capital letter "T." You would think these failures would have deterred her from pursuing a career in beauty, but as long as she had willing lab mice like me upon which to bestow her ministrations, she kept up the classes. I will never forget the mud-mask period, during which she kept all our faces caked in minty-smelling green sludge for days at a time, it seemed, certain we'd emerge with flawless skin for our efforts.

"This stuff is actually edible," she'd say, suppressing a gag as she tasted a tiny bit off the tip of her finger. I remarked that it was a good thing, since we had more jars of mud mask than we did of anything else in the cupboards. At that we laughed until our masks cracked like overdone pie crusts.

My skin didn't seem any better off after the mud immersion than it did before, but my mother insisted that it wasn't the immediate result that mattered, but that we were nourishing future layers of the epidermis. It sounded like bunk to me, but regardless of my mother's limited talents when it came to beautifying the people around her, she certainly seemed happier when she was trying, as opposed to when her talents were directed toward destruction, where there seemed to be a bigger demand.

But for all I know she could have been a crappy missile scientist, too. I really have no idea, considering that I lack any method of measuring an effective weapon to judge my mother's ability to build one. I do recall several occasions when her co-scientists praised her abilities in my presence, and considering that these same people often recommended her for future contracts, I have to believe she was good at her job, if not enthusiastic about it.

I also remember her once remarking that the government paid her the same if the bomb worked well as it did if it didn't work at all, so it was all the same to her. It might or might not be a comfort to know that she didn't always work directly for the government of the United States but sometimes for that of the Swiss, who in turn had been contracted by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to name a few. "I have no idea how they're going to be able to operate this missile," she once said of the Saudi clients who had contracted the Swiss weapons company where she worked, which in turn had contracted her from her company in California. "None of the equations add up, and the jibbity jabber doesn't fit into the zimmity zoo, thus rendering the doobie dauber ineffectual."

As soon as she saw I wasn't listening, she'd change the subject, often to the latest beauty product that was the rage of her night-course classmates, like the new setting gel made from banana extract or whatever. Before I knew it, I'd be facing a mirror with a head full of the stuff, and she was running her fingers through my hair, murmuring about its suppleness. "You're such a beauty," she would say over and over, which gave me pause, because I did not have the same opinion about my reflection.

But if I've learned anything since growing up, it's that reflection is relative, and perhaps when my mother was looking at me she was reflecting on the gratitude that bombs were not the only things she produced in her life. That even if she was a bad beauty-school student, at least she endeavored to produce beauty in a world where it seemed such endeavors were becoming less and less valuable. True, my mother could not curl her own bangs, but she could build a bomb and then, when that didn't make an interesting topic of conversation with her daughters, she could learn about beauty products and talk about that instead.

Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and founded the Shocking Real-Life Writing Academy (

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