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On my dresser, hiding behind a stack of books, is a half-filled bottle of Revlon Red nail polish. I haven’t used it at least a year, not since the day I left it open on a white carpet for my dog to knock over. But last month, after visiting my Aunt Paula and her newborn daughter, I felt an impulse to retrieve the Revlon Red from its hideout. I held the half-filled bottle to the sun and watched the liquid swim in the light. As the bright red polish glistened, I was transported back to the evenings and weekends I spent with my Aunt Paula exploring makeup together, memories that I had long buried in the back of my mind.
It is a cold, blistery winter night in 1995, and I am sitting at the edge of my seat, toes barely touching the floor and scribbling away with my Crayola glitter crayons at my kid-sized drawing table in the living room. I am intently focused on drawing the right shape of my doll’s head while listening to the laughter and gossip coming from the kitchen. I hear the scraping of chairs on the tile floor and chink-chink of plates stacked one on top the other. Through the wooden floor, I feel vibrations of footsteps coming closer to me. As I look up from my picture I see my aunt coming towards me with a wide smile on her plum red lips. “Stephanie! I have something special I brought for you,” she said as she showed me a bottle of red nail polish. We ended up spending the rest of the night sitting at my small table painting my finger and toe nails red. I remember that night slowly nodding off to sleep gazing at my shiny red nails.
Now Aunt Paula is helping me get ready for my first middle school Halloween party in my kitchen. I am sitting on a stool at the counter, fussing with my flapper dress and stockings, while she whizzes about me applying eyeliner and blush to me. As a mere eighth grader and new to the girl world of makeup and accessories, I can’t possibly see how those things could make my costume look any better. She smiles at my questions of what she was using and why, and answers by handing me a mirror so I can follow her steps. It takes her twenty minutes to complete my twenties flapper look, but all the while I visually recorded every stroke of her makeup brush in my mind. After she’s done with my hair and makeup, I take out a small bottle of red nail polish to top off the effect. Shakily trying to paint my right hand with the left (and not succeeding), Aunt Paula takes over and finishes my nails for me. With the look completed, I am excited, she’s excited and we are wondering what we could do with the hair and makeup next time. I remember how to do the makeup; all I need now is practice!
I am a bona-fide teenager now in high school, sophomore year. I hurriedly jog up the stairs of the Short Hills Mall, and arrive a little breathless at the Betsey Johnson shop near the stairs. Aunt Paula, stepping through the shop’s doorway, waves to my Mom, sister and me. Minutes later we are all shifting through the racks of sale dresses, when I notice that the red of her finger nails didn’t stop there, but extended to the color of her bag and accented her shoes. It dawned on me that the consistent existence of red in her wardrobe and appearance is the manifestation of her passion for life and for those she loves and for her work as a stylist. Red took on a different meaning for me right then. She looks over at me, smiles one of her genuine smiles, and asks me for my “fashionista” opinion on a slim reddish shift dress.
A flash. The moment is over. Snapped back to real time, I am left nostalgic and stunned that the young frivolous woman that my aunt is in my memories is now a mother herself. Only now do I realize and fully appreciate the impact she has had on my life. Only now that she has matured into the role of motherhood and now has a daughter who will adore her as much as I do, do I realize how much of an inspiration she is for me. All our roaming through racks of wacky designer clothing influenced me so strongly over the years that I now feel my aunt’s frivolity in me. I don’t feel guilty about the stack of fashion magazines sitting next to my bed stand, nor do I regret the zillions of hours I spent pouring over advertisements and copying the models’ stance, for all that hard work has paid off: my studio art thesis is about the nature of fashion imitating art. I wish I could relate to Aunt Paula the times I spent at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York working at the sewing machines making a skirt or blouse in the style of Betsey Johnson (her favorite designer). The passionate drive I have for living up to my full potential and creating clothing is like that of my aunt’s to create an outlet for her artistic attributes.
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