My paternal Grandmother died when I was eighteen. Her passing was particularly sad for me because, having been raised many miles from London, where she lived, I had just started college a few miles from her home, and was enjoying popping in to see her on a Saturday afternoon, or dropping by on a weeknight. She always sent me back to my digs with a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits (you Anglophiles know what those are), or she’d put a few coins in my hand, reminding me to call my parents – this from a woman who didn’t have a telephone.
Nan had suffered a dreadful fall down a steep flight of stairs. Her neck was broken, so we all knew she had very little time. I remember my mother coming back from the hospital, where Nan had asked her to wash her face. My mother told me, “It was like touching a baby’s skin, so soft and smooth.” Her skin was something people talked about, it was so unblemished – and she had never worn make-up in her life. That life had been a hard one. She had left school – and home – at twelve to go into domestic service. Her father brought her back at thirteen when her mother died – she was needed to care for the house and three younger brothers. She married my grandfather in 1917 – a soldier who was still recovering from physical and psychological wounds sustained at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and who was about ten years her senior. She must have been all of 18. To the day she died, she never had a washing machine, but instead completed all her household tasks with little in the way of labor saving devices (I think she had a wringer, because I remember her telling me to keep my fingers out of the way when I was a little girl and had been sent to stay for a week in the summer), yet her face remained barely lined even to her death in her late seventies.
I remember visiting Nan when I was about sixteen. I was sitting at the kitchen table when she stopped whatever she was doing – you hardly ever saw her sitting down – and took my chin in her hand and moved my face from side to side, scrutinizing me through her thick spectacles. “Time to get you some rosewater and glycerine, my girl,” she said. So that afternoon we walked down to the shops, stopping in at the pharmacy. She asked for, “My usual rosewater.” I watched as the pharmacist brought out two large demijohns, each marked in gold lettering. He blended equal measures of rosewater and glycerine in a plain bottle, marked the label and handed it to her. It was cheap. Much cheaper than anything else I’d been using on my skin. Nan instructed me that upon waking and before bed I was to soak a small ball of cotton wool with the solution, and to cleanse my face completely. She also told me that the sun was not my friend. Why I didn’t stick with her advice, I don’t know.
I thought of Nan this week, while reading an article written in 1926 for a woman’s magazine, and I wondered how far we women had come, really, where care of the skin is concerned. Tackling the question of what makes a fine complexion, here’s what the writer said: “To do her best for her appearance is every woman’s duty towards herself and her surroundings.” Her surroundings? Might my living room be doomed if I forget to moisturize? Mind you, maybe our foremothers knew there was a link between personal care and a respect for one’s environment, and thus, one another. Or perhaps an untidy house leads to – heaven forbid – wrinkles!
Here’s something I think I always knew, but of course in a more modern article wouldn’t get a mention: the relationship between discomfort and poor skin. Those women who came of age in the early part of the last century knew this. Nan always said, “If you’re bad on your feet, you’re bad all the way through.” I never saw her in more than one inch heels. And here’s what the author of the 1926 article said: “Take for granted that your health is in trim, that you have no corns or sore feet that tend to giving your features a pained expression (the beginning of wrinkles!), and that you take a sufficient amount of daily exercise and fresh air.” A suggested beauty regime followed, which I would basically describe as “soap and water” cleansing (and remember, soap was often pure of chemicals in those days), but then our writer asks the question, “Does the so-called beauty culture result in anything worth having?”
Can you imagine that question in today’s magazines, when any regime seems to be worth having – and at great cost? Here’s the 1926 answer: “While some of it may be useful, a great deal of it is positively harmful. The powders clog the pores, which are the ‘breathers’ of the skin. The paints and lipsticks encase the face so that the captivating muscular twinkling movements stop; the dimples lose the art of ‘dimpling’ and every kind of animation of the face disappears.”
What would they say about Botox?
My grandmother’s face was beautifully animated. Her smile was broad and her gray-blue eyes twinkled as a grandmother’s eyes should. My father has her skin, and so does my cousin Celia, who took that sage advice and kept out of the sun. Unlike me.
Unfortunately, I never kept up with the glycerine and rosewater, though I have always tried to keep things fairly simple regarding my skin. However, after sustaining a hamstring injury some months ago, I decided to take one of those joint and ligament supplements that are supposed to help with movement. I did my research and picked a good one, but missed the observation of many reviewers that, while their joints felt better, their skin was adversely affected by the supplement. Uh-oh, if you could have seen my skin. My grandmother would have brought out the carbolic soap and a scrubbing brush! I was so miserable, and couldn’t bear to be near a mirror. But Nan must have spoken to me from the beyond, because in my despair, I went online and found a bottle of Glycerine & Rosewater. Within hours of applying the water, in the way my grandmother instructed, my skin had calmed, and a few days later, there was even a bit of a glow. Now, many years after she took my adolescent chin in her hand and inspected my complexion, I know without a doubt that my grandmother knew best.
So, what tips about skincare did you learn from your mothers and grandmothers? And did you stick with them?