Three-year old Lillie stood beside me at the bathroom vanity. “Up please, Mommy,” she said, raising her arms. I lifted her to sit cross-legged on the counter. Sticking her two ‘sucking’ fingers in her mouth, she watched in fascination.
Her daddy and I were going to a Halloween party. Jerrod had opted for the old white-sheeted ghost persona while I wanted something a little more detailed. The rag-mop I’d dyed red and sewn to a stocking cap waited as my crowning glory. Now I opened the stage make-up kit I’d saved from college theatrical days.
Lillie’s wide eyes tracked every movement of my hands.
Over a protective layer of moisturizer I applied greasy white foundation, covering my face from hairline to throat, careful to avoid my own eyes. Using a red lip pencil, I marked out an over-sized frowning mouth filling in the area with bright red lipstick. Around both eyes I traced diamond shapes with black eyeliner. At the top and bottom of the diamonds I made vertical marks with a thick blue eye-shadow stick. Just half an inch down from the outside corner of my left eye I painstakingly drew a teardrop with gray eyebrow pencil, shading it in with silver eye-shadow.
Donning my rag-mop wig, I turned to Lillie and asked, “What do you think, sweetie?”
She stared at me with her little eyebrows pulled towards each other and eyes slightly squinting. I could almost hear the cogwheels turning. Finally pulling her fingers out with a ‘pop’, she said in a very small voice, “Are you still my mommy?”
She’d watched me every step of the way, transforming myself into a clown. Yet she wasn’t quite sure. I gazed at the image in the mirror. A smile could get lost in that red lippy sadness and it did seem like the white face and glaring frown had obscured Lillie’s mommy. I made a mental note to watch how I approached my child in parenting.
I quickly reassured her, “Yes, sweetie, I’m still your mommy.” I gave her a hug and a smear of white make-up rubbed off on her face.
“Lillie,” I asked, “Would you like to have a clown face like Mommy?”
“Do you want to be a happy clown or a sad one?”
“A happy one!”
“Good for you,” I said.
Brown eyes soon stared out at me from a little white face above a wide painted smile.
I stood her up on the counter and said, “Look at yourself, Lillie.”
She stared at her image. I could see her little lips pursed within the garish red mouth.
“Are you still Lillie?” I asked.
“Yep!” She circled one plump arm around my neck. “Don’t be scared, Mommy. I’m still me! I just look like a silly clown.”
“And I love my silly Lillie clown!” I chuckled.
The snapshot Jerrod took of the two of us, looking like circus runaways, is a treasured one. Lillie often asked for a ‘clowny’ day after that. Sometimes I’d paint a happy face and sometimes sad. Always she’d tell me, “Don’t be scared, Mommy! I’m still Lillie!”
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I sat with Jerrod at a table separating us from Lillie on visiting day. The gray jail-issued shirt made her pale face seem even whiter. All three of our faces bore tears not painted on but from hearts broken by twenty-two-year old Lillie’s choices.
“I didn’t expect you to visit me. You didn’t have to,” Lillie said, a sob catching in her throat. “I’m so scared you hate me…I wouldn’t blame you.”
“Sweetie, do you remember our ‘clowny’ days?” I asked. I reached halfway to hold her hand, not sure it was allowed.
“You’d say, ‘don’t be scared, Mommy. I’m still Lillie’. Don’t you be scared, Lillie. In every step of the way to adulthood, painful or joyful, you’ve been Lillie and we will always love you.”
“I can make good choices, guys,” she said, sniffling and wiping her eyes with her sleeves.
“We know,” her daddy said.
“There’s a sober living facility with a spot open. When I get out of here next week, that’s where this silly clown is gonna go!”
Jerrod and I spoke in unison, “Good for you!”
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