Bag For Life


Elegance, loyalty, inspiration. Novelist Erin Kelly sees more in her mother’s make-up bag than a No7 palette


My mother has had the same makeup bag since I was born, a cloth pouch with a groovy turquoise and lime green floral pattern on it, a fantastic 70s print that’s been in and out of fashion at least three times.


Some of my earliest memories of my mother are wrapped up in that bag. I remember watching her twirl on thick mascara at her mirror in our old house. I thought then, as now, that I wanted to be her when I grew up, although I was pretty sure that when my time came to apply mascara, I would be able to do it with my mouth closed.


My first experiments with cosmetics came that way too, sneaking into her top drawer when she was busy downstairs and really going for it. It was, of course, disastrous. We don’t look remotely alike. She’s got brown eyes and tans, whilst I’m pale with blue eyes. Trowelling on her tawny colours, I turned my rosy little face the colour of Hampton Court. Mum was far too kind to say anything.


She’s got her look sorted, my mum. Blonde backcombed hair, loads of dark eye makeup, sheer base – think Dusty Springfield without the pearlised lipstick. Mum’s forty-year unswerving brand loyalty to No7 cosmetics is a marketing manager’s dream. If she ever lost her makeup bag  – which she won’t, she’s far too sensible for that – I could go into Boots now and recreate it for her as easily as I could shop for myself. Her palette remains the same (she had her colours done in the 80s) but the products have got more sophisticated and she always looks current, never dated. She doesn’t do ruts. In her fifties, she took herself off to do a degree at Cambridge University. She got a first-class Masters.


If my mum’s makeup bag is a metaphor for her own life, what does mine say about me? Well, I inherited a lot of good things from her – the attitude, for example, that makeup is a fun but small part of a big life – but care for my possessions wasn’t one of them.  I must have had two dozen bags over the years, all of them tatty magazine or gift-set freebies. What happened to them? I don’t bloody know. They’re in the same black hole as all the odd socks and coffee shop loyalty cards. The current one is too small, filthy with spilt powder and I can never find the lip balm. Apart from my trusted and beloved Mac Face and Body Foundation, I never buy the same product twice, instead preferring to ‘experiment’ (ie waste money on special-offer crap). The parallels between our two mothering styles are unavoidable. Mum had three kids in as many years and brought us up with what now seems to be to be remarkable patience, resourcefulness and creativity. When I was little I only ever heard her swear once and even then she managed to convince me that it was just a different way of pronouncing ‘sheet’. By contrast, whilst my daughters laugh a lot and get enough cuddles, they have very unstructured mealtimes, are often parked in front of the telly while I hit a deadline and one of my eldest’s first words was ‘bollocks.’


Whenever I go and stay with my mum, I inevitably forget some beauty essential and end up rifling through her top drawer for a spare hair elastic or moisturiser. That lime-and-turquoise pouch is always there. Other things come and go: our family has been reshaped by divorce and remarriage, house moves, babies and bereavements. But this make up bag and its contents are consistent, reliable, inspiring, like my mother herself.


My daughters are five and one, and fascinated with my cosmetics. The desk in my study doubles up as a dressing table, and they sit at my feet while I write, while I put on my mascara with my mouth wide open. (Let us strike from the record the time the big one filled in an entire Peppa Pig colouring book with my brand new Chantecaille lipstick.) At the moment, their interest is entirely innocent: they don’t differentiate between the damage limitation of concealer and a box of glittery face paints. But they are like sponges, taking everything in.


I wonder if, in years to come, my girls will stumble across something – a tube of mascara in a drawer, the scent of pressed powder – that will make them think of me and my makeup bag. I wonder if they will remember me with anything like the love and gratitude I feel for my own mother. I hope so very much that they do.



Erin Kelly’s new novel, The Ties That Bind, is available now to pre-order.

All her previous novels are bloody brilliant, too.



Photo credit: tiffany terry / Flickr


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