Beauty Tips (and Other Things) I Learned from My Grandmother

Helen McClean (left) kept a busy social calendar and plenty of gowns on hand for concerts with her singing group, the Song Stylists.

Grandma played the piano. She ran the family business. She brought—and kept—people together. And somehow she did it all with dazzling style.

From giving us advice on washing our hair to staying spry and being wary of sweets, our dear grandmothers have taught us a thing or two about health, happiness, and letting true beauty shine.

Movie Star Sass

by Meredith Siemsen

Almost as gorgeous as Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships,” Helen McClean knew how to emphasize her other redeeming features as well.

Helen wasn’t your typical farm wife. With cherry red lipstick that framed the perfect gap in her front teeth and a ukulele in the same hand that held a cigarette, she looked like a 1940s movie star. And when she felt like it, she could really rock a gown.

Other than the time she washed my mother’s mouth out with soap for calling an errant chicken a “sonnovabitch” in front of the church minister, Helen didn’t worry much about what other people thought of her. She said what she wanted, she lived as she pleased, and until her dying day she was telling naughty jokes and kicking ass at Scrabble.

My friends say I should stop caring so much about other what people think of me. I’m learning to channel my inner Helen.

Taking Care . . . and Hair

by Jae Wren

Betty Nyswonger knew the secret for having healthy hair.

Of course everyone at the funeral shared how loving Grandma was, and how she put her family first. But what especially struck me was how everyone, even bank coworkers who hadn’t seen her in years, stressed what a smartly dressed woman she was. Until then, I hadn’t considered Grandma’s appearance. The only tip I remember getting from her is that when shampooing, I should scratch my scalp gently with my nails to make my hair shine. I was 12 at the time and never questioned Grandma’s words. Her tip panned out. To this day, even strangers compliment me on my hair.

When it came to beauty, Grandma’s actions spoke more loudly than her words. She never wore jeans—it was either pantsuits or dresses. Her belt and shoes and jewelry all had to match. Every Friday morning she went to the beauty parlor to have her hair washed and dried and “reset” by her beautician, and she was careful to wear nightcaps to bed and rain bonnets in inclement weather. She had a facial routine with daily cleansing, moisturizing, and applying foundation. Her nails were always done, she had an entire dresser-top full of designer perfumes, and she had a lipstick collection that was every little girl’s dream. Also, she watched her figure. She weighed herself every day, and if she gained a pound, she ate a little less until she lost that pound. That might be why she lived to 93!

So what I learned from Grandma is to pay attention to the big picture by focusing on the details. And more importantly, that women, even working mothers, and then grandmothers, and then even great grandmothers, need to take care of themselves even as they take care of everyone else.

Wildflower Salad

by Patricia Miller Hancock

Virginia (and her husband) lookin’ fit at 58. Must be all that fresh food.

Lambs quarters and purslane grow right on Seventy Acres, just past our mailbox. Let’s gather some for lunch. It tastes like spinach. No one will know.

Come with me. I want to show you something. Over the hill, in the woods, beyond the well. A rare pink lady’s slipper. We can’t pick it.

Pussy willows are growing half a mile down the road. They are going to dig them up when they develop that part of the road next year. Let’s go see, before they are gone.

We picnicked near unchartered caves. Yellow dandelions, marigolds, and wildflowers adorned our salads.

One summer evening, when the rest of our family was away, we went down to her vegetable garden to have dinner. Fresh tomatoes from the vine, baby zucchini and yellow squash, tender lettuce, young snap peas, red wineberries. No dishes to wash.

Virginia, 1922–2006, loved the challenge of uncharted country territory.

True Grace

By Lisa Santiago

My Czech grandma loved to dance. Even in her later years in Cedar Rapids, she went to every polka event within a 500-mile radius.

In her late 80s, she came to live with me. One day, she tripped in the kitchen. I wasn’t close enough to reach her. With the quiet elegance of a modern dancer, her body seemed suspended in mid-air; I swear she floated in slow motion to the ground. That was my grandma’s fall. Years of dancing had given her effortless balance. She was back on her feet in no time, with only a few bruises to laugh about.

Though I watched her struggle with the many losses that aging brings, she taught me to weather life’s storms with grace. She once told me, “Bad things happen; that’s just the way life is. You have to stop crying and move on. It will get better but you can’t give up.” With every fall, I get back up . . . and I will never stop dancing.

Granny’s Warning

By Betty Moffett

Lula Burke and Mr. Hamp

By the time I knew her, my grandmother had a face that was more kind than beautiful. But pictures prove that Lula Burke had been a very pretty girl—pretty enough to attract the attentions of tall, black-haired Wade Hampton Ferguson, or “Mr. Hamp,” as she and everyone else always called him.

One rainy Sunday afternoon just after my 15th birthday, I was sitting beside Granny’s chair, helping her roll her crochet yarn into a ball. She looked at me closely and said, “Why, Betty, how’d you get to be almost grown?” And I knew, because in the South, such topics were always approached obliquely, that she wanted to be sure I’d heard “The Facts.”

“When Mr. Hamp came courting me,” Granny began, “I had just turned 15. That’s your age now, I do believe. He was mighty handsome and mighty smart.” She smiled, remembering. Then, “One Sunday, which was our courting day, he told me he was going on a trip. I must have looked sad, because he said, ‘Don’t worry, Lula, I’ll bring you back a present.’

“Oh, I tell you, for the next two weeks, I thought and thought about what that present might be—a pretty comb for my hair, a cameo pin. When I saw Mr. Hamp’s buggy coming up the drive, I ran upstairs to put on my good shoes and pinch some pink into my cheeks. He came in the door and handed me a bag of peppermint candy.

“I couldn’t help it. I started to cry. He patted my arm and offered me his clean handkerchief. He was one confused fella. But I couldn’t tell him the truth—my mama had always told me that the way a man gave you a baby was to feed you peppermint candy.

“As soon as Mr. Hamp had driven away, I locked myself in the outhouse and cried my eyes out. All that week, I did nothing but cry. Finally, the school teacher, who was boarding with us that spring, sat me down and said, ‘Lula Burke, what ails you, child?’

“When I explained, she said, ‘You just come with me. Your mama has some things she needs to tell you.’ ”

Granny sat back in her chair, chuckling a little, thinking, maybe, of the eight babies she and Mr. Hamp had had, all without the help of peppermint candy.

I understood the Southern code of indirectness, so I said, “Don’t worry, Granny. My mama has told me all that stuff.”

“Knew she had, child,” Granny said. “I just wanted to be sure.” And we went back to winding yarn.

Better with Age

by Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Edythe Rothenberg at 92, a vision in gold

My Grandma Edythe didn’t offer me much in the way of lifestyle advice. She smoked for most of her adulthood and ate the worst diet of anyone I’ve ever known. Her mid-century style—chunky clip-on earrings and polyester slacks—was foreign to my grunge-era teenage sensibilities.

Here’s the thing, though: She got more beautiful as she aged. The most gorgeous photos I have of her were from my wedding in 2007 when she was 92 years old. She wore the same long, shimmering gold dress she’d worn to my uncle’s wedding in 1971 and it still fit her like a glove. Her white hair was chin-length and silky and her face was practically unlined. Above all, she had an innate glamor whose source was hard to define—a confidence and delight, a radiant presence that refused to dim with the years. Through watching her, I realized there didn’t have to be any such thing as “letting yourself go.” She never shared the details of her skin care regimen (I wish I’d asked!). But she ended all our conversations by telling me, “As long as you’re happy, darling. That’s what matters.” I think that was the best beauty tip of all.

• • •

Dear grandmas, this Mother’s Day we are thinking of all the amazing, generous, ridiculous, hilarious, miraculous, arduous, and admirable things you did—and the beauty you revealed.

Thanks to all of the women who shared their stories and their photos.

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!