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The Woman in the Mirror

I stood before the dresser and stared at my reflection in the mirror behind it. I knew it didn’t make sense, but part of me had hoped to glimpse the woman with green eyes and dark-auburn hair who once stood here. But all I saw were my own blue eyes and blonde hair. Where was she?

The double dresser was my mother’s until she moved into a nursing home. My brother, Bob, and I were clearing out her apartment when he eyed it and said, “No one will want this. Let’s throw it out.”

The wood was scuffed and scratched and the brass drawer handles were dull and tarnished. I ran my index finger gently along the top, feeling the bumps and dents in the wood beneath my fingertip. For a moment, I closed my eyes and saw the dresser through my five-year-old eyes.

The mahogany was flawless and smooth. It was stained a rich burgundy and topped with a finish so shiny I could see my reflection. The drawer handles gleamed against the burgundy background, like precious gems nestled in a velvet-lined jewelry box. A heavy, beveled mirror hung on the wall behind the dresser. And every morning when I was little, my mother stood before it to get ready for the day while I sat on her bed and watched.

On the top of the dresser, she kept a set of three items: a silver-plated, hand-held mirror and the matching brush and comb. They were always perfectly lined up as if someone measured the exact distance between each of them. My mother started by brushing her hair until it fell in soft curls around her face. The color and shine of her natural auburn highlights almost matched the dresser.

Next, she slid open her top drawer and took out a gold compact of pressed powder. She clicked it open, dabbed a powder puff in it, and smoothed it over her face. I laughed when she arched her eyebrows in the mirror. Then with feathered strokes, she swept a pencil the color of a russet leaf across them until they were perfect arcs.

Finally, she leaned forward, thighs pressing against the dresser, nose almost touching the mirror. With swift precision, she applied a creamy lipstick that made her mouth look like she had eaten a bowl of red currants. She placed a folded tissue between her slightly parted lips and gently pressed them together. When she removed the tissue, a perfect, garnet-red impression of her lips was in the centre.

By the time she moved into a nursing home at 95, the vibrant woman who had taken such pride in her appearance was a ghost of the past. Time had helped itself to her mind and her body. Her beautiful green eyes with starbursts of gold were now shrunken, like the raisin eyes of apple dolls. Her hair was a thin, dull gray that her gnarled fingers could no longer coax into curls.

My brother once asked her, “Where’s the mother I knew who always looked like a million bucks?” I winced when he told me he’d said that. But I also felt guilty because I sometimes looked for that woman too.

“I’ll take it,” I told my brother, pointing to the dresser.

Restoring it became a labour of love. The decades-old stain bubbled and blistered under the stripper I applied. After wiping away the last traces of both stain and stripper, I guided a sander back and forth over the bare wood. As I did, I was sure the unmistakable scent of Evening in Paris leached from the wood. It had been my mother’s favourite perfume, and every Christmas my father would buy her some. She kept the blue glass bottle on her dresser and spritzed a little inside her wrists and behind her ears on special occasions. Could the scent still be embedded in the wood after all this time?

The grain of the mahogany that emerged as I worked was even more beautiful than I had hoped. I applied a protective finish to the wood, cleaned and polished the brass handles until they shone, and then carefully screwed them back into place. Finally, I moved the dresser and mirror into my bedroom.

Only when I stood before them did I realize that I’d hoped to see a trace of the woman with the red hair and lips who once stood where I did now. But she wasn’t there. Then, before I could think about what I was doing, I found red lipstick and smoothed it on. I blotted my lips with a tissue and looked at the imprint left behind. There she is, I thought.

And I smiled at her image.


Linda Thompson is a Canadian writer. She enjoys stringing words together, changing them, and moving them around until they tell a story. Her work has appeared in Chronicling the Days Dispatches from a Pandemic (Guernica Editions, 2021), Syncopation Literary Journal and Canadian Living Magazine.

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