Updated: Apr 6
*The is the first in a two-part series in honor of Mother's Day.
My mother was a Jafra Queen Bee. If you were alive and used cosmetics in 1980’s America you may or may not remember Jafra. Jafra is an American skin care and beauty products company similar to Avon and Mary Kay, relying upon trained consultants to spread knowledge of their brand and distribute their products. My mother was a successful consultant for a number of years and swore by Jafra products, touting their superiority to other brands largely because of their number one, distinctive product and best seller, “Royal Jelly Milk Balm” and other Royal Jelly products. Secreted by worker bees and fed to both larvae and the queen bee, royal jelly is often lauded as a magical elixir for the skin as well as for treating a host of conditions such as diabetes and menopause. Mom used her royal jelly face cream every single morning. She “put her face on” at the kitchen table, and so, between bites of my cereal, I grew up watching her slather on the miracle balm, explaining, “It’s your neck you’ve got to take the most care of, and when you get to be my age, you’ve got to moisturize your face daily too. Royal jelly is the best for keeping the skin soft and vibrant and youthful.” And she did have pretty phenomenal skin.
Unlike me, my mom had pinky skin tones, complementary to her blue eyes and natural blonde hair. She was a “winter,” a description you will recognize if you’re old enough to remember the “Color Me Beautiful” craze, complete with fabric swatches and cardboard fans of color, suggesting your “season” based on skin tones. I am an autumn to my mom’s winter. I used to envy her royal blue and hot pink and teal, white, and black color palette. At age eight, being told that my colors were olive green, browns, rusty reds, cream, and orange seemed like a raw deal. In addition to the difference in our tones, her skin was soft and glowy and fresh throughout her adult life, right into old age. She had what they called, “the Jafra glow.”
It was fun growing up and having access to some of her lipsticks, nail polishes, and blushes. She’d let me play with some of the discontinued colors or products that were now beat up and not suitable for showing or sale. My brother, however, would tell you that it wasn’t all mauves and roses, living with a Jafra Queen. For instance, there was the infamous Malibu Miracle Mask episode. According to mom, the mask was famed for its ability to purge your pores and clear your complexion. Mom insisted that George avail himself of the Malibu the night before high school picture day to eradicate the skin outbreak that threatened to mar his photo for the year. Heeding her advice, George liberally applied the mask only to discover the next morning that Malibu Miracle Mask worked only too well. It certainly had labored to unclog his pores in the night but had only succeeded in bringing all of the dreaded pimples to a head all over his face. I can still remember the outrage, “Mom! You told me that the Malibu Miracle Mask would work a miracle for the photos today!” And her reply, “Well! It did help get rid of all that junk. Look! It’s all right there ready to come out now!”
Mom’s consultancy brought forth a cast of characters that jazzed up our lives during those Jafra years. I liked the way mom’s Jafra expanded her world and brought out her bubbly, extroverted side. I remember many Jafra parties with my mother’s friends new and old gathered around our kitchen table, laughing raucously, candles burning, and my mother at the center of it all, vivacious, eyes sparkling. I don’t think I appreciated it at the time, but I loved those ladies partly because they loved my mom, and many remained my mother’s friends throughout her life. There was “Koko,” a nickname that paired curiously with my mother’s own nickname, “Cookie.” Koko was an Italian lady who favored bright lipsticks and kept laughter reverberating between the passing of products, positioning of light-up mirrors, and constant chatter of those Jafra evenings. M.J. is equally unforgettable: a wiry woman, who, as mom described, “turned the air blue” with colorful language in between drags on her cigarettes. She was incorrigible and quite hilarious: larger than life despite her frail frame. Then there was the new client who became notorious in our family for unscionably gouging her fingernail into one of the sample lipsticks. How mom went on about the big gouge she took out of her lipstick, rendering the brand new sample useless. It went something like this, “Now, for heaven’s sake! Will you look at this? Look what she’s done to the Dusky Rose!” I remember my siblings and I goading our mom about this unpardonable sin of lipstick sample destruction.
Jafra provided a way for mom to have something for herself. She came alive on those Jafra evenings, sometimes leaving the family behind to present at a party elsewhere, necessitating that my dad tuck me into bed. I can think of very few times when my mother was not present at home in the evenings outside of her Jafra party bookings. As a child, I’m sure I missed her, but as an adult, I delight in the knowledge she had this time to do something for herself. My dad took over the evening care and bedtime routine with me, while mom put on her best blazers, primped her short, permed hair into neat 80s perfection and went out the door, royal blue, teal, or magenta colors blazing. For those brief years, she was not simply “mom” or a wife. She was a businesswoman. Mom worked other jobs here and there as I was growing up: as an aide in the local elementary school, and as a daycare worker, for example. And while she enjoyed elements of these other jobs, I never saw a job make her come alive like her Jafra consultancy. She was good at it. It was a big deal when one year, she was recognized at a big Jafra company party as a “Jafra Queen Bee,” an award they granted (and I believe still grant) to consultants who are particularly successful. When mom returned after that award evening, she was luminous, and it wasn’t just from the royal jelly.
I remember the pride I felt the next day when I learned of her award and imagined my mom receiving it to grand applause at the award ceremony. I still picture it the same way I did then. She is called up on stage with a spotlight following her across the expanse, the light catching the twinkle in her cubic zirconia earrings: duller only than the brightness of her eyes. Her friends shout from the audience. Her pinky complexion is supple and radiant, her cheeks scrunched up with joy. The clickety clack of her heels sounds across the stage floor, and her sweet grin flashes as she graciously accepts her prize: a pin perhaps? A trophy? I can no longer recall.
My mother lived a simple life and asked for little. She hardly ever bought herself new clothes or spent money on herself in general. She had known heartache and hurt, especially as a child and as a young woman. She obtained an associate’s degree from a secretarial college but dedicated most of her adult life to childrearing and homemaking. She lived selflessly, was overall cheerful and joyful, but underneath there was a strain of underlying sadness and frustration, and I’d catch little impressions of what she might have been in a different life. I was never prouder of my mother than I was during those years when she was the queen of royal jelly. And now that my mother is gone, I rejoice all the more that she had the happiness and autonomy of those years, lighting up our family’s life and the lives of a funny group of ladies with her Jafra glow.