Deep Cleaning

Yes, Mother. I can see you are flawed. You have not hidden it. That is your greatest gift to me.

-- Alice Walker

'You know how I can tell this is an elegant place?" I waited for her to enlighten me. "It's because everything is round. You see this silver dish that holds the sugar packets? Round. In Denny's, it's square." Setting down the silver container, my mother looked around the restaurant, pausing to stare over my shoulder at the fountain in the courtyard behind me. She smiled and then, looking worried, said, "You really shouldn't have taken me here. We could have gone someplace cheaper."

"Haven't you been to a nice restaurant before?" I asked. She told me of the time she had dined at the Hotel del Coronado for a district fundraiser. Mom had only gone because, as the assistant to the superintendent of the school district, she was given a free meal ticket.

Coincidentally, our chef today would be the same chef from the Del -- Jesse Frost, brother to my sister Jane's husband Simon. When the new Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa opened four months ago, Jesse was taken on as executive chef; he left the Coronado landmark to create his own Spanish-influenced menu.

I'd tasted some of it already; two weeks before, I had organized a dinner party for 18 in the library -- a private dining room -- for David's birthday. Complete with a chef's tasting menu, endless wine (my credit card is still writhing in agony), good friends, and three servers, the night was a success, and I vowed to return. So for Christmas, my mother received a card informing her that she was to be my guest for a day of pampering at the spa, preceded by lunch at the hotel's restaurant.

My choice of gift was not entirely selfless -- fabulous facial aside, I wanted to spend time with my mom, and I knew she would never go to the spa alone.

In the last few years, Mom and I have seen each other only at family gatherings, where she tends to be preoccupied with my sisters' kids. The two of us have had what one might call a rocky relationship. Of her four daughters, I was the one most likely to be harped on, for whatever reason. I never thought she could be proud of me, so I did everything in my power to manifest this perception -- tattoos, piercings, drugs, and more. As a depressed teen, I wrote poetry about how much her words hurt me, and for a short time, I hated her. But after our fights, her words spoken and mine written, we came to a sort of understanding: we would get along better if we saw each other less.

After years of self-analysis, which included the dissection of my family's behavior, I came to understand her better. Mom is a giving person, used to putting everyone else before herself, and she has never let her daughters down. Being hard on me, wishing more for me by demanding I "make something of myself," was her way of ensuring I would not fall into a downward spiral of self-loathing -- something she has been trying to overcome all her life. Only in the last few years has she come close to loving herself as much as we love her.

Still, I never felt as if we were friends. That was until today, when we planted the first seeds of a healthy mother/daughter relationship. I forgot how funny Mom could be. Sitting in the restaurant, she met my eyes in a serious way and said, "My pinky hurts."

"Why?" I inquired, thinking maybe she'd bumped it on something.

"Because I have to hold it up when I sip my coffee in a place like this," she said with a laugh.

After thoroughly offending the chef (I imagine) by demanding extra ketchup on our well-done Angus beef burgers, we headed over to the spa. The woman on the phone had suggested we arrive 30 minutes early, but when we did, Mom and I ended up waiting half an hour. Sure, we could have enjoyed the "eucalyptus sauna," but we aren't strip-down-to-sit-in-a-room-and-sweat type of women, and we'd sooner have our armpits tweezed than hang out in the buff with strangers. I halfheartedly tried to convince Mom to skinny-dip with me in the mostly private outdoor Jacuzzi, but she

wouldn't have it.

With every nook and cranny of the locker room, showers, toilet stalls, and sauna examined, we decided to check out the Relaxation Room. "Let's wait in there," I said. "It's all part of the experience." We sat in the quiet chamber, chairs at opposite walls, with two other women relaxing properly -- one sprawled out on a chaise with a magazine, the other working a crossword puzzle. The silence was as oppressive as the steam that fogged my glasses during our fully clothed step into the sauna. Mom began to tap her hand rhythmically against her leg as I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Finally, I motioned to her by wiggling my fingers and, with a nod of my head, pointed my thumb emphatically at the door.

Back in the locker room, we laughed, and I said, "We obviously don't know how to relax."

"I'm really nervous," Mom said.

"You don't have to be," I reassured.

"If I have a lot of blackheads will they charge us more?"

"No, Mom." I searched her face to see if she thought this might be a real possibility. She did.

So, I did what any loving, responsible, doting daughter would do -- I decided to mess with her. "You have nothing to worry about," I said, and then continued, "it's all part of the process. You might experience a little pain, but you'll feel all the better for it later. When you bleed, they'll have ways to clean it up, and I promise you won't regret it when you see the results."

With that last sentence, Mom dropped her head in her hands and spoke in a muffled voice, "I can't do this. I can't!" I told her I was kidding about the whole "bleeding" thing but that some discomfort is possible with a deep-cleaning facial. She told me I was a horrible person but said it with a smile that let me know she was kidding. She began to giggle nervously. Then it was time.

We were led into separate rooms to experience an extensive facial. Mom looked frightened, and her last words to me were, "If I call your name out, can we leave right away?"

"You can wait for me in the Relaxation Room," I said. "I want to get my full treatment."

Almost two hours later, after overwhelming mixtures of natural herbs such as rose hips, apricot, and cucumber; after hot wax, hot towels, cool masks, and soft hands (and a sparkling conversation with my aesthetician Andrea), I stood up, nearly falling from lightheadedness, put my shirt back on, and made my way to the Relaxation Room. My mother had arrived before me. I found her with her head back, eyes closed, and a dreamy smile on her face. Spread out as she was (wearing the robe she had objected to earlier), she looked as though she had been dropped from a tall building onto the soft chair.

"What did you think?" I asked her.

"Oh, my God, it was amazing. It was wonderful, I could really get used to this," she said. She sounded as dreamy as she looked. Breathing deeply, she added, "The smells! Just when I thought I couldn't smell something new, another fruit or flower, one after another, they just kept coming and coming!" I knew what we needed, and it wasn't a cigarette -- only chocolate could deliver the fix we craved.

I took Mom to Extraordinary Desserts, another first for her. As she sipped her vanilla-nut decaf and I made my way through a slice of Viking cake, we talked about things -- really talked about things. Mom asked me if I was happy. I told her, "Yes. Very." And this seemed to brighten her already glowing post-facial visage.

I asked her if she was happy. Looking down at her cup, she said, "I'm starting to be." This honest, insightful answer grabbed my heart and held it tight. "You know," I said, "I'm really looking forward to our next facial."

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