Whenever Agnes dressed for a special occasion, the last thing she’d do is color her nails and lips. She’d sit in an arm chair with high heels dangling from her crossed leg and expertly paint her fingernails using a tiny brush from a little bottle of toxic red lacquer. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself.
First, she’d soak a Kleenex in an upended bottle of Cutex nail polish remover and wipe all her nails clean. The vapors would tickle all the hairs in my nose, and give me a headache, but I never turned away. I’d watch her unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark-bristled brush coated in red liquid. With one hand flattened on the antique mahogany side table, and the other one holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get the exact amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form, nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them. (Where did she learn that? Like me, she was not the kind of person who would have practiced such a thing as a teenager. Unlike her, I’ve never managed to lay polish or lipstick on myself with such aplomb.)
At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left hand, slide the top up with her left fingers, and let it drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the curved tapered bristles of the lipstick brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. Then she’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips. Next she’d brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. With fresh lipstick, her beguiling red lips seemed larger than usual, but not unnatural. (She kept her lipstick and brush in a small leather pouch. Sometimes she left the house with only her Marlboros and her lipstick.)
One day in her room at the Continental Hotel, she painted her nails and lips, slipped into her tweed skirt and cashmere sweater, nylons and high heels and wrapped her shoulders in a mahogany colored mink stole. She had us dress in our Sunday clothes—black velvet dresses and black patent leather Mary Janes.
Where were we going? From our rooms in the hotel to the coffee shop on the ground floor behind the French doors off the lobby. It was nothing unusual for my two sisters and I, who’d already learned to sign our names and room number to the checks. But on this day, for reasons I cannot piece together, we dressed for lunch. Perhaps she meant to take us to Mass first. Perhaps she wanted us all to look as if we had been to Mass. Or perhaps my mother had never been in the coffee shop before and didn’t know the dress code. She spent most of her time in their hotel room drinking scotch and beer and reading mystery novels. Maybe, oh maybe, she wanted to present a new public face, one of a normal person, a sober, genteel mother with perfect children.
Publisher's Note: A hybrid memoir, Regan Burke’s In That Number chronicles one struggle to find grace and peace amidst the chaos of politics and alcoholism. It’s an important public book from a longtime Democratic party activist, one whose beliefs led her from protesting the Vietnam War at the Lincoln Memorial to working inside the White House—a woman with fascinating firsthand reminisces about everything and everyone from Woodstock to Vladimir Putin, from The Exorcist to Bill Clinton, from Roger Ebert to Donald Rumsfeld. It’s also an intimate and revealing private memoir from a woman who spent a harrowing childhood being raised by shockingly dysfunctional parents—a roguish naval-aviator-turned-lawyer-turned-con-man father and a racist socialite mother—and bouncing from house to house to luxury hotel, trying to stay one step ahead of the creditors. (And not always succeeding.) It’s an entertaining and ultimately heartwarming journey, from private schools to the psych ward, from hippie communal living to the corridors of power to the pews of church, and through the rooms of twelve-step recovery to the serenity of long-term sobriety.
I could not put down this memoir. It is a tale of redemption and rebirth. Regan Burke writes of all the pain of growing up the daughter of two alcoholics and well-dressed grifters “who didn’t pay their bills, lied, and cheated, but still had cocktails and hors d’oeuvres every night before dinner.” Her story is that of the Baby Boomer generation from sex, drugs, and rock and roll to various political campaigns in Illinois and finally to the Clinton White House and beyond. In That Number is a touching narrative of survival, loyalty, and compassion from a woman who has seen it all.
--- Dominic A. Pacyga
Author of Chicago: A Biography