In my teens, as I’d be heading out the door, my mother would call out to me after a quick lookover.
Her comments were never about what I was wearing.
It was what I wasn’t wearing.
“Put some lipstick on,” she’d say. “You look pale.”
I cringed at the thought. Lipstick? Every day? So 1950s.
This went on for decades, even after I became a mother myself. In Mom’s mind, there was no occasion that didn’t warrant a quick schmear of red wax across my lips.
Me? I was a Bonne Bell girl in the ‘70s, preferring a light gloss of pale pink, at most. I believed my healthy, young lips didn’t need extra embellishment.
My father agreed.
“Boys don’t like girls who wear too much makeup,” he said. “You’re beautiful as you are.”
In college, I had a practical reason. Competing on the varsity swim team, I faced daily double workouts, both mornings and afternoons. Makeup would just wash off, I figured, so why bother?
Yet my mother never abandoned her quest. Once, while she was visiting us, I asked why she persisted telling me to wear lipstick when I clearly wasn’t interested, nor cared, except for special occasions? And besides, my husband, like my father, found me beautiful as I was.
She grew silent.
“You think I’m bad?” said my mother. “Grammy (her mother) would put on lipstick before she brushed her teeth every morning!”
I couldn’t imagine it.
“Yes,” my mother nodded. “Grammy would wake up early, put on her lipstick, brush her teeth, then sneak back into bed until PopPop (her father) woke up.”
“I only put it on after I brush my teeth,” she said, defensively, “before coming down for breakfast.”
Over the years, the lipstick colors fluctuated, from pinks to reds. Lipstick tubes littered the house—laying on her bedroom bureau, behind bathroom mirrors, and on the kitchen windowsill.
Finally, Mom found The One: Revlon’s #440—Cherries in the Snow. The name seems to imply a winter tone, a bright Santa Claus-suit-red. But with hidden tones of fuschia, it was perfect to wear every season.
I think wearing #440 made my mother feel beautiful. Didn’t she know, I wondered, that she already was without it?
My mother stopped wearing lipstick only once. She was dying. She knew. We five kids knew. In her cramped room, my sisters stood on either side of her hospital bed. I stood by her bureau covered with tubes of #440. I pocketed one. Then another. My sisters did, too.
Days later, we wore it to her funeral.
Now when I go out, I schmear a little #440 on. I look pale, you know.