My Mother Wore Red Lipstick

My mother was born in 1916, which means she wore red lipstick all her adult life. From her I learned there are many shades of red, but that at any rate red lips were essential when leaving the house or having over guests. Mom always waited until she was almost out the door to put on her color. The color badge of her red lips told everyone, she was ready, she was prepared, she was together, and on her game. I remember vaguely the smell of her lipstick, although I’m not sure what part was her color and what part was the Cover Girl powder she dabbed on her nose. My mother was blessed with beautiful skin. She never had a blemish in all the time I can remember. And her secret was to wash her face with cold cream every night before bed. That was it. That was all.

My mother had a Bachelor of Science in Education although she only taught for a very short time before becoming a mother. She made a commitment to be a stay at home mom and dedicate herself to her family. She was not a particularly efficient homemaker. She did not make our clothes, keep the house spotless or rarely did she pick us up or deliver us on time for school and events. But we were always loved and we knew it. We always had balanced meals, access to doctors and dentists, and she always had time to talk with us about anything we wanted.

She was a talker and a reader and a thinker. I think more than anything she liked to daydream. I can see her standing in the kitchen, leaning on a counter, left arm propping up her right, with her cigarette in the air, just staring off into the distance. She would come back as soon as you entered the room, and tell you where she had been. Perhaps she was remembering something from childhood, writing a short story in her head, or planning events of the next day, or wondering how so and so would handle this issue with her daughter that she had just told mother about on the phone.

Today’s generation have little cell phones, but growing up we always had two phones, one in the kitchen and one in the parent’s bedroom. This meant most calls were quite public, although we generally had a long cord and tried to stretch it to its limits. My mother with her land line was connected to countless other mothers, through girl scouts and cub scouts and her bridge groups and many other clubs and working groups. Together mothers of the world conferred, commiserated, and congratulated, although no one like a mother than was too much of a braggart.

It was my mother who discovered our crime when a group of us aged 14-16½ decided on a lark to drive to a much bigger city about 3 hours away in the middle of the night. All of us came up with the “staying over with a friend” routine and called our parents and we were off. But my mother was the one who got wise and knocked down our house of cards and raised the warning flag so that by the time we returned around 6 a.m. we all were in deep.

It was my mother who figured out when my best friend and I, at 16, got hold of some liquor and were planning to go out and meet some older boys at the park. She saved us from ourselves that day, from untold disasters. Yes, I was a handful at the age, but thankfully, she was up to the challenge.

After my brother and I were grown my mother turned her attentions to civic service, first on a housing planning commission and then on a school board. She made a profound mark and was much admired for her diligence, her careful consideration of issues, and her deliberate and fair-minded decision making. When she left the house for a meeting, always running a tad late, she was wearing that red lipstick.

At that time of her life she lived in Menlo Park, CA on the edge of East Palo Alto in a neighborhood characterized locally as a “black and white” neighborhood. When she was elected to the school board the “Palo Alto Times Tribune” said: “If the citizens of Ravenswood School District will elect a white senior citizen to their school board, then they deserve what they get.” We were never sure what they meant by the comment, but from what I could gather from members of the teacher’s union, fellow school board members and school administrators, everyone was pretty happy that my mother was on the job. Of course I was no longer living at home during most of that time. And the school board meetings went until late at night in a building that was near the freeway in a neighborhood that wasn’t entirely safe for anyone, let alone her. She took the family dog, a mixed Cocker that patiently waited in the car for her. I wondered how that was protection, but I think it made both of them feel safer to know they were on duty together.

My mother was raised in the country, on a small farm of 80 acres near the Columbia River. By the time she was 18 she left home to seek her fortune. An uncle loaned her $50 and she headed for Southern California at the height of the depression. She walked the pavement for miles looking for work and finally landed secretarial work at Beverly Hills High School where even at that time many children were chauffeured to school. She lived in downtown LA at the YWCA. I don’t know when she started with the red lip stick but I can’t imagine her in that environment without it.

For many women lipstick is their mask, their armor, their weapon of choice. In my lifetime I have gone from deep pink to white to clear gloss, but never red. I rarely wear any lipstick, because I am of the 70s, a time when it was more important to denounce the entrapments of sexual enslavement and sexual persecution than to wield cosmetics as weapons of war. Today many women have a clear choice, although women in the spotlight are still expected to shine colorfully. But red lips? Very few today take that road today. In my mother’s day, most women wore it, but even then it looked artificial for many. For my mother it was as natural as water.

When I think of my Mom I have two sets of images, one from her vital 40s, 50s, and 60s, another from later in life. Because I came home and lived with my parents for the last several years of their lives I remember her without lipstick. But until very near the end, even a trip to the doctor required some color. At some point in the last 20 of her 90 years, she eased over to a deep coral, but she was still safely entrenched in the red family. At the end, when she slipped away, her attendants carefully bathed her and then dressed her in a nice set of clothes that we all remembered from happier days, and then they added the color to her lips. I think I helped with the lipstick to make sure it looked just right, so that she was ready to leave the house for a final time. Sometime afterwards, when I went through her things, I found over 30 partial lipsticks of various shades of red. I have not yet discarded most of them. I am not her; my coloring is totally different and I live in a different time, skin, and sensibility. But I still find some feminine strength and safety when I hold these sticks of red.

3/12/11 10:00 a.m.

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