Monday, September 08, 2008

Lipstick Vogue

The other day I was at Gesine’s having a latte with my friend Rick and he mentioned he had had a long conversation with his mother the night before. I didn't know much about her, so I asked questions: what she had done in her life, what his relationship with her was like, who she was. As he spoke I imagined a well-coiffed, tailored, seventy year-old retired school teacher who sent floral-scented thank you notes and organized her husband’s sock drawer. He painted a comforting picture of his mother, a woman I imagined was a more traditional "Mom" than my own had been. Then as I took a bite of my pastry he added, “During our conversation last night my mother told me she was thinking of getting her lips tattooed.”

After I dislodged the small piece of carrot cake that I had nearly asphyxiated on in my shock, he quickly added, “Not with a design or anything. Just a color, like permanent lipstick, you know? Several of her friends have done it.” As I continued to stare at him, attempting to reconcile this bit of news with the image I had of his seventy-year old mother and deciding if he was merely pulling my chain, Bonnie came out from behind the counter and walked towards our table.

“I’m sorry, I hope you don’t think I was eavesdropping, but I just have to ask about this lip tattoo thing.” She turned to Rick, “Are you serious? Your mother’s considering this?” Rick confirmed that it was indeed true. Bonnie was shocked too, but clearly fascinated. Finally she offered, “Well, it kind of makes sense. My mother was on her deathbed and she just had to apply new lipstick before going into surgery. I think it is a generational thing.” She smiled as she remembered her mother groping for the tell tale green tube on the hospital night table.

I was prompted then to remember my Great Aunt Ana in Puerto Rico. She was a forceful woman with a military-like countenance, a series of tasteful length polyester dresses her uniform, and always armed with a completely practical and frugal approach to life. A former math teacher she saved everything, spent no money that wasn’t absolutely necessary, and always wore her salt and pepper hair in a sensible helmet of controlled curls. Needless to say she was not a woman prone to frivolity or vanity…with one exception: the hourly application of peppermint pink lipstick. I used to love to watch her do it. She would purse her lips as if she had just eaten a lemon then carefully apply the lipstick while looking into a tortoiseshell, compact mirror. As she neatly tucked the lipstick and mirror into their proper compartments in her black vinyl handbag, she would un-purse her lips, pink stripes going up and down her lips from where she had puckered them. No matter how much she was lacking in skill, I recognized that this was her one indulgence, her one nod to the girlhood that was robbed from her when she was told she was expected to care for her disabled sisters and not marry. Realizing this, I celebrated her candy-cane striped kisses.

But in my family this habit was not just restricted to Ana. My mother would not even go to the supermarket without lipstick. Her beauty routine included many more elements than her Aunt, but lipstick was as essential to her as her eyeglasses or shoes. When we traveled she carried around a hard-sided, Samsonite make-up case that coordinated with her teal luggage. I remember walking through the airport hand in hand as she carried the case in the other, the clean clicking sound of the Max Factor lipsticks rolling back and forth in the upper tray of the case. How many of you readers were once little girls (or boys) who smeared their mother’s lipstick haphazardly on their lips, proudly displaying what you thought was a badge of adulthood?

I had been half listening to Bonnie and Rick talk as this Viewmaster reel of memories ran through my head, when I became aware that they were looking at me.

“Did I freak you out with the tattooed lips story, Ann?” Rick asked. I thought for a minute as he and Bonnie waited for my reply.

“No. I think it is lovely that your mother enjoys festive colored lips enough to make it permanent. But what about being able to change the color with her outfits?” As my friends discussed this dilemma, I thought about these stylish, mature women with their paraffin smelling lipsticks, and smiled. Then I quietly put down my empty coffee cup, the tell tale kiss mark of Viva Glam IV on its white cardboard rim and reached for the lipstick tube from my purse. Pulling it out, I raised it up to Rick's and Bonnie's mothers, to my great aunt Ana, and to my own well-turned out mother, a generation of women who took care and pride in their appearance, and recognized that whether you were going to church, the supermarket or the operating room, you should always look your best. Then I pulled the top off of the black metallic tube and carefully reapplied the frosted wine color to my own lips.

[Monday's regular contributor,
Dan Olivas, returns next Monday, Sept. 15.]


Corina said...

A wonderful post. I could almost see my grandma putting on her lipstick and her earrings before going any place out of her room. Yup, she wouldn't leave her room without lipstick or earrings. To do so, she explained, would be like going out of her room with no clothes!

Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

Exactamente! I don't go to the drive-thru at the bank without my lipstick and earrings!

Anonymous said...

elp.rr.comI finally found time between registering voters to read the blog. I found the substitute for tatooing so I can finally lay to rest my indecision about balancing the discomfort of the procedure with the need to change colors with my costume, or my latest vanity--silicone coated nails. Try Revlon's Colorstay Overtime. It really stays on all day and does not come off on your cup. There is one drawback; I haven't tried kissing anyone while using it, but it feels like your lips are going to become stuck together.
I enjoyed your memories and you are right, it is generational.
Hugs, Elinor