My mother’s lipstick was all wrong, the bubble-gum pink an affront to
a self-styled sophistication honed over more than a half-century. "Red, I
said, "make it a deep berry red."
The funeral director leaned over her. He held a bottle that looked nothing
like the lipstick of the living, like the one I'd brought along, taken
earlier from my mother's vanity. Gleaming, lacquer-thick, his container
resembled the vials of model airplane paint I remembered seeing in the toy
store long ago—tiny glass bottles arranged in tidy rows for the
discernment of some future engineer. So unlike the emotive jumbled Barbie
aisle I visited with my mother, where boxes of outfits teetered in
semi-hysterical piles rifled by little girls looking for that one outfit
that would magically transform their Barbie into The Barbie.
He paused in his work to look back at my father and me, letting the hand
holding the tiny brush rest casually on the lip of the coffin. Did it show,
I wondered, the decades-long distance between us? My father's absence
during my childhood—flight from his combative marital relationship —and
my remove as an adult had left us near strangers only now becoming
reacquainted through my mother's death.
“What happened to her?” The funeral director asked this as if
her situation was unique and in a tone that defied the fact that we were in
a place of death, where something had “happened” to at least
half the people currently in the building. He put this question to my
father in the same concerned yet conversational manner he would use to ask
about a cornfield struck by drought. My father, always a talker, looked
noticeably relieved, and maybe this was what the man knew about working a
room. An empty echoing viewing room like this one, with just the four of us
and the walls lined with gilded petite chairs straight out of a cotillion
and awaiting my mother’s final guests.
What happened to her in three short weeks—a pacemaker, pneumonia, a heart
attack, life support, a coma, and a final cascade of strokes—had left her
swollen, her still features gelled in an unfamiliar expression. But I do
know that if she could speak, my mother would never ask my opinion on the
Her effortless success with beauty and style and the reckless allure she
exerted on men had proven non-transferable. I’d quickly gone from the
plump doll-like and dimpled toddler whose blonde hair she rolled nightly on
tiny metal curlers and dressed in lace and patent leather Mary Janes, to a
pale, mousy-haired, lanky, pigeon-toed child that no amount of red and pink
dresses perked up.
My inadequacies, enumerated with disappointed regularity by my mother,
proliferated with the passage of time. They came couched in the words of
her mother, a wiry birdlike woman with a formidable manner and a brassy
voice, who delivered dismissive pronouncements in a mocking tone that said
anyone who didn't agree with her bordered on the ridiculous. 'Your
grandmother says it’s a pity you’re so covered up in moles;
‘your grandmother says it’s unfortunate your blue eyes have
those yellow rings around the middle.’ When she voiced these
judgments, genetic culpability always landed squarely on my father’s
side of the family—I had their straight hair that stubbornly defied
her efforts to make it curl; their crooked little teeth that would require
braces; their sallow skin that meant I could never wear blue or green. And
at sixteen I learned through her that even one of my cousins had confirmed
to my grandmother that I was indeed, the ugliest girl in our high school.
The message I took away was I would have to try harder, much harder, to
cultivate some redeeming modicum of the offhand beauty that had passed me
over. I spent a great deal of time reading Seventeen and
Vogue. Somewhere inside the magazines where tall graceful women
wore elegant clothes in exotic places was the key I craved to a different
life. I could feel it move just beyond my fingertips when I turned the
glossy, rich-colored pages. I clipped images of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton—
slender, long-limbed, wide-eyed models with which I shared at least these
physical attributes—and pasted them in a notebook that in contemporary
parlance would be called a vision board. I steamed my face over countless
herb-laced pots of boiled water, followed by egg white and honey facials.
In summer I tanned and streaked my hair with Sun–In. I slept with my
hair coated in Dippity Do and rolled on empty frozen orange juice cans to
obtain the flip du jour. As styles shifted, I spread its wavy length across
the ironing board, administering the original no-frills flat iron.
In college and beyond, my quest for self-improvement shifted to an embrace
of ballet, exercise, nutrition, and later, each new anti-aging advance.
With every hour spent at the ballet barre and gym I felt empowered, another
step removed from the tentacled reach of criticism. I learned to make the
most of my unconventional features by cultivating a stylized look. Finally,
after decades, I’d become one of those chic confident women, who by
virtue of will and with the patina of age, finally come into their beauty.
And, as my mother’s daughter and only child, the task of dressing her
for her last public appearance now fell to me.
In their seventies, my parents had come away from the many funerals
they attended with defined ideas about their end-of-life preferences.
My father knew what kind of viewing my mother wanted, the visiting
hours, the service, the burial. He’d bought four cemetery plots
when I was still in high school, thinking that like him, like my
mother, and all my relatives before me, I would stay put and marry into
southern small town life. But I proved to have what my mother referred
to as 'Big Ideas', making what she perceived as unfortunate and fearful
choices that led me first to Florida, California, Europe, New York, and
finally, graduate school and Washington, DC., avoiding her and home.
Called back and thrust inside her world, I sat with my father in the
funeral director’s office, planning her first and last departure. We
waded into the shallows, discussing who would speak at the service. We
studied long pages of taped music choices. Between us, in our wrung-out
state, the only song either of us could recognize was "Amazing Grace", a
ubiquitous choice I regret to this day. We should have gone with the
unknown, something we would never hear again. The hours for the public
viewing were set, the appointed time of the burial.
Sufficiently initiated, we got down to the true business. The funeral
director led us to the entrance of the coffin display room. We paused
before an open closet filled with peignoirs of every hue. “Your
mother always said death is rest," said my father. "It made no sense to her
that people were laid out in street clothes.”
In my mind I saw the cream-colored lacy peignoir set, the pink high wedge
crocheted slippers trimmed in a riot of feathers she had worn during her
hospital stay for my birth. Like a wedding ensemble, they had been used on
that occasion alone and then packed away. The cellophane front boxes only
came out when she cleaned her closet. Touching their carefully preserved
perfection, I imagined her propped against pillows, with her dark wavy hair
and rosy skin, a veritable Snow White.
She would recount her first inspection of me, the unswaddling after awaking
from that mid-century ether twilight to ensure there was no port wine stain
recording the strawberry pie I'd willed her to consume the day before she
went into labor. And always the unpacking brought her to the story of her
obstetrician. How he’d been driving down Main Street with a friend when they stopped at the light and he saw my mother in the
crowd of pedestrians waiting to cross. “Who,” the doctor had
asked his friend, “is the most striking woman you see?” I had
seen for myself the swiveling male heads that watched her whenever she
walked down a street or entered a room, felt her bask in the balming warmth
of their attention. The answer, immediate and sure, and always, was my
I scanned the display rack of gowns, looking for a tasteful equivalent to
that enshrined peignoir, and settled on a cream gown with a modest neckline
and a minimum of lace. But even the diffused overhead lighting and the
classical music piped in at a discreet volume couldn't soften the sea of
coffins set disconcertingly on wheeled metal gurneys that opened before us.
I draped the gown over each one we passed, eyeing the palette of the
lining, the shade of the exterior as if on the hunt for the perfect
accessory. If there was anything odd about my behavior, the funeral
director, who stayed by our side answering my father’s questions
about cost and durability, didn’t let on.
I settled on a bronze casket lined in a complimentary matte cream satin. I
was again in my mother’s closet, seeing the cream-colored
three-quarter-length sleeve wool sheath she wore at Christmas paired with
cranberry patent leather spike heels, the shade nearly edible in its
perfection. That she would not be in need of shoes for this outfit was
another small jarring reminder of our business here.
Finished with the lipstick the funeral director left us alone in what I
realized would be our last moments together as a family. My father patted
my mother’s folded hands, the simple gesture so intimate I had to
look away. “She was a good-looking woman,” he said,
“although I don’t think she ever quite believed it. Her mother
always made out like she was the pretty one, the one people noticed.”
Delivered with the equanimity of one unfamiliar with introspection, his
words struck with epiphanic force. My grandmother's cruel pronouncements
passed on unfiltered by my mother—what a relief it must have been when
that critical juggernaut changed course, concentrating her sights on me.
Her mother’s words were true, because they had been true about her.
My mother’s ensuing insecurities had simply catapulted her onto a
different compensatory track. While I had focused on self-perfection and
internally imposed standards, she sought reassurance in the mirror of men.
The word transference surfaced in my mind, and then, like all knowledge
cultivated from more urbane ways of understanding, it fell beyond my grasp,
failing me in this, my first world. "She did that to me too," I managed to
“She did?" My father's look was one of incredulity. He really
didn’t know. I feel the familiar undertow of the emotional sequester
that defined my childhood. He had got away because he could, ducking my
mother's demands and provocative nature. It was only worn down in old age
that they had settled into a truced compatibility I found incomprehensible
through the lens of my memories. He came back to her, but he had left me to
spend my childhood in her unmitigated company, bearing her deflected flaws,
just as she had apparently born her mother’s, and she perhaps, her
mother’s before her.
"Well, she got it honest, with a mother like that. I guess it was all she
knew,” my father said, his voice part forgiveness for her, part
atonement for himself.
I had been the foil that finally let my mother blunt her doubts about her
own beauty. My only child was a boy; I’d caught a lucky biological
break. Who was I to say if I’d had a daughter that self-serving
slights would not have slid off my tongue with the same ease? A therapist
once told me my geographic remove from family had been one of
self-preservation—I had to get as far away as possible from my
mother's debilitating criticism. But for better or worse, that was how I
had connected with her, this was how I did it for the last time. Oh Mama,
that lipstick is still all wrong.