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 lipstick.
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 mother.
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 get out.
“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.