There’s a woman who lives down the road from me, a hearty soul who ran the family business, a septic-tank service, until Alzheimer’s put the brakes on some of her organizational skills.  I’d see her on the road walking one dog or another (she has two), a stick in hand to keep at bay any aggressive canines straying from their property, getting a little too close for comfort.  She always carried biscuits in her pocket, treats for the friendlier dogs she’d come across. All mine had to do was sit and look pretty, her wagging tail as good as any smile. Over the years we’d strike up conversations, mostly about dogs, sometimes about the challenges of life. She lost a brother early on (a car accident), ministered to her husband when his kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis, at home.  She drove down to visit her father in Florida for a few weeks every year until he became too frail to live by himself. At which point she brought him (and his dog) up to her house in Westchester County.  She lives an hour north of New York City and has never been drawn to its pulse.

Her Alzheimer’s is far from advanced, and she always seems to recognize me, though I’ll have to remind her why Maggie isn’t with me, pulling me toward her house, a dog’s charm all the trick she needs to get her treat.  And she’ll remind me of how much pets bring to our lives. The tug of her dogs, small as they are, is too much, so these days she’ll take walks with a friend or her brother-in-law, who shares her home.

She always wears lipstick, and it always extends past her upper lip. There’s something about this that really touches me, the need to smear on that lipstick, no idea really that she’s missed the mark. She is not a glamorous woman, has never been. She could be wearing sweatpants and a sloppy sweater.  Her hair is neatly in place. Then there’s the final touch before she heads out the door, the lipstick.

Many years ago, as an editor of a newsletter focused on AIDS-related health and social issues, I attended a panel discussion on developments in research. One of the panelists was a ground-breaking researcher, a woman who had a certain style and glamour to her. Still, the last thing I would have expected, as the panel discussion was winding down, was to see her pull out a compact and freshen her lipstick.  Years later, I still remember being struck by the ease and nonchalance with which she did this. The more I thought about it, the more I admired her for the ever-so-subtle pronouncement. It’s only lipstick.

And yet. There are studies that call up the ‘lipstick factor’ as a reflection of economic times.  Maybe yes, maybe no. More to the point is what that purse-size stick or tube reflects in the woman who has made a deliberate choice today:  Red or pink or tangerine. Purple. South Beach Bronze or  Peppermint Candy . My (unglamorous) neighbor is doing her best, putting on a face that pleases her even as something inside is dissembling.  I would like to tell her she doesn’t need it, and in fact might look better without it. I would like to tell her that the person she sees in the mirror when she puts that lipstick on is not the person she is, or was. But she knows all that. And besides, who am I to talk? I always dab on some lipstick or lip gloss when I head out. I like the way it makes my lips feel. I wear it like an assumption.

7 thoughts on “Lipstick

  1. What a fine tribute to our eternal rituals of adornment. And the ritual of lipstick perseveres, regardless of the decade, the need to economize, the time and place, clothing and shoes and purses and hairstyles, regardless of any fashion other than color. Why is it, even as we walk the dog in baggy gray sweatpants with our hair awry and our shoes muddy, do we still insist on the glamor of colored lips? Why the lips, is what I’m getting at. Could it be that our deep, biological need as women to be kissed (etc) transcends all else?

  2. I relate to this post in two ways: personally and regarding my mother–so appropriate for the upcoming holiday. I wear little makeup, spending less than five minutes in front of the mirror, including brushing my hair (I’m even too impatient about grooming for a blow-dryer). But I do love the feeling of gloss or lipstick, and will make sure to have a tube or tin of something with me at all times. There is a mental connection, a soothing that happens when I do it. Colored or sheer, doesn’t matter…I just like doing it.

    My mother, always one for dressing nicely (it took years for her to stop commenting on her daughters’ preference for jeans and begin to wear them herself) rarely has naked lips. The funny thing I notice now is that she fills in her eyebrows with a gray pencil, and even though she IS gray, it looks funny to me. But she feels good when she’s all made up…brow liner, lipstick and all!

  3. I hooked up with a group of mothers whose children have special needs. We spend more time at doctor’s appointments and meetings with the school than we do at playdates and on jungle gyms. I noticed that almost all of us have a preferred shade of lipstick for when we’re going into “battle” at a meeting. Usually it’s red, or sometimes a dark plum, but it’s almost always striking and makes us courageous.

  4. Wow. I really loved reading this. You drew me in right away and the last line–what a jolt! So nicely done. Alas, I am out of lipstick.

  5. Hello Deborah
    I am so happy to discover this blog. Sometimes you chance upon a piece of writing that makes you feel fulfilled for having listened to what they have to say. Your writing is an example of that. So, thank you for this experience.

    The only thing I put on my face after the soap and water have had their way, is Kajal or Kohl. I can put it on with precision even as I bounce my way to work in an autorickshaw, all the time avoiding being observed by the driver through his rear view mirror. I can even put it on superwoman fast as I take a lift to the ground floor from my first floor apartment. I wear it like an assumption.

    I love your last sentence! I am sure you could tell 🙂

  6. I’m just discovering the joys of lipstick midlife. My daughter discovered the red tube early on and is fearless. The only lipstick color I wore until very recently was virtually the same as my actual lips. When my middle son was very little, he would get made whenever I left him with a babysitter. One day he said: “Wipe that stuff off your mouth and stay home.” He figured out that I only put on lipstick when he was getting a baby sitter.

    My husband’s mother has Alzheimers. She can’t remember that she already called me 10 times today, but she does do her makeup every day. Seems her vanity (which is plentiful) may be the last thing to abandon her.

    I liked your last sentence, too.

  7. It was the word “Alzheimer’s” that caught my eye as I looked at your Author’s Page on Amazon Kindle. I, too, enjoyed your observations and the comments of your readers. It must have been considered glamorous in the 1930s through the ’50s to reapply lipstick (and rouge or powder) in public – we took our cue from the movies, didn’t we. But today, wouldn’t we consider a woman in a business setting rather self-absorbed, or an attention-seeker, who reapplied lipstick in front of a group, rather than excusing herself and exiting to the nearest ladies room? Or do I adhere to some rigid social rule that never really existed?

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