I remember watching my mother put on lipstick.
This was back in the day when most ladies wore lipstick as regularly as underwear. It was part of their getting ready for the day, a social ritual no matter whether they were going to the office, to buy groceries, or tackle six loads of laundry. Without it, they felt naked, and Mom was no different. She never became particularly proficient in applying makeup, and never wore much more than lipstick, powder, maybe a bit of mascara or rouge, but she managed.
She had an array of lipstick cases. Some were fancy, metallic; whorled and scrolled and filigreed, and likely purchased in a department store. Some were plain, utilitarian, serviceable and unremarkable as a bullet casing. The majority, however, were tiny white plastic tubes about half the length of her index finger, perhaps as big around as a pencil; samples she’d been given by the local Avon lady. Mom would stand at the bathroom mirror, carefully apply crimson color in her lips–first top, then bottom–and press them around a bit of tissue in a kiss to blot the excess.
In our family, Mom was the Tissue Queen. She carried at least half-a-ton in every purse she owned (and she had at least a half-dozen in service at any given time) because you never knew when you might need one in a public restroom devoid of toilet paper. These tissues carried a perpetual smell, an unidentifiable odor reminiscent of funeral homes, toilet bowl cleanser, or cheap perfume. I don’t know if that fragrance was applied at the factory in some misbegotten belief that it smelled good, or if it was something the tissues picked up from the interior of Mom’s pocketbook, but I recoiled with a snarl of literally stomach-turning revulsion whenever she drew one forth, especially when she spit on it and tried to scrub a bit of smutch from my face.
Ugh. It still makes me shudder.
As she grew older, Mom’s tissues migrated. She still carried a flock in her purse, but now they appeared elsewhere, usually inside the waistband of her pants or tucked inside the cuff of her shirt or sweater. When she came to live with us, it became protocol to search for tissues gone astray before putting her clothing in the washer. (There’s nothing quite so much fun as pulling wet clothes from the machine only to find them liberally dotted with shreds of disintegrating paper.) After Mom died, I found tissues everywhere–tucked in pockets, poked up sleeves, placed between the pages of a book, and rolled in her sock drawer. Who knows what her brain was telling her to do by then?
These days, whenever one of us forgets about a tissue and it suicides in the washer, I smile, take it as a sign, and say, “Hi, Mom.” I like to think she smiles back.