Relationships, Voices

A Touch of Red

A girl’s first lipstick is usually a rite of passage, and mine was no exception. Not the pale pink I tried and quickly tossed at age 13. The brilliant red one my mother wore when she dressed up.

A tomboy even at age five, I had no desire to wear mom’s lipstick. Or her dresses or jewelry. But I loved being part of a ceremony that was closed to my four brothers. It gave me a rare fragment of time alone with my mother and a glimpse into adult night life.

Lipstick was the final step in mom’s preparation for an evening out. First came a lace-encrusted white slip, pretty enough to be a gown in its own right. Then silky beige stockings so fragile they had to be handled with great care. It amazed me that she could put them on without shredding them. And that she could walk in those high heels, let alone dance the night away. I always recommended the jewel-trimmed sandals over the black pumps with the sadistically pointed toes.

I was flattered when mom sought my opinion. Should she wear the heavy gold necklace or the pearls, the crystal earrings or the pansies with tiny garnets? Most important, which dress? Maybe the black and white shirtwaist with glittery buttons. But probably a blue one since the color dominated her wardrobe. Turquoise with white polka dots, royal blue with gold trim or my favorite, a full-skirted powder blue that I called her Cinderella dress.

Once the dress was on, mom brushed her thick wavy hair and I checked the back to be sure it lay smooth before she sprayed it. When I admired its dark, exotic color, she’d laugh and assure me most brunettes would envy my blond hair.

Evening in Paris was mom’s fragrance of choice, or maybe dad’s since he always bought it for her. I loved the cobalt-blue bottle, with the name scrawled dramatically across the gold label, almost as much as the scent.

Makeup was simple in that era. Women wore lipstick during the day, maybe pink or rose. For evenings out, they added face powder and deepened their lip color. The cylinder of gleaming crimson held an aroma of dyes and waxes no cologne could overpower. It might sound offensive today, when any whiff of chemicals sends people racing for allergists and air purifiers. To me, it smelled like magic.

Those Max Factor and Hazel Bishop reds, with dramatic names like ruby and fire, heralded a night of excitement. And romance, apparently. I later calculated that my brother Danny and I had each been born nine months after a parish St. Patrick’s party. Frank’s conception had likely occurred on New Year’s Eve—his October 5th birthday is said to be the year’s most common one. My youngest brothers had arrived slightly ahead of schedule, nine months after the annual Halloween dance.

But back then, grown-up events simply held an aura of mystery. Parents hadn’t yet started to create quality time by including their kids in everything from candlelight weddings to tax audits. Instead they hired sitters and cut loose with other couples who were happily sprung for a night of dining, theater or partying. Events that called for corsages, cocktails, show tunes and slow dancing. Their offspring knew some outings were for adults only, so we stayed home cheerfully and settled for finagling later bedtimes. Afterwards we’d enjoy mom’s recap and maybe a photo or two weeks later.

Unfortunately, Ernest Dowson was on the money when he wrote that the days of wine and roses weren’t long. They were especially short for my parents. Within a few years, Danny was dead and my dad’s stroke had left him unable to walk, let alone dance. Mom had little reason to dress up except in career clothes once she returned to teaching.

Mom was considered a saint for weathering these hardships, and I wouldn’t have disputed that. Like all Catholics, I knew about saints and martyrs. I also knew where the red lipstick was, and sometimes I’d touch its surface and savor its color. It had no place in our somber house, but I wanted to recall the fun-loving woman who had worn it.

What I didn’t know then is that every daughter’s mother is a martyr of sorts. She’s locked into the worries of parenting, denied too much by the era she lives in and inevitably touched by tragedy over time. But if she’s wise, she recalls those occasions of merriment, laughter and passion. If she’s brave, she ultimately reaches out and seeks more of them.

Eventually mom would find pleasure in travel, work, friends, family and especially her long-awaited grandchildren. She also resurrected her red lipstick and wore it every day.

I, on the other hand, rarely use lipstick. But for decades I’ve been wearing my red in the form of toenail polish. It helps remind me that happiness existed back then and that it waits for me in the future. And that in between, no matter what the day brings, it’s usually pretty easy to conjure up a little joy. All it takes is a touch of red.

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Classic film commentary, with a focus on casting, through my Hollywood Castaway blog. I also write memoir pieces, humor and pop-culture essays and contribute to the Huffington Post.