Lipstick Legacy

I have it now; this little blue mug that says “MOM” on it all uneven like it was mass printed and sold for last minute gift-buyers on Mother’s Day sometime in the 80s. Maybe my Dad got it for her from me, their new baby, between sleep deprived shifts at one of his several jobs and maybe it made her cry the way you do when you’ve earned something that has not been easy.

Mornings were quiet in our little cabin. Dad needed to sleep after his swing shift and Mom readied herself in the early, dark hours to join the other commuters on 101 by sunrise. Sometimes she would wake us up with that “Good Morning” song from White Christmas – remade, of course, into whatever words she could squeeze in to resemble the forgotten lyrics.

Some mornings she shuffled us to the car to Gramma’s or Joanie’s and other mornings – I imagine – she prayed to God we didn’t go back to sleep. Sometimes she would call the house just to check. On those mornings I’d find remnants of her morning routine. The bathroom still smelled like hairspray and perfume, sometimes humid from an early shower, drops of water in the tub, damp towel draped over the curtain rod. In the sink a plate with toast crumbs might include strawberry leaves if there were any berries left from the box she bought at the fruit stand.

And always, a mug. There were plenty. Some had jokes written on them, some the logo from places she’d visited, some had been gifts. I always found her morning selection next to the sink with whatever lipstick shade she’d selected that day printed around the rim in several places. I imagine she walked around the house with it in her hand, putting it down to get her shoes on or crack the eggs on the pan.

The quiet morning hours were hers, coffee in hand like some version of a royal scepter. She surveyed the day before her and attended to the tasks at hand, stirred up her strength for the work under her reign. She made the appointments, arranged the carpool, packed the lunches. She signed the permission slips, washed the clothes, cooked the meals. She listened to the drawn out dramas of fourth grade girl groups, calmed anxieties around homework and notes home. Her fanfare may have been minimal, but she held unquestioned sovereignty.

I remember this as I drink from her cup, sipping the habits of my mother, caffeine among them. I remember the quiet of those mornings and the comforts gained in her absence by the remnants of her presence. I remember missing her when she wasn’t there, but understanding she would be back, my confidence bolstered by her hair in the brush and her smell on the pillow, her lipstick on the mug.

When I grew up and moved away I missed her still, but phone calls and text messages worked between visits. My husband and I both loved her company and whenever she left after a week or so with us we cried and ate ice cream. Those little remnants were comforts to us then, too. We knew she would be back. Plus she often left me shoes.

Only now there are lasts. There was a last visit, a last lipstick mark, a last spritz of hairspray. Those tangible tokens are almost all gone. This mug has been sanitized, her shoes are formed to my feet now, and her perfume smells familiar, but distinctly not-her when it’s not on her skin. When somebody dies the remnants fade quickly.

In too many ways my mother’s absence becomes more real every day. I am further from her memory – I can’t hear her voice in my mind and I am forgetting the way her hand felt on the side of my head when she stroked my hair. Sometimes I cry when I re-realize that the shirts she wore will never smell like her again. I tried not to wash them, but it faded anyway.

In other ways? Well, she loved me, didn’t she? And I have a million questions and I counted on her guidance and I am bitterly sad that I can’t hear anything in her own words anymore, but that love? I can’t shake it.

And in fact, it’s growing. As the deep impression she made on me becomes more and more the only thing I have of her, what stands out does so more distinctly. What she set her intention to becomes now where the attention goes: she loved imperfectly, but she loved and it is grander and more perfect as time keeps pushing me further past her death.

I am afflicted with the recognition that I cannot remember her exactly as she was. Even with a living person all we ever have are subjective phantoms in our own minds of who the other is and isn’t. The sharpest pang of death is that you no longer have the real thing to erase your misconceptions. C.S. Lewis talks about this in A Grief Observed:

The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again, but what I see of her now soothes my scared little soul into believing I will; just like the lipstick on the mug did in those mornings apart from her. Maybe it’s foolish, but soul doesn’t care about that.

I see birds and think of her advice and I feel grateful for her faith. I catch a whiff of coconut and I am glad to have spent time with her at beaches and poolsides where she opened her face to sun and smiled in it’s warmth and showed me what happiness looks like. I find her handwriting on the backs of photos and weep in humble marvel that I have been loved this way, so well, by someone so beautiful. Every now and then my cheekbones or my eyebrows remind me of hers and I am close to her, the bearer of her DNA, her apprentice in How to Be Human. She is still my teacher as I walk the path she did.

These remnants, something deep in me believes, will give me a whole. I can wait.

 

Maybe some morning one of mine will sip from this mug passed down a few generations and remember finding it next to the sink. Maybe it’ll call to mind flashes of nail polish and that one favorite shirt and the smell of my homemade cleaner. Maybe they’ll remember me telling them about her, too, and from this one little mug with the broken handle, they will drink up this legacy, this inheritance, this love.

Maybe they’ll leave their own lipstick mark.

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