No one lied. There is a moment when you look in the mirror and by off chance see your mother staring back. The body feels her lines, the sudden dropping of the cheeks, the hair limping, thin. I never thought I'd be described as having jowls but here it is...new words come to the face: lines, double chin, furrow, droop. The elements cosmetic companies want me to fight and I find myself wanting to wish away-- in some nonsurgical way of course.
But I am reminded my mother had a face like the moon, open and bright and welcoming. Children ran to her, basking in her glow.Her face was constructed by two things: face cream and lipstick. Until the day she died, she was religious in her rituals and everyone commented on Libby's youthful skin. She was appealing.
What this story is about is lipstick. Not just the bright cherry mother filled in her narrow lips with but the whole trajectory of painting the lips. Little girls know right away that lipstick is the final touch to playing dress-up, that all the baubles, skirts and high heels don’t add up if the mouth doesn’t have the drag of the over-lined lips, the clown face exaggeration. The appeal of the golden tubes, the rolling in and out, the slanted point that guides the hand. Mother could do it without the little mirror other women flipped out of their purses as surely as a Kleenex, swiftly drawn and put away. She said she was naked without her lipstick—her pale freckled face, her light eyes and hardly visible brows made her vague and sketchy. But the red mouth gave her definition. Lips. A kiss.
Mother’s lips were a bright red, while Aunt Azzizy’s were a darker red, a bruise we accepted and rubbed off within seconds. We could track the women in our family by the stains left behind. Splotches on napkins, a lip on a cup; full mouths on our cheeks. The shades ranged from pink to burgundy, from little line lips to full plump mouths.
My adventures in make up started with eyes. I had gone bare skinned for most of my school years playing out the hippie freshness that young skin allowed. I was dark haired and light complexioned. Cream skin, my mother praised, until you got that job as a grill cook, she moaned. On one of my many visits to the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York, I saw a picture of Salome by Henri Regnault. My then boyfriend, Michael, said, That looks like you! I studied that Salome. Her dark hair, curly and long like mine, her fair skin and the same shape lips. What popped out at me were her eyes. They were dark brown, not chestnut like mine; they gave her presence.
I grabbed the train to Brooklyn the next day and rummaged through the Arab shops until I found kohl. I wanted those eyes, dominant and powerful, with the command that allows me to request beheadings. My first experiment left dust on the sink, smears on my cheeks, my eyes madly watering. Until I learned the correct technique, I gave into the Lancôme version of the Arabian princess cum concubine.
I suppose we all identify ourselves by something particular to our looks. I could not imagine going anywhere with bare eyes. Without my Salome kohl, they disappeared. Like my mother, light skin, light eyes. But for years, I was satisfied to stop there. I saw lipstick as over the line. It was the desperate attempt at glamour; it was something airline attendants wore—overdone. Lipstick always needed refreshing, unlike my eyes which stayed dark and mysterious till I cleaned at night. Lipstick was obvious. When the plump lips became the rage and celebs were injecting them, I was confirmed in my prejudice.
Then it happened. The transition that was slowly occuring over the years showed up in the mirror. There she was: my mother. Everything below my eyes seemed to fade away. I licked my lips, hoping moisture might brighten them, create solidity. But they dried quickly. Vaseline? Chap stick? No. I gingerly approached my first tubes, lined up, colors pointing at me in a Body Shop. I chose a close to nude color. Not enough difference
The reluctance was shattered when Anthony said to me one day, As soon as you put your lipstick on, we’ll be ready to go. I was there. At the point where I needed definition. I needed definition. Think about it. Sigh. I could become one of the women who embraces her brittle gray hairs, fading features and lines of wisdom. But I'm too young for that. So now I define myself as someone with dark eyes, and light ruby lips. At least for the moments I put it on and remember to reapply. That hasn’t happened yet.
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