Red Lipstick

My older sister said our mother never left the house without lipstick. Before she carried the garbage to the curb or hung the laundry out to dry in the backyard, she painted her lips a glamorous red and wound her blond curls into a tidy upsweep. My father said when she walked into a room, everyone stopped to look at her. She was a talented seamstress who could spot a dress in a department store and recreate it at home without a pattern. My aunt said she kept an immaculate house and dressed herself and her children impeccably. She was a homebody who had few friends, and she seemed to prefer it that way.

I don’t remember my mother, but from other people’s stories and memories, I have woven together an image of her, and it has profoundly affected the way I navigate my life and relationships. I compare myself against the image. I decide which parts of her I wish to embrace and imitate: the confidence, the independence, the self-assuredness. I recognize the ways I am like her and accept the ways I am not.

The part of the picture that puzzles and intrigues me most is that she didn’t have a lot of friends. Was that by choice or default? I wonder who taught my mother how to read the subtleties of female behavior, to avoid being sucked into the vacuum of cliques, to spot real friendship in the sea of selfishness and phoniness. Did her mother teach her those lessons, or was their relationship the reason she didn’t like or trust other women?

My relationships with my stepmother and the aunt who raised me had a major impact on the type of women I choose to befriend. From my charming, popular stepmother, I learned that those who follow the crowd often do so because they neither know nor love themselves. From my aunt, I learned that strong, confident women make the best friends because they don’t want or need anything other than your companionship. Neither of them ever told me how to interact with other women; they showed me.

I think of my own daughter as I watch her unravel the inner workings of middle school friendships. I wonder what effect I have on which girls she chooses to befriend. Like my mother, I don’t have lots of female friends, but the ones I do have are loyal and true. Like my aunt, I speak my mind and do as I please. Unlike my stepmother, I will never be popular and am fine with that.

I hope my daughter will learn to be herself and not succumb to the bullying and peer pressure that happen even in adulthood. I hope she will ignore the static and forge her own path. I hope she will wear red lipstick when she takes out the garbage and not give a damn what the neighbors think. I hope she will be a little like the grandmother she never knew.

Jeanne Marie (RIP 3/26/27 - 4/28/70)

Jeanne Marie (RIP 3/26/27 – 4/28/70)

53 thoughts on “Red Lipstick

  1. I think we all do that with our mothers in a way…emulate what we like, try to avoid what we don’t, but then realize we are like her in more ways than we want. I have two very young daughters and I already worry about teaching them the ways of relationships, especially with other girls. Girls can be so mean. This was a thought-provoking piece. Your mother was beautiful. I see you in there.

    • Thanks, Kristin. I truly believe that we teach them how to treat others by example. My daughter doesn’t hear me gossip or belittle other women, and she doesn’t do it either. She supports her friends. She doesn’t talk behind their backs. And when she sees someone being bullied, she stands up for that person. I do lots of things wrong, but I think I must be doing something right.

  2. Your post really has me thinking about a topic that I don’t think I’ve ever contemplated before. I’ve never analyzed my friendships as you have-past or present. How did I learn who to trust? Did my mother models this to me? Thanks for getting me thinking.

  3. lovely. i wonder… your mom is gorgeous, and sounds like she knew who she was and didn’t care what others thought. that’s the best we can hope for, to be comfortable in our own skin. that’s how we make true friends, with ourselves first.

  4. My mom was pretty nutso, so I definitely try to steer clear of most of her behaviors 🙂 I’m sorry you didn’t know your own mom, though.

    I, too, don’t have tons of friends. I like having a smaller group of people that I really know and trust. Plus, I barely have time for my friends that I have…I can never figure out how people manage who have so many!

    • It sounds like we are on the same page, Kianwi. I prefer small groups of close friends too. Big parties make me feel lonely and claustrophobic. I’m not good at small talk either. I want to have real conversations with real people, you know?

  5. A beautiful, thought-provoking gem of a post. I don’t know if I really had any real, true female friends until adulthood, or certainly past high school. Much of adolescence seems to be spent trying to figure out who we are, which I think we need to do before we can really be a friend to someone else. Great post.

  6. First off, I need to tell you that I love that picture! Your Mom is beautiful. Also, can you believe that she shares a birthday with my Mom? March 26th! Incredible!

    I think you raised some very good points and questions with your story. You’ve made me think and I appreciate that.

  7. What a gorgeous photo of your mom, Kathleen! It sounds like you took the best from all of your role models (not that I’d call your stepmom that after reading your post a few weeks ago). It seems your daughter has a fairly good shot at making good decisions based on observing her mom!

  8. What a beautiful, thoughtful piece. I think it’s the whole nature/nurture concept. We learn so much by observing those around us-picking what we like and fighting hard against what we don’t. Growing up I saw my valued her friendships-both longtime and new ones. I’d like to think I am like her in that way.

    • Thanks, sweet Robbie. Although I don’t know you IRL, I can tell you are a loyal, loving friend. You are one of my favorite online peeps. Your mama done good! 🙂

  9. This is such a great piece about women and friendships, which can be so complicated. I love the picture of your mom!

  10. One of my closest female friends and I talk all the time about how complicated woman-to-woman interactions and female friendships are. As you noted, confidence, or lack thereof, seems to drive so much of it. And, as in all relationships, simple kindness goes such a long way.

  11. Like some of my fellow commenters, I don’t know if I ever really thought about my friendships and what impact my mother had on how I chose to navigate that dynamic. May we all embrace our red lipsticking wearing moments and find ways to be true to ourselves.

  12. I share your philosophy about friends: I have only a handful. But they are the best friends in the world. Nicely written!

  13. Great job of telling the specifics of your personal story and opening up discussion of a topic that affects all women. Beautiful photograph. Heartbreaking that you didn’t get to know that fascinating lady.

  14. What a beautiful evocative photo that is. I wonder about all this stuff sometimes too, particularly as we live overseas now and the kids don’t see us with normal adult friendships…we’re outside our comfort zone and away from our friends. I wonder how it will affect them. Well, that isn’t exactly in line with your great post, but it made me think of it. And it really is a wonderful photo of your mum 🙂

    • Thanks, Jade. How long are you overseas? What an awesome adventure! Do you know my cousin Farrah at The Three Under blog? She and her brood just moved to the Netherlands a few months ago. You guys should chat, if you haven’t already.

  15. I absolutely loved this. Loved it. Made me cry. You said it so well. A subject I’ve been thinking about lately. My mother wore her red lipstick every time she left the house too. I can still see her standing in the bathroom taking it out of the drawer she always kept it in – still does – and putting it on. Your mother was beautiful. She looks like the actress Megan Hilty. This post would be excellent for the Listen To Your Mother show IMHO.

    • First of all, I had never heard of Megan Hilty before, so I just Googled her. Holy crap! She really does look like my mom. I wonder if my daughter will look like Megan when she grows up. She’s 11 and bears a striking resemblance to my mom already.

      Second, thank you so much for the lovely comments. I’m happy I made you think of a pleasant memory of your mother (although I’m sorry I made you cry).

  16. Your mom was so beautiful. There is definitely a lot of her in you. Female friendships and sense of self are so complicated. I love how you have taken pieces of the three women in your life and woven them into your being. I hope your daughter wears the red lipstick too. Life is certainly too short not to.

    • Thank you! I agree, Samantha: Life is too short not to. My daughter is a little spitfire, who looks exactly like her grandmother. I’m guessing there will be red lipstick in her future.

  17. I think about this topic all the time, perhaps because I don’t have many friends. I don’t relate to most women, but it’s definitely not due to self-confidence. (I was bullied terribly from birth to high school, so I think the reason I’m a loner is due to fear.) I admire your mom for being who she was, unabashedly. I hope someday to be that way too.

    • The bullying part breaks my heart, Dana. That shouldn’t happen to anyone, especially a lovely, talented person like you. I wish for lots of unabashed living — and, if you like, red lipstick — in your future.

  18. Really love this post. The sweetness of reflection on your own mom and also the sort of larger ideas of womanhood and navigating those waters, how we learn that. Well done! Also love the photo.

    • Thanks so much, Kirsten. This started as a tribute to my mother and sort of evolved into something else. I’m glad you enjoyed it, and the photo.

  19. Isn’t it shocking that as grown ass women we still know and deal with “popularity”? I can’t get over it, but it’s true. I tell myself I will never be one of the popular moms for a host of reasons, and I am ok with that. Mostly. But it’s weird I’ve spent any mental energy on it at all. I love the picture and your daughter is lucky to have YOU!

  20. The example you set will help your daughter learn to sort the wheat from the chaff, just as you learned from your Aunt’s example.

  21. As much as absolutely adored this, it made me very sad too that you didn’t have enough time with her. Popular schopular! Happens daily here in Mayberry. I spent years when my kids were little thinking why aren’t I friends with her or her? I have the same 3-4 local friends that I’ve been close with since our kids’ preschool days. The circle hasn’t widened. Quality over quantity for me.

    Love the photo, your daughter is so lucky to have you to teach her (middle school is tough on girls), and this was one if my favs!

  22. Beautiful post, with such complexity of our maternal relationships. So much of who we are is determined by our examples. Having you, I have no doubt your daughter will fly.

  23. Female relationships are minefields. It sounds like you had some good navigators yourself. I’m always saddened by the idea of a child not knowing her parent. Your description of what you do know about your mom is so poignant. This one’s going to stick with me for a while (especially when I take out the garbage in my bathrobe).

    • Thanks, Erin. I was the lucky one out of my siblings, I think, since I was too young to remember the trauma of losing our mother. There will always be a void, but I was fortunate enough to have an aunt who loved me and was the best mom I could have hoped for.

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