For the Love of Lipstick: A Tribute to My Mother
I’ve been using the same lipstick for 20 years. It’s Clinique’s No. 83 Double Truffle. When I found out it was being discontinued, I became obsessed. Whenever I passed a major department store, like an antique collector, I ran in to see if there were any Double Truffles left. I have managed a small stash that might last me another year.
Recently, I needed my makeup professionally done before an interview, and I ran into a MAC store. The unwitting cosmetics girl got in trouble when I insisted on using my own lipstick. I felt bad for her (but not really).
This wasn’t about brand loyalty. It’s an attachment disorder.
In my field of psychology, latching on to things that represent comfort and the safety of mommy – like blankies, snuggle bears or a nightie – is key to healthy relationships. These items are unaffectionately called ‘transitional objects.’ They’re things that a small child uses to self-soothe in the absence of mommy or daddy. What parent doesn’t know the distress of leaving behind a child’s lovie on a park bench or airplane?
They are utterly profound items and eventually out grown. Usually.
My lipstick is one such object for me. Still.
When I was a toddler, my mother, a post-war immigrant from Germany, decided to become an Avon Lady on the sly. My dad was an American dreamer who squandered away any money he earned; she had to feed her girls.
I was enthralled with her secret business. I loved the Avon travel suitcase with its rows of compartments containing miniature lipsticks, nail polish bottles and sample packets of Skin So Soft oils. The lipsticks were the perfect size for me and my sister to play with and put on our baby dolls. We’d even show them off to our chums. For the temperamental child that I was, the orderliness of the travel case became a solace, like a puzzle I could work out. Every month when the new supplies came in, we’d spread the sparkly items across our kitchen table and snap the samples into their proper places.
On many occasions, we’d visit my mother’s growing list of customers who lived among the coastal towns of the Connecticut shore: Marion, Monroe, Norwalk, Shelton and Stamford.
My mother was the perfect salesgirl, a cross between a Sophia Loren and Jackie O.
“Allo Mrs. Conte! How are you today? I have your Lily of the Valley hand cream and other vonderful items!”
She was always invited in to listen to the latest family dramas while she took the lipstick samples and dabbled a rainbow of pinks and reds on their wrists to see what blended with their natural complexion. She gently touched these women as they chatted, a swab of color here and there.
Even though we were on food stamps, my mom would bring the needier families things we no longer could use. It became the norm in our house to neatly fold hand-me-downs because some customer could surely use them. These visits also turned into something else. She became a trusted confidant and somewhat of a philanthropist; an interesting blend of self-care and compassion.
Recently, when I was asked to participate in a local No Make-Up book project by photographer Steve Osemwenkhae, I was downright perplexed. I’m an expert advisor to a beauty brand promoting self-esteem in girls and the founder of an app to promote self-acceptance and empathy in kids. How could I say no to a No Make-Up challenge?
I also have two teenage girls and try to be an authentic and purposeful female role model. A role I inevitably fail. Yet, my 15-year-old keeps me up to date on various girl empowerment and no-make-up campaigns espoused by well-tended celebs or college girls making a public statement on Instagram. Of course, I had to shelve my vanity on principal and agree to be photographed.
When I was sent the close up images, in color and black and white, I could only bear a nanosecond glance.
I mustered the courage much later and revisited the photos with the intent to just sit with my feelings. We teach what we need to learn, I often say. So I told myself, “Be present, withhold any judgment, and be kind.”
Instead, I wanted to weep. Deeply. I was once a pretty girl in an all American kind of way. My husband reminds me that I still look younger than many of my contemporaries, which I attribute to years of yoga and some genetic luck. I don’t spend much energy comparing myself to others. But looking at the photos and seeing the emerging cobwebs of my aging face – finely pixilated, in high definition – was brutal. And there was no “after photo” to accompany them.
I wanted to compare these photos to the ‘me’ I imagined myself to be. She wasn’t there. I began to sweat. My heart thumped. My mind did a reverse flashback, like a near-death experience. I tunneled through almost a half of century of my life.
“Take some deep breaths,” I heard a distant voice whisper. I closed my laptop. And breathed.
I pulled out my Double Truffle lipstick and held it like a worry stone. I thought of my beautiful mother with the azure Avon suitcase in one hand and holding my tiny hand with the other. We were standing at a porch door of her next customer. Magnolias were in bloom.
She let me ring the doorbell.
A version of this post was published on Huff Post Women.
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Girl with Lipstick © Dreamstime, 2015
No Make Up Series, © Steve Osemwenkhae, 2015
© Tara Cousineau, 2015; family photo circa 1972