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My Mother Lives On in My Lipsticks

I wish I could still ask her all the questions about beauty (and life) she never had the chance to answer.

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I keep buying lipsticks I never wear. They sit in the bathroom cabinet behind the mirror, five black-and-gold tubes standing upright and tall. Five might not seem like many, but they’re pretty excessive for someone who, until three years ago, had never actually used lipstick before. Although I see them now at least once a day, whenever I reach for dental floss or an extra hair tie, I’m always slightly startled by their presence.

The last lipstick I bought was a few months ago while running errands at the grocery store with my husband. I was entranced by the lipstick section in the makeup aisle for a good five minutes before he came and found me mulling over two slightly different shades of maroon. I gave him a guilty smile, and he replied with raised eyebrows that said “Okay, but you realize you never wear them, right?”

When I got home, I eagerly tore off the plastic wrapping that encased the chosen lipstick tube, slid the cap off, twisted the bottom, and waved the color under my nose. It somehow smelled of toffee and vanilla as well as strawberry candy and wine. For a moment, I was lost in its sweet fragrance, staring at the color (“raisin rage”), imagining different events I could wear it to, thinking of which outfits it would go with. Eventually, I put the cap back on and placed the lipstick in the bathroom cabinet next to the others. They all stood in a line, like a row of soldiers in a battalion, ready for a call to arms that might never come.

My mom was the type of person who would never dream of leaving the house without a touch of color on her lips. One of the clearest memories I have of her is watching her stand in front of the bright vanity mirror in her bathroom carefully applying various creams and colors to her face, curling and moussing her hair until every strand was in the right place. “Sloppy” didn’t exist in her vocabulary. She had a natural sense of style, effortlessly putting together outfits and doing her hair and makeup with skill and finesse. I, on the other hand, shied away from makeup when I was younger, although my mother managed to persuade me to wear some occasionally for school concerts. I protested and made sour faces, but in the end I’d acquiesce like I was swallowing medicine.

I hated the smell of lipstick. I hated the unnatural feel of paint, the acrid flavor I would inadvertently taste every time I licked my lips, how they’d dry and crack — lips that did not even feel like my real lips anymore.

That was what bothered me most of all about makeup: the idea that it wasn’t me. I felt like my outward appearance had to reflect how I felt inside — weird and plain. Throughout my adolescence, already learning the language of loners and feeling the sting of being different, I quickly came to associate makeup with conformity, with being normal, and in true teenage fashion, I decided that these were things I had to reject before they rejected me. It was still a way of being different — just the kind of different that doesn’t stick out. To my mom, though, that was the whole point. She wanted nothing more than for her children to take pride in themselves and shine brightly before everyone else.

Four years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer. I remember standing beside her in front of the bathroom mirror a few weeks later, sharing a quiet moment together as she applied her makeup and we chatted about life. As she brought out her foundation, eye cream, lip liner, and lipstick from her makeup bag, she told me to watch her carefully so that I would know how to help her put them on if one day she could no longer do it herself. I watched her and tried to commit the steps to memory, but they are a blur to me now. I didn’t want to believe that such a day could be possible — that my mom, flawless and independent to the point of stubbornness, would ever need help with anything. I thought she was being pessimistic, but she’d say she was just being practical.

She died nine months later, and since then I’ve treasured every object she left behind, each purse or jewelry box reminding me of a different facet of her life. One item I keep in the drawer of my bedside table is her pink Estée Lauder makeup bag, which she always carried in her purse everywhere she went. From time to time, I rifle through its contents, hearing the familiar plastic clinks and clanks that used to signal my mother’s presence in the bathroom. The worn-down nubs inside the lipstick tubes still shimmer like they had just been freshly applied.

I didn’t realize how strongly my mind linked the scent of lipstick to my mother until I took out her makeup bag for the first time after she died and uncapped that mocha-colored lipstick, and suddenly I was with her again, watching her do her makeup in front of that bright vanity mirror. At that moment, I had an overwhelming desire to carry that aroma with me at all times — a memory I could wear on my lips. I didn’t want to use hers, so I started buying my own (usually the cheapest ones I could find), and that’s how I ended up with my burgeoning collection.

It wasn’t just its connection to my mom that made lipstick so enticing to me. I began to admire how women I knew seemed to exude confidence and self-esteem with their bold lips. I wanted to emulate that strength, tired of being the mousy introvert riddled with social anxieties who wanted to shrink into herself every time she was around other people. I wanted to finally shed my timid youth and all its insecurities, to be like these women, like my mom — assured, flawless, and elegant.

I did try to wear lipstick in public once, when I first started buying them. I carefully applied the color “Wine With Everything,” which was a shade braver than I felt (minutes later I stupidly pulled a white shirt over my head, staining the fabric with a red streak). But while walking outside, I felt like every person I passed on the street was staring at me, as if they as if they somehow knew that I wasn’t the kind of girl who wears lipstick, as if they could see right through my disguise. My cheeks grew hot from blushing and didn’t stop until I finally wiped the lipstick off in the nearest bathroom.

These days I only wear lipstick when I’m at home by myself, clumsily smearing it on in front of the bathroom mirror. Unpracticed hands still can’t manage to color between the lines, so I end up wiping and reapplying, embarrassed at all that I don’t know. Looking at myself, I can’t help but see my mother’s lips — mature, full, and sophisticated — on an unkempt face that will always look like a teenager to me. I wear it for a few hours, then wipe it off before anyone can see.

I now recognize that the dissonance I experienced both as a teenager and now as an adult is really a struggle between who I am, who I want to be, and who I feel I should be. Was my childish disdain for lipstick an expression of my true self, or just a reaction to the mainstream? Is it fear that influences my choice, or self-acceptance? Where exactly is that delicate line between who we choose to be and what we can never change? These are the questions that I imagine can shape a woman’s identity — an eternal struggle between society’s constructs and our perceptions of ourselves.

And they’re the questions I wish I could ask my mother now. The land of lipstick is uncharted territory, and I always thought my mom would be here to guide me through it — not just providing the how-to, but the why. Although I feel reluctant to go through this new stage of self-discovery without her, I’m beginning to realize that maybe every woman has to discover the answers for herself.

I know I’ll keep buying lipsticks that I never wear. They’re a comforting possibility, waiting for the day I can wear them with ease or leave them behind without feeling defeated. And if ever I want to travel backwards in time for the briefest of moments, all I have to do is uncap a tube of fresh lipstick under my nose and close my eyes.


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