At my mother’s viewing, one of my cousins motioned frantically for me to come over to her as soon as I walked in. “We can’t have her looking like that,” she said. “The lipstick they’ve put on her is light pink.” The other relatives’ nods made it clear they’d all been talking.
From the clamped look of Mama’s dead mouth, I suspected it was wired shut, my mother an unruly mannequin. The mortician had told me privately that in all his years of dealing with the dead, he had never seen a body with as many surgery scars and other medical-related injuries as Mama’s. A lifetime of illness hidden beneath her clothes.
But my relatives thought it could all be fixed with a change in lipstick color.
Admittedly, the garish light pink wasn’t something my mother would have ever worn. She preferred dark-but-never-red shades that contrasted with her porcelain white face. But I couldn’t even picture my mother in that body and I couldn’t see why it mattered to anyone what her lipstick looked like.
My cousin was insistent. “You have to get them to change it before people get here,” people meaning nonfamily members who presumably would be scandalized at the wrong shade on her lips.
I was too drained to protest. The funeral home director was a friend and I asked him to change her lipstick color to something darker. “Shall I escort the family out?” he said, “or would you rather do it?”
I’d rather they all jumped in a lake, thank you very much.
He was trying to be considerate, keep the family from having to think of my mother as a corpse, a thing that didn’t put on her own lipstick before she took a lie-down in that coffin, but my anger boiled over. If my relatives wanted to complain about unimportant things when my mother was dead, then they could good and well watch the harsh reality he wanted to shield us from. “Just get it over with,” I said.
He went back into the recesses of the funeral home and got a darker shade. I noticed dispassionately that it didn’t seem to be lipstick, exactly, but paint like you would put on a canvas, which somehow seemed more appropriate to my mood than actual lipstick. We watched while he painted on the color with a practiced hand, and within a few seconds, the dark shade my mother loved was in its proper position.
“Doesn’t that look better?” my cousin beamed.
Mama loved lipstick and so did I when I was in my teens and twenties. This, in spite of the fact that we both had big teeth that sometimes wore traces of color on them. I was self-conscious about it, as I was then about most things, but Mama was able to throw her head back and laugh her loudest without worrying whether her lipstick had migrated. I longed to have her confidence. We would trade cosmetics and color tips, and once, when I came home from college having learned a trick for putting on lipstick without a mirror from the Poet Laureate of the Cherokee Nation, we practiced smacking our lips together just so, laughing every time we missed the mark.
As we sat there waiting for the funeral to start, I kept repeating over and over in my head, I’m an orphan. I felt bereft even though I was thirty-seven years old and supposed to be a grown-up. Taking care of my mother had been my whole life for seven years—an only child, I’d dropped out of my Ph.D. program when my father died to be her caregiver—and now I didn’t know what to do. I would need to look for a job, find friends, think about dating. It all felt overwhelming, and I felt guilty for thinking about myself in the first place.
In the years before she died, in between taking care of Mama and a farm full of horses, I’d stopped wearing makeup at all. I’d never had my mother’s beautiful porcelain complexion; my skin was just as pale, but prone to acne and redness. It hadn’t felt worth the effort when the only people I saw were her doctors and people at the grocery or farm store. I could tell my lack of interest in my appearance worried Mama. She would suggest I buy some makeup or perfume when I went to the mall for something. I would smile and tell her I had plenty of time to be as gorgeous as she was and eventually, she stopped asking.
But she never stopped wearing her lipstick. Even when she wasn’t steady enough in her hands to put it on herself, she would pucker her lips several times a day for me to apply it. This routine only ended when she went into the hospital for the last time, and even then, she carried a lipstick with her.
At the funeral, I went up to the casket and stared at what used to be my mother. I didn’t say goodbye; that had already been said when I touched her still-warm hand at the hospital. It wasn’t a pleasant memory: her mouth was wide open in a huge oh from days on a ventilator and my main thought had been whether rigor mortis could set in even before death. Still, that grotesque figure had once been my mama and part of me wanted to throw myself on it and beg life back into her. Another part wanted to run away without even going near her body, so strong was my life-long phobia of coming in physical contact with the dead. I’d forced myself to reach out, trembling, to touch her hand, but I hadn’t felt anything but surprise at how warm it was.
I was glad when they closed the casket.
Once the funeral was over, I went home and rummaged through my mother’s purse, taking out her wallet, tissues, pieces of the spearmint gum she liked. A lipstick in one of her favorite shades was in the pocket. I closed my eyes and applied it to my lips before I went to the mirror, hoping to see her in me. I looked like a child playing dress-up, lipstick smeared across my slightly bucked teeth, and for the first time that day, I cried.
Elizabeth Burton lives, writes, and teaches writing in rural Western Kentucky. She holds an MFA from the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University, and her work has appeared in The Louisville Review, The Roanoke Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Still: The Journal, JMWW, Split Lip Magazine, among others. She has been nominated several times for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net and has been awarded several writing grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She shares her life with five cats, three dogs, two horses, a bird, and a husband who wonders why he's always last on these lists. You can find her at @elizabethburtonwriter on Instagram.