Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Better dead, wait

(Rejected titles for this post include: Red Dawn; Red Alert; Red Scare; Code Red...)

Over in Pamie's blog, she's had a couple mini-surveys this week: "what movies make you cry?" and "what discontinued lipstick shade do you still mourn?" Of course I've had to put my two cents in for both. The former category is pretty much a steep path strewn with butter-and-tear-stained napkins, so I'll let it alone here. But for the latter: Max Factor's "Midnight Mahogany," which I expected to be brown; instead it turned out to be a magnificent 40s Harlot Red. I still have a half-inch stub I save for special occasions.

But it's made me start thinking of my great aunt, who passed away a little over two years ago, at 84. Nannie had always been a pistol, a spitfire, the family beauty. As a child, she insisted she'd been abandoned by "Gypsies," who'd surely return to claim her; as an adult, she looked like Olivia DeHaviland and was known for forcing other drivers off the road in games of Chicken. She loved Jamaica and, inexplicably, the "It's a Small World" ride at Disneyworld. She argued with her closest sister, my grandmother, virtually every single day, over everything from who said what to whom in 1957 to "the sound a piano makes." (Don't ask.) Her wedding portrait shows her in a trim suit and a vast, winged hat the size of a lazy susan. Nannie was badass, no question.

Toward the end, after a series of traumatic falls, she spent several years in an assisted-living facility, an "adult family home." Visiting her there was a torment, to me; the place always smelled like fried fish and old age and befuddlement and fear. She and Grammy would attempt to outdo each other for the honor of Most Horrible Prairie Childhood Memory: remember that time our wicked stepmother killed a litter of puppies and made us watch? Well, remember when mother died and dad threw the Christmas tree out into the snow cursing and crying?

But the point I was getting to: Nannie liked to have Her Face On. When her hands shook too badly, she'd enlist my mother to draw in her quotation-mark eyebrows. Once, she offered her a black felt-tip pen for this purpose: "They'll last longer." She could still manage her own lipstick, if someone else held the little compact mirror steady. "Move--all I can see is ceiling," she'd complain, jerking my wrist around.

She had several remaining lipsticks, little smudged and broken nubs she carried around in a grimy purse. And every one of them was a more shocking, fabulous RED red than anything I've ever owned. What could the names of those colors be? Jezebel? USO Tart? Ruby the Riveter? They were amazing. I admired them, admired and adored her for still wobbling them across her lips, bedridden, cramped by multiple sclerosis, octogenarian.

When she died, my mother handled her affairs. A simple cremation, a scattering from the deck of a Washington State Ferry. (Nannie would have liked it: a dramatic burial at sea that also, even if temporarily, inconvienienced the other passengers and made them look.) At some point, though, I asked my mother who'd been responsible for her makeup.

"Oh, I don't know...we didn't bother," Mom claimed. She plainly didn't see the point--why tart up the earthly remains, just before loading them into the crematorium?

But I was appalled. "You sent her to meet her maker without her face on?!?" I cried. "She's going to haunt your ass!"

We're still waiting, mind you. But I will not be surprised in the least if she starts poking dishes off the shelves in Mom's kitchen.

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