Friday, May 7, 2021

For Mother's Day: Why I Wear Red Lipstick

My beautiful and complicated mother died in 1997.  Not a day goes by when I don't think about her, but on Mother's Day, vivid memories come rushing back to me.  Here she is at her dressing room table when I was a child, circa mid 1950's.

And next, you'll find a little memoir I wrote about her.  For those of you who write, and think about structure, you'll notice that I use "the story wheel" technique to cover a lifetime.  The hub of the story is lipstick.  Using this simple organizing principle, I am able to travel great distances--from childhood to Swinging London to New York City during the disco era, to film school and finally back to New York City.  I hope you enjoy the story and stay to the end to discover this week's creativity prompt!

This is how you become obsessed with red lipstick:

             It starts with watching your mother at her dressing table.  She is leaning over the mirror, wearing a red dress.  Chiffon.  She is putting on the Revlon.  The Fire and Ice or the Cherries in the Snow.  Your mother—she looks like Marilyn Monroe, all blonde and soft and curvy.  She is getting ready to go out to a cocktail party.  It is 1961 and you are living in the suburbs where everything is clean and fresh and new.  These are the Camelot years.  You know for certain that your mother will be home from the party, sometime past midnight, and you will inhale the strange, yet familiar scent of tobacco, the cool night air and stale Chanel No. Five.  She will lean over and give her a whispered kiss, leaving a red imprint on your left cheek like a smudged rosebud.

            The next thing you know, it’s 1970 and nude is in.  Free love and the sexual revolution.  You go down to the Five and Dime and steal lipsticks with Henrietta Berman, your new friend, who is from Israel and dark and well-developed for her age and oh yeah, a little bit dangerous.  You steal a tube of Misty Nude.  It’s a no-brand lipstick that comes in a plastic leopard case.  You want it for the leopard and you want it for the name.  That’s what really gets you.  Misty.  Nude.  That’s what you’d like to be, only you don’t even know it yet.  And that’s exactly why your mother disapproves.  You say “why?  What’s wrong with it?”  You put some on your lips and show her.  “See, you can hardly tell I’m even wearing lipstick,” you say.  “That’s not the point,” she says.  “It’s the name.”  Misty.  Nude.
            But you know it’s more than just the name.  It’s the idea of something that is so beyond her.  Something that is so much more subtle and secretive than the color red.  The subterfuge of it.  The idea that you could go out in the nude, meet a hippie, make love and run away to a commune.  It is subversive, this Misty Nude.

            Years pass.  You graduate from college and go to London.  No, not Swinging London.  It’s way past that.  It’s the decadent-you missed the party-we have a hangover London.  1977.  You meet a girl named Brigitte.  She’s a photographer from Vienna.  On a fellowship at the St. Martins School of the Arts.  She likes to take pictures of you dressed up in vintage, leaning against a lamppost in Highgate Park, near the cemetery where Karl Marx is buried.  She photographs you looking soulful with beatnik-style black eyeliner and a black beret.  Brigitte wears matte red lipstick.  It’s from Biba, because that is the only place to go shopping, unless you just want cheap knickers in which case Marks ‘n Sparks is fine.  For everything else, there’s Biba’s and oh yeah, the flea market in Kensington.  

New York City 1978.  Someone invented disco while you were away and now you’ve got some catching up to do.  You find yourself searching the Duane Reade for something that shimmers, but your heart isn’t in it.  You walk the gauntlet at Bloomies letting the beauty advisors spritz you with White Linen.  You are in search of the perfect red, but somehow nothing will do.  It isn’t the era for red.  And by 1984, you’re actually wearing white lipstick from Estee Lauder.  Studio 54 has closed and your hairdresser is canceling appointments because of a “blood disorder” and there seems like there’s nothing to do but move to L.A. and go to film school. 

And there in Hollywood, you find Revlon’s Love that Red.  In 1992 it’s retro and out of style, but you’re in your movie star phase and you really don’t give a damn.  You’re obsessed.  One night, you come home from a Marilyn Monroe film festival at U.C.L.A. and you get a phone call.  Your mother has cancer.  And all you can think about is how you have come full circle.  You’ve forgotten about being Misty Nude.  You have surrendered to the red, and your mother’s kiss, after all.

Last week, you found yourself on a subway in New York City.  The number six train.  The Lexington line.  You are sitting across from a twenty-something girl with bleached blonde hair.  She is wearing fishnets and vintage Frye boots, a faux fur coat and yes, bright red lipstick.  She is listening to her ipod, not noticing you, but you can’t help it--you lean forward and say excuse me, but where did you get your lipstick? 

She smiles at you as if she has met the ghost of her future self, and she
Tells you, Duane Reade.  It’s really cheap.  It’s called Radiant Red from Jordana. 
            You go there immediately.  And for a dollar ninety-nine, you buy a little bit of magic.

                                       *                        *                        *
Your creative prompt for this week is to chose a "hub" for your memoir.  It should be something ordinary, such as your experience with cars, or shoes or cats or lipstick.  Don't worry about the structure or order of events.  Just write everything you know right now, in this moment.  Trust the process, and I guarantee you--a structure that ties everything together will reveal itself to you.  Have faith.  Have fun.
And Happy Mother's Day!
Love, Jamie 



  1. Thank you. I'd stopped even wanting to write. Now you've nudged me, your sparks are catching at the embers. it's the mid 70s and my mother has just finished making me a chocolate brown velvet dress garlanded with cappuccino lace. I've found it hanging on the back of my bedroom door...

    1. Dear Lyra--Your dress sounds absolutely luscious! I'm so glad I've been able to inspire you to write again! Thank you for writing. Cheers, Jamie


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