Whenever my mother dressed for a special occasion, the last thing she’d do is color her nails and lips. She’d sit in a living room chair with high heels dangling from her crossed leg and expertly paint her fingernails with a little bottle of toxic red enamel. She never smudged them, never blotched her cuticles, never spilled the polish, never needed to mop up after herself.
First, she’d soak a Kleenex in an upended bottle of Cutex nail polish remover and wipe all her nails clean. The vapors would tickle all the hairs in my nose and give me a headache but I never turned away. I’d watch her unscrew the top of Revlon’s Fire and Ice and pull out the dark bristles dripping in red liquid. With one hand flattened on the antique mahogany side table, and the other hand holding the grooved white plastic top, she’d drag the brush along the lip of the bottle to get just the right amount of polish. Pulling the brush from the bottom of the nail to the top in perfect form nail after nail, she’d quietly finish the job, then blow on the tips of her fingers to dry them.
I’ve watched artists do this same thing with their paintbrushes. I wonder now if my mother could have been an artist since she seemed to be a natural in manipulating the brush. Where did she learn that? Like me, she was not the kind of person who would have practiced such a thing as a teenager. Unlike her, I’ve never managed to lay polish or lipstick on myself with such aplomb.
At the mirror, she’d further glamorize her ensemble with matching lipstick. Gripping a short, thin-handled lip brush in her right hand, she’d cradle the unopened lipstick in her left hand, slide the top up with her left fingers and let it drop into the crook where the palm meets the thumb. Holding both parts steady, she’d flick the lipstick brush back and forth on the creamy substance with her right fingers. Then she’d outline the edges of her top and bottom lips with the curved tapered brush. Next she’d brush the bare flesh inside the lip lines with vertical strokes. With fresh lipstick her beguiling red lips seemed larger than usual but not unnatural. She kept her lipstick and brush in a small leather pouch. Sometimes she left the house with only her Marlboros and her lipstick pouch.
In her dementia my mother always carried a small clutch purse. She incessantly opened it and fingered through its only contents—lipsticks. The nurses gave her their old lipsticks for her purse because the sound of the click-clacking as she rifled through it calmed her down.
For a few years after my mother died, I entered into the ritualized glamor of painting my own nails red. I sat before a young manicurist who updated me every week on the intrigue of her affair with a rich married man. When she moved in with him and quit her job, the allure of painting my nails lost its luster.