Prayers

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(excerpted from the November 2022 Grapevine, the International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous)

My mother’s cousin, Father Long, asked to meet me on the wraparound porch of the1900s-era resort hotel in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

I had recently left my husband and was living at my mother’s house with my two-year-old boy. Assuming Father Long wanted to force feed me unwanted marriage counseling, I hung a defiant roach clip from an anti-establishment leather string around my 22-year-old neck to amplify my hippie ensemble.

He talked about my marijuana use. “Give it up, for your mother’s sake,” he said. I paused. “Are you talking to her about giving up drinking for my sake?”

Father Long started his career as a disciplinarian of an inner-city Catholic boys’ school. Realizing I was no match for him, I scrambled out of the painted wood rocking chair and made a fast exit. I heard him call to me as I walked away, “I’ll pray for you.” 

Father Long spent a few weeks every year near Sea Girt where I lived during adolescence and young adulthood. That summer his vacation on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean was interrupted by my mother’s cry for help. She wanted him to help me. My mother’s lips never parted to pray and I doubt her thoughts ever enter the spiritual realm. On the way home, I wondered how drunk she must have been to ask for help from her cousin, a soldier of God. Had Father Long been summoned to help other wayward children sprung from our very wayward relatives?

A few years later, I made it to Alcoholics Anonymous and, after six months sober, I was asked to speak at a large AA meeting in Montclair. In the meeting, I talked about my inability to stop drinking, stop smoking pot, stop consuming illicit drugs. I welled up speaking of gratitude for my father, who had brought me into the Fellowship.

My father had sobered up at Towns Hospital in Manhattan. He attended meetings on the Upper East Side and had been able to sustain abstinence during the time I was dying way out there in some other dimension of addiction. We hadn’t seen each other for five years. Then he showed up at the public mental institution where I had been sent after I overdosed at 24 years old. He suggested I go to the AA meeting on the grounds of the institution.

After I wrapped up my six-months sober talk at that meeting in Montclair, a petite, pearly lady stood out from a line of well-wishers. She approached and said, “I pray for you every day.” “What?” I asked. “Do I know you?”

“I go to meetings in New York with your father,” she said. “We helped him when he went to see you in the hospital. We told him what to say, to just share his story, what it was like, what happened and what it was like now. Like we do with any other alcoholic—and suggest you go to meetings. A lot of us have been praying for you for a long time.” 

 “And here you are.” 

That was the summer of 1971.

___________________________________________________

NOTE: Father Long was removed from the priesthood in 1995 for sexual abuse. He’s on the Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington DC, lists of accused priests. He died in 2004.

Mystery of The Matching Shoes

Mystery of The Matching Shoes

Chicago’s annual Printers Row Lit Fest is a red-meat feast of books. For two days bibliomaniacs don their Walgreen’s readers and shuffle from table to table in the two-block long chow-down of book delights. Lone readers never look up, never reply to vendors, never talk to authors. They’re intent on finding the books they need to satisfy an obsession that never ends—to be alone with their books.

Then there are the book lovers who hold vendors hostage yakking about their favorite books and authors. And others with their dogs and friends, happy to be outside talking to neighbors, catching glimpses of book titles they may wander back to.

In 2021, my publisher asked me to stand behind the Tortoise Books display to promote my book, In That Number

“Oh, you’re the author? What’s it about?” strangers asked.

“It’s a memoir about politics.” I answered.

The publisher interjected, “She was a hippie who worked for Bill Clinton. She met Putin.”

I had no idea how to initiate conversations about my book, never mind promote myself. I signed a few copies, but not many words passed between me and the buyers.

At the 2022 Lit Fest, memoir writing teacher, Beth Finke, organized a program, “Unlocking Memories and Uncovering Stories” with two of her students who had published children’s books. Beth moderated the discussion.

I sat in the front row, soaking up the ethereal juice of a room of twenty-five or so people attracted to children’s literature.

The two presenters, Sharon Rosenblatt Kramer, and Bindy Bitterman, sat on either side of Beth Finke at a table covered by a floor-length black cloth. Beth, a published author herself, introduced her student-authors in her usual lighthearted manner, exuding pride in their accomplishments. She asked questions about how they got started and their publishing processes.

Sharon Kramer’s book, A Time for Bubbe, published by Golden Alley Press, blossomed from one of Beth’s memoir writing prompts, “all the time in the world”. It’s the story of her six-year-old grandson visiting his great-grandmother in her high-rise. He punches all the elevator buttons and she responds, “Don’t worry boychik, we have all the time in the world.”

Bindy Bitterman’s  Skiddly Diddly Skat is a self-published cat and mouse story written in limericks, accompanied by a QR audio code.

Sharon Rosenblatt Kramer, Beth Finke, Bindy Bitterman and the Matching Shoes

Halfway through the presentation, I noticed two sets of matching shoes sticking out from the tablecloth, under Sharon and Beth. Did Sharon and Beth coordinate their shoes? They looked like soft-souled, black canvas with round grey tips. The feet moved slightly every few minutes, always in unison. For a second I thought they might be mice. I couldn’t take my eyes off them.

Then all at once the tablecloth ruffled and a black Labrador stuck her nose out from under the table, flopped her head down and resumed her subservient posture at Beth’s feet. I’d forgotten that Luna, the seeing eye dog, uses those four black feet with grey pads to lead Beth around town.

Luna solves the mystery of the matching shoes

Hmm. Would the mystery of the matching shoes make a good children’s story?

__________

  • Click here to buy A Time for Bubbe by Sharon Kramer on Amazon.
  • Purchase Skiddly Diddly Skat by Bindy Bitterman here
  • To purchase Beth Finke’s latest book, Writing Out Loud, click here

The Day I Turned Old

The Day I Turned Old

My actual (as opposed to official) retirement began the day I walked into Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and asked to volunteer for a few hours each weekday. I’d had a couple of rough years at my final payroller job and I thought volunteering would help lift me into a new way of thinking. Or, more precisely, I wanted a time-filler to keep from obsessing over the aftermath of the soul-crushing previous twenty-four months of my life.

Oh churches! There seem to be so many cries for help, until they try to find a job fit for you. I grabbed the first one offered and plunked myself down in front of a computer in the cubicle next to Vince, a friendly volunteer who was out of work but not yet retired. Our job: clean up the database. 

The database. Every pensioner I’ve met since my stint who looked to the church to help fill the first year’s lonely unproductive hours says the same thing.

“I started with the database.”

Vince knew what he was doing and in fact devised a formula and matrix for our work. I suppose it was simple. If you could pay attention. I couldn’t. At the end of each of my four hour stints, he’d spot-check my work and stay an extra hour or more to correct everything I tried to accomplish. Vince had an advantage—he was good at the game Concentration. He could spot a misspelled name in seconds-flat with his highly industrious mind.

The room next to the dreaded cubicles had been cleared of all furniture. It may have been the size of a football field. For about a year, having been diagnosed with PTSD due to the aforementioned job, my perception of size, space and time was like science fiction, all out of whack. 

One day, I heard an old Frankie Valli tune, “Sherry Baby” seeping under the door from that huge room. Of course I learned all the words—they’re pretty simple—as a teenager and never forgot them. 

“What’s going on in there?” I asked Vince. 

“Sher-er-ree, Sherr-ee, Baby…

“Oh, that’s the old people’s exercise class,” he said.

“Old people?”

“Yeah, ya’ know. CLL. The Center for Life and Learning.”

I didn’t, in fact, know. The church bulletin had notices about CLL but I never thought they were meant for me. Within the next few weeks, each day I grew grumpier and grumpier working on the database.

“Vince,” I said, “No offense, but I’d rather be in that room dancing around to “Sherry Baby” than sitting in front of a computer.” 

“Aw, yes, Regan,” he said, “But would it be as rewarding?”

Rewarding. Now there’s a loaded word. Did I really need to feel rewarded for the hours between sunrise and sunset? How about satisfied? Couldn’t I just feel satisfied?

Or, neutral?

“Vince. I’m logging out today and joining the exercise group tomorrow.”

And that day, that neutral day, is the day I turned old.

May Day! Mothering Rough Seas

For a few years, my son and I lived at the Jersey Shore with his stepfather, Jack, on the confluence of a fresh water river and a saltwater bay. The east-west Toms River begins in the swamps of the Pine Barrens, widens and swells its way east, eventually slamming into the Barnegat Bay. Sailors love the Toms River, especially during the summer’s prevailing southerlies.

I am not a sailor. 

In our family, swimming, passed down from one generation to the next, was a right of passage for a three-year old.  Water is in our blood. Our sandy backyard, bulkheaded rich brine that nourished vibrant sea creatures and, in turn, fed migratory bird colonies. Life on the water with my inquisitive six-year old was pure joy.

Jack arrived home one day with a used polystyrene Sunfish trailing his ’65 Mustang. For fifty dollars, the previous owner threw in a booklet on ‘how to sail’. A 1971 ad in Boating magazine called the thirty pound Sunfish the “Volkswagen of sailboats. A perfect learner’s boat” 

I called it a styrofoam bathtub.

Joe and I practiced our new book-learned sailing skills, 100 feet offshore, moored to the bulkhead. On our first untethered day at sea, Joe rigged the sails. We lulled away the dead calm until Joe spotted our German Shepherd swimming our way. As she approached the boat, I stood up, pointed toward shore and shouted “go home!” Which of course she did. She was, after all, a German Shepherd.

The next time Joe and I unmoored, we sailed expertly into the middle of the widest part of the river. We took turns at the tiller, successfully jibing and tacking as the wind took us west. But then we tacked to come back downriver. The sweet southerlies that had funneled us upriver suddenly turned on us like a mad dog turning on its master. The rogue wind bared its teeth. Thunderclouds whipped up the tide. And the sail luffed out of control. We. Were. Trapped.

The boat, too light for wind-churned waters, threw us around like a sea monster. I reassured Joe we were safe since we were both good swimmers. 

“We can’t leave the boat,” pleaded Joe.

“We won’t!” I assured him. But truth is, he’d seen the thought to abandon the boat cross my brow. I could swim to shore with one arm around Joe’s chest but I couldn’t pull the Sunfish with the other. 

Private docks, woods and marinas dotted the riverfront. I spotted a sliver of sand and rowed furiously. We pulled the boat up, tied it to a tree and ran to the door of a stranger who drove us home. The next day the Coast Guard towed our Sunfish home. 

“No markings on this thing,” the officer said. 

“You should name her ‘May Day.’”

At twenty-seven years old, I had no reason to believe motherhood would come naturally. All my choices to that point had been daring, radical, reckless.  Only four years before, I’d taken LSD, left toddler Joe with his father and trekked to Woodstock in a station wagon full of Rolling Rock chugging hippies. I was separated from them on the first night while swooning over Richie Havens’ performance of “Freedom”. During the muddy aftermath, I smoked opium with a stranger and hitched a ride home with him to New Jersey.

Ancestral maternal instincts swelled up out of nowhere that first day battering around in the Sunfish on the roiling Toms River. No matter how afraid I was, I had to show no fear, lest my six year old become traumatized and frightened by open water for the rest of his life. 

“Let’s try again,” I announced one day and we eagerly sailed into the prevailing southerlies on a sunny calm morning. Upriver, nature turned against us again.

“We need help,” Joe shouted in the sea spray. And we beached the boat once more.

Our sailing adventures made for wild-eyed good stories with our friends and family, but I feared my recklessness may have given Joe a subconscious dread of the sea  into adulthood.

I needn’t have given it a second thought. In his fifties now, Joe and his family leave their midwestern flatlands to vacation on tropical seas—snorkeling, bodysurfing and scuba diving. 

But.

No sailing.

The Last Time I Saw Him

The Last Time I Saw Him

The last time I saw my father was in a La Salle Street law office. The confrontation was inevitable but I’d hoped he’d die before I ever had to see him again.

John the lawyer had told me a few weeks earlier that it was time. “We can’t put it off any longer.”

Herb, my old friend and lawyer, met me in the hotel coffee shop that morning. I’d flown in from Washington to Chicago the night before. My official notice requested a day off for personal business. 

Personal business. The words are both too formal and too benign.

Herb flagged a cab on Michigan Avenue because my legs were too wobbly for the short walk to LaSalle Street. Two years had passed since I’d last seen my father. I came voluntarily to confirm fraud accusations against him. The thought of it kicked off spasms in my coffee-filled stomach.

Herb kindly offered to escort me from the hotel rather than risk my running into my father alone on the street or in the lobby or god-help-me in the elevator. 

Are these extreme feelings legit? Why was a grown woman so afraid of her father?

He was such a good liar. Forty-five year old me could still remember that twisted smile from behind the cracked door of the upstairs bedroom the first time my mother called the police.

“It’s nothing, Officer,” he smiled. “Just a quarrel over money. You know how it is.”

Years later, after they’d separated, he sobered up. But that smile. The one where his bushy eyebrows turned inward toward his pooled eyes; where his bottom lip turned up but his upper lip remained still, imperceptibly quivering. If you hadn’t known him all your life, you’d never know that smile was a dead giveaway that he was lying.

Having lived most of his adult life in Gucci loafers and posh apartments, he became desperate for money in his seventies. We’d been close. Until friends of mine let me know he’d approached them to back a questionable business deal. He needed enough money to live comfortably until the end of his life, which was not too long as it turned out. At eighty he died of lung cancer, a diagnosis he never revealed to anyone.

Before I moved to Washington, I’d been in the room many times listening to my father on the phone hustling potential investors. 

 “Just need a few more thousand,” he’d lie, “Then we’re ready to go.” 

A friend of mine he’d contacted without my knowledge took the bait. He gave my father almost a million dollars. Later, the friend sued. 

In the conference room Herb objected to those bushy eyebrows taking a seat across from us. I locked eyes with the lawyer interrogating me. Two weeks before, a crony offered me $10,000 to not testify. The week before, my father called my boss growling I couldn’t be trusted.

After the deposition, I backed away from my oncoming father. Herb stepped between us.

“Don’t talk to her,” Herb warned.

And he didn’t.

Seeing Jesus

In 1949 the Soviet Union started the Cold War by detonating its first atomic bomb, blockading Berlin, and pushing its way into Poland and Eastern Europe. The voices I heard swirling above my head at cocktail hour in our Washington home implied the Russians were coming for us. Everyone acted like this was the worst thing that could ever happen. 

Air raid drills were concocted by the federal government through the National Civil Defense Administration to protect people from incoming A-bombs. Common folk-wisdom said only cockroaches would survive a nuclear attack. Nevertheless teachers were required to conduct impromptu air raid drills. They shouted, Drop!—a signal for us to jump out of our seats, crawl under our desks, fall over our knees and cover our heads. The nuns added the instruction to recite Hail Marys aloud while on the floor. 

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

At seven, I didn’t understand the difference between a drill and the real event. I went to my death every time I huddled under that desk. I feared the A-Bomb was the worst thing that could ever happen. But, I was not. afraid. to die. 

This is it, I’d pray. This is the day I’m going to see Jesus.

I believed Mother Mary would grab me in her arms like she did baby Jesus and take me to heaven. Why did we practice to avoid such ecstasy? 

By the time third grade rolled around, I got used to not dying under the desk. Images of children who lived after their exposure to the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki appeared on our small black and white television. I saw that there were worse things than death. 

Our Catholic school teachers taught that Communists who ruled Mother Russia prohibited the celebration of  the Mass. The clergy declared this was the worst thing that could ever happen. We prayed for Catholic Russia.

At home, my two sisters and I made our own breakfasts and school lunches because my mother’s alcohol intake rendered her unconscious in the mornings. We often gathered around her bed trying to figure out if she was alive. Holy Mary, Mother of God. One of us would place a finger under her nostrils to feel her breath until, with one exhale, she’d confirm that the worst that could’ve happen, hadn’t—and we’d be off to knock on neighbors’ doors scrounging rides to school. 

Those early almost-worst-that-could-happen memories have inoculated me against the mau-mauing of present-day alarmists, naysayers and fear-mongers who sermonize about the death of our democracy. Yeah-but’ers and tsk-tsk’ers want us to heed their cynical creed that our country is hopelessly overrun with insurrectionists, sexual predators, corrupt politicians and gun-toting scofflaws.

And what if these are apocalyptic times? So what? So were the 1950’s. I’ve been here before. 

Mother Mary may be out of commission these days, but I still dream of seeing Jesus.

IRL (In Real Life)

IRL (In Real Life)

One of the first gifts I received from my grandson, CJ, was his framed eighth grade self-portrait. He filled the center of a twelve by sixteen inch paper canvas with his life-size face, neck and shoulders, probably as instructed by his teacher. The background is a collage of his own black & white photos, trees and fences, angled every which way. The drawing portrays what he looked like at thirteen years old. 

Except he painted himself cobalt blue. 

This painting hangs from a hook on the wall-to-wall bookcase in my living room. CJ is fair-skinned with reddish-blonde hair. I’ve never asked him why he painted himself cobalt blue. As far as I know, he wasn’t imitating Picasso’s blue period. No one knew about the blue people of Kentucky until the 2019 publication “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.” After hearing so many ads for Blue Man Group on TV, CJ expressed interest in seeing them live on stage. But it was an interest, not an obsession.


Cobalt blue, used for centuries by the Chinese for their blue and white pottery, is the epitome of coolness; dark, deep, and mysterious. It’s the color of the evening sky in winter, clear twilight boosted by the unseen sun from below the horizon. CJ’s not the only creative to fancy cobalt. J. M. W. Turner, Renoir, Claude Monet, and van Gogh all favored its compatibility with other colors. Remember Maxfield Parrish’s famous Daybreak? He used cobalt blue mixtures for the skyscape. 

Public opinion polls show blue as the favorite color of both men and women. And yet, a case of the blues refers to feelings of sadness. My parents used the term, the blues, to announce their alcoholic hangovers. 

Thanks to old African American traditions, the blues generally signify sadness without despair. Pastor Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago preaches about a blue note faith, one that’s rooted in letting dark times exist side-by-side with hope. Moss teaches his congregation to let these dark moody blues move around them while they practice dancing in the dark. This practice keeps the blues from turning to hopelessness and death by despair.

For the past ten years CJ’s self-portrait has hung where I see it everyday. He’s melded into my unconscious seeing. He looks the same to me. But as I write this and inspect him further, I see the cobalt blue has faded to dark teal. Teal is a modern color, one not seen in art before the twentieth century. It has no meaning really, except a lot of European TV shows use teal interiors and costumes. It makes the actors look better. 

In real life, CJ’s hair has turned brown, but I still think of him as reddish blonde, just as his self-portrait will always be cobalt blue. We don’t see each other often in these isolating covid days. He’s in those perilous twenties where the blues start taking root.

I hope he’s dancing in the dark.

Was She a Racist?

Adele pulled herself out of alcoholism, made a small fortune in real estate and provided shelter and security for her four children and husband. I met the whole family at an evangelical christian church in the early 1970s. As my role model for a brief time, she showed me how to survive in the extremist Christian cult. Neither of us belonged. We tripped over the threshold searching for a deeper understanding of the word “God”, and got sucked in. 

She rejected the White male elders’ biblical interpretation that wives should not work, that the man is the head of the hosehold. I trusted her. She was on her third marriage; she convinced me that financial independence was the first step to freedom if I wanted to get out of my violent second marriage.

 The ease of Adele’s sales skills to prospective homebuyers enthralled me. I wanted to be like her. I studied and finally earned my own real estate license while working as an unpaid apprentice to Adele in a planned development.  Month after month with no salary and no prospects, I persevered, supported by my husband’s income and buoyed by Adele’s words: “You only need one sale.”

One day a couple in a splendid new car parked in front of the office. I ran out to greet them, showed them the model, obtained qualifying information, and walked them around the grounds to view the plots. The couple, Princeton University professors, picked out their dream house-to-be, and I called the owner of the development announcing my first sale. The owner arrived with a blank contract as the couple discussed their choice of bathroom tiles. I envisioned thousands of dollars exploding in my mailbox.

Since high school, I’d been politically active, and at age twenty-seven, I had no evidence to suggest that America wasn’t heeding the call to social and racial change espoused by John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. It never occurred to me that people thought any other way.

The owner hemmed and hawed, saying he wasn’t sure he could provide the couple their tile choice, or carpet, or kitchen cabinets. Still, nothing about his interaction with this couple seemed unusually negative, at least not to me. They signed a contract contingent on later negotiations for the decor.

The whole project slowed, then halted. Adele claimed the money ran out, thanked me for my sweat equity, and found me a part-time job making stained-glass lamps.

A few months later, I stood at my mailbox reading a legal notice naming me and the owner in a civil rights lawsuit for discrimination against the Black couple from Princeton. Adele brought me a news article saying the NAACP was testing the efficacy of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by sending Black couples to White neighborhoods to purchase homes.

“See?” Adele said. “They were shills.”

It never went to court. I crawled away from my adulation of Adele. And left the real estate business.

First Grade Gun

First Grade Gun

Tyrone bragged that his friend brought a gun to school. In the six months I’d known him he’d told me a few tales, like he and his little brother went to Winter Wonderland at Navy Pier. He didn’t have a little brother, but I often held my confrontational tongue with him in an effort to give him space to be himself. I thought if I earned his trust, eventually he’d stop trying to beguile me with fanciful stories.

He was my seven year-old charge in a weekly volunteer tutoring program. During our first getting-to-know-you session we followed a Q & A script developed by the program administrators. We both had dogs. He had a baby sister. I had grandchildren. He went to a school on Chicago’s west side. I was not sure who mothered him. He mentioned an aunt and a grandmother. He proudly mentioned his father. He wasn’t explicit, and looked away in silence when I pressed for details, what does he do? I eased off to save him from having to think up a story. And really, I didn’t want to know.

The tutoring session consists of helping kids with their homework, creating art projects and playing board games. Tyrone didn’t need help with homework. I guided him while he wrote down answers to math problems and filled in words in sentences. He never got anything wrong, and I praised him for being so smart. I helped him put his homework neatly in his backpack. When I started to reach in and straighten other things in his backpack, he balked at that intrusion. He often hid a football or basketball in there and feared others would see. I surmised he was prohibited from bringing balls to school, and he thought they may be forbidden at tutoring as well. Maybe he was afraid for other reasons.

When I quizzed him about the details of the gun, he said he saw it in his friend’s backpack, that his friend found it in ththe backyard and that it had bullets in it. I asked if he told his teacher. “No! He’s my best friend!”

Research finds youth from risk-filled backgrounds who successfully transition to the adult world of employment and good citizenship have had the consistent presence of a caring adult. Tutoring programs give kids this opportunity. As a first-time tutor, I attended orientation where consistency and trust were emphasized.

I connected with Tyrone in summer camp. Some kids would point to volunteers and brag, “That’s my tutor!” Having no information about what a tutor is, Tyrone asked me to be his tutor. Yes, I committed to years-long care and support of Tyrone beginning that fall.

I doubted Tyrone’s tale about the gun, but gun-in-school carries weight. I couldn’t  bear it alone. I consulted with a supervisor. She knew Tyrone’s caregiver.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

The next week he came to tutoring with his sidestep story: his friend brought gum to school. When next I arrived for duty, Tyrone was absent. I knew he’d not return. He dropped out of tutoring and so did I.

Was I right in reporting Tyrone’s story? I doubted myself for months. I switched my volunteering from one-on-one tutoring to leading groups of first graders in meditation. A supervisor caught me in the hall one evening and casually mentioned the gun was no tale.

Tyrone’s friend had walked into first grade with a loaded hand gun in his backpack.

Remembering Revlon

Remembering Revlon

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 th-2antique 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.

Unknown-1For 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.