I can’t remember ever seeing my grandmother without lipstick. Bright pinks and corals to match her scarves and complement the floral patterns she loved to wear. Even without lipstick, her mouth would be memorable. Her smile was wide and generous; her laugh, easy and often. And kisses! She always kissed hello and goodbye and regularly in between, especially the babies. When I was a child, she would open her arms and envelop me into them, covering my face with kisses that smelled like vanilla and wax. When she wasn’t looking, I scrubbed at my cheeks with the heels of my hands until the impressions of her lips were smeared into what might have passed for rouge. I’ve seen every one of her other nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren do the same.
Heloise was her name, but everyone called her Koogie—short for Koogiewoogiewiggiewaggiewum, the nickname her mother gave her as a baby. Gracie, rumor has it, was also responsible for inspiring Koogie’s love of lipstick. She raised her girls to be poised and proper, letting them make up their lips, although nothing else. Perhaps she thought, as Winston Churchill reportedly did, that lipstick boosted morale. By the time Koogie was married at seventeen and a mother two years later, her lips had long been accustomed to color.
She, like so many of her generation, was imprinted by her Depression-era youth with a certain frugality. She would never waste the family funds on department store cosmetics. She preferred the drugstore variety, and Revlon in particular. Revlon does the job well, but is inexpensive enough to amass a collection without making her feel guilty. Oh but she never threw away a tube until it was completely used. She used cotton swabs to extract the color when it receded below the blunt edge of the case, and when a swab was no longer effective, she used a toothpick to dig out the last of it.
They were everywhere: in drawers, on her dressing table, in her purses and pockets. Dozens and dozens of them, all as imperative to her identity as her voice, her fingerprints. Even their scent seems to belong uniquely to her. Revlon should use that in their marketing: smooth, long-lasting, Koogie-scented color that will brighten your smile and the lives of those around you.
When one of my cousins was about six years old, she picked up one of the fifteen or so tubes from a bowl in Koogie’s bathroom and said to her, “I don’t want you to die, but when you do, can I have your lipstick?” Koogie laughed, that clear-bell chime, and said, “Why yes, Purdy.” We were all “Purdy.”
Koogie died this April. She had just turned ninety-three.
As they began emptying her room at the memory care facility where she’d been, my aunts set things aside for each of us. I was given Koogie’s coat, a Revillon brown mink from Saks that my step-grandfather had splurged on sometime in the 80s. I tried it on—it fit perfectly—then put my hands into the pockets. I shouldn’t have been surprised to pull out a tube of Revlon Moon Drops crème lipstick in the color “Earthy” but I was. Still wearing her coat, I pulled off the cap and twisted it until the color showed. I held it to my nose, and had to sit down. The gift of the coat was nice, but it’s the lipstick that I will treasure.
My aunt found another one in an otherwise empty suitcase. And the cousin that had asked for Koogie’s lipsticks twenty years ago? She was handed down a purse for her daughter to play dress up with. You can guess what was stashed in an inside pocket. Koogie’s belongings are still being distributed, and I have a feeling we’re going to be finding lipsticks for a long time. It’s like she’s doling them out from heaven, one at a time, just when we need them.
I keep mine on my desk like a talisman, next to the heart-shaped rock my son gave me. I like the way it looks there; it reminds me of her smile. It’s like a Koogie-scented kiss blown from someplace far away.