by Nancy McMillan
Today on my morning walk along our rural road, I notice the seasonal changes in the euonymus bush—or burning bush, as they’re commonly known. The shrubs often grow in thick hedges adjacent to woods, and in the fall they flame into crimson; hence their nickname. The leaves begin their autumnal transformation by deepening to a grapey red hue, a hue like wine—good wine. As autumn progresses, the color ebbs away to a clear rose, a watercolor shade. I wonder if, under a microscope, I could see the beads of color collecting at the leaf’s edge and dropping to the ground. Or would they dissolve into the air and evaporate at contact with oxygen? These are the kinds of things I think about on my walks now that I’m in my sixth decade; nature has become a repository of memory triggers.
It’s November, and the color of the burning bushes has faded to that clear rose, a shade that matches my first lipstick. My mother drove me to Sylmay’s Drugstore that day. I knew this store well, had roamed its aisles and lingered over the tantalizing make-up displays. I was still too young for eye make-up, my mother told me, but at fourteen, I could wear lipstick.
“I’ll wait here,” she said, after parking the car.
I was surprised, but glad for the privacy. I didn’t want her standing near me, trying to be helpful, the effort of holding back an opinion clear on her face. I slipped into the store.
I headed for the Revlon display. Because of the ads and the sound of the name, I thought they carried the classiest colors. I dabbed sample after sample on the back of my hand, three, four in a row, then switched to the inside of my wrist. I finally chose one tube of lipstick in that clear rose shade and paid for it. Carrying the small bag containing the black swirl case banded with gold made me feel womanly, as if I had entered a new world.
Back in the car, my mother didn’t ask, just waited. I pulled the lipstick out of the bag and spun it to reveal the color against its inner gold tube. I inhaled the waxy scent of glamour. She nodded her approval, which I expected as I had chosen a color that wasn’t garish or flashy. I would wait to be alone in my bedroom before applying the color to my lips and blotting it, as I’d seen my mother do. Then, I’d try out different pouts and smiles that might appeal to my latest crush.
Looking back now, with my mother gone for two decades, I wonder if she wanted to be invited into Sylmay’s that day to help me choose the perfect color. Did she want to bond with me, her youngest, over this feminine ritual, to deepen our connection through our shared aspiration to look our best? Did she know, through her mothering experience, that these small milestones only happen once in a child’s life?
If she did, she never mentioned it. It occurs to me now that she gave me what I needed, knowing I’d be inhibited by her presence. She gifted me with what I have to come to call everyday tenderness, an act that goes beyond the kindness you can offer to strangers. Everyday tenderness requires a knowledge of the recipient. It’s something you can extend only to someone known, someone understood, someone for whom you’re willing to adjust or sacrifice your own needs. It is a gift that cushions the bumps of life, be it an understanding nod, a comment left unsaid, or the freedom to fly solo.
My mother may be departed, but she is never far from me. She makes herself known in quiet ways, and now, every fall, she touches me through the clear rose color of the euonymus leaves. That beautiful color always carries me back to the moment she took me to buy my first lipstick. Now that I’m in autumn of my life, I’ve come to understand how much wisdom and love there was in the gift my mother gave to me that day—the gift of everyday tenderness.