leave a roomWhen you leave a room, my mother taught me, leave no trace behind. She trained me to be in a room without making it dirty.

And yet, to my confusion, she wore lipstick, applied in a thick style that changed little from year to year, a signature of sorts. In the bathroom she had her own sink, mirror, and cabinet. Out of the top drawer of the vanity she’d pull her single tube of lipstick—Revlon’s Mercy, a buoyant shade of red, a bit shrill. Leaning in close to the mirror, she puckered her lips and applied her Mercy, careful to stay inside the lines. At the end of the application, she’d brusquely rip a tissue from a nearby box and blot. And there would be the telltale red imprint of a kiss.

Now I have my own favored lipstick, a shade called Black Honey, more stain than matte rouge, and it is one of the mysteries about me my daughter cannot unravel. She belongs to a different generation, one addicted to all manner of exotic lubrication for the lips, carried in the pocket of the jeans, flavored in mango, and applied copiously. But she resists lipstick as cosmetic. The motto is Pierce, Don’t Paint, spoken with a lisp on studded tongues.

Not long ago I overheard my daughter extolling the virtues of the natural look to her friend. They disapproved of my lips of dark honey.

“My mother wears lipstick to rake leaves,” my daughter said, smacking her gum. “She puts lipstick on to take out the trash. To go swimming. She’s got to have it on to open presents on Christmas morning.”

“I don’t get it,” her friend chimed in. “Who is she putting lipstick on for?” her pierced eyebrows, no doubt, were raised in bafflement.

“She doesn’t need lipstick,” concluded my daughter. I suppose she meant that my face was not such a diminished thing as to require the uplift. The words were solemnly spoken, without a trace of irony, as if she had settled a world conflict.

Does anyone need lipstick? It will not shelter me in a windstorm, nor feed me when I’m hungry. It can’t perform miracles. Looked at from a certain angle, it can be dispensed with, thrown in the trash.

The Black Honey is, I admit, too noir for the norms of my professional class, which prefers the illusion of transparency. The attention drawn to my mouth is a little nervous. But then I am a little nervous, lurking about in alleys in the rain. Could I not dispense with this excess and simplify my life, or at least my face?

Why, then, do I wear it? I cannot justify it by naming any purpose but pleasure. I wear lipstick as some women wear high heels—defiantly. It’s a mark I leave behind on cheeks, on glasses, on pillowcases, on memory. It throws people off. Lipstick is my excess, a mark of twisted allegiance to my mother.

After my mother died, I sorted through the mountains of details she left behind. In the vanity I found her familiar tube of red, worn down to the nub. I was overcome with a desire to smear my lips with her color, to be enamored with all her accoutrements and accessories. But there was no color left to apply.

Imagine going through your mother’s purse and finding a tissue on which she had blotted her lips, leaving a perfect imprint. I don’t know what you would do, but I would hold onto that tissue for eternity.

Marcia Aldrich is the author of the memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction.

Photography by Paul Bilger