A college professor in the mid 1970s had asked his grandfather to speak of the most significant invention during his lifetime. Not the automobile, electricity, or space travel: he was most impressed by screened windows. They let in the breeze and kept out the flies, chickens and stray cats.
My mother, born in 1923, adored paper products, especially napkins and tissues. “Do you realize what a relief it is not to have to wash and iron snotty handkerchiefs?”
The little things, it seems, made the real difference.
New Year’s Eve of 1999 found me in Alabama with a friend. His grandmother, at 103, was in a nursing home, and the only person I knew with a foot in three centuries. Champagne and fine scotch, an elegant dinner and fireworks galore paled at this momentous landmark. Gram was ailing and failing, unable to string thoughts together, but still, she was 103.
Both days when we visited Gram, a crone rested in a wheelchair in the hall nearby: Mrs. Whitton. While most of the residents wore housecoats and slippers, she had on stockings and sensible brown shoes, a khaki polyester skirt and a beige and white flowered button-up blouse. Gray-blonde hair teased and sprayed, surely done each week in the beauty shop downstairs. Her eyes were dull and flat; but she wore lipstick. Bright red-orange lipstick. ALL over her mouth. And cheeks.
Lipstick by Picasso!
I almost laughed, but my Higher Self whopped me on back of the head. I began to rummage in my bag for a tissue, thinking to ask if I could help her wipe it off and put in on right.
A bigger psychic whop. I stopped and took a breath.
It was already on “right.”
Mrs. Whitton stared back at me blankly, but with a huge, glorious toothy smile, which the lipstick took — literally, from ear to ear.
My design school professor had been right: more than 20 years later, I felt the depth of his teaching. If I’m ever in Mrs. Whitton’s seat, wearing too much beige and a hairstyle 30 years out-of-date, with rare neuro-connections, I pray I remember the joy of a good lipstick.