In middle school I was part of a carpool. Different moms would pile us into their cars and drop us off, which was way more cool than actually riding a bus. Being a sensitive being, both then and now, I’ve never forgotten a look that one of these carpool moms gave me.
This mom, whom I’ll name Ms W, was probably in her mid-thirties (ancient to an 8th grader) and she had a passel of children, all with dark hair and lovely milky skin. When Ms W picked us up there was always a rush of energy in the air. It’s probably because we were running (more) than a tad bit late. She also appeared to be wearing what she’d likely been able to grab the quickest. Sometimes it was a flowered housecoat, other times a sweatsuit. Her hair was rarely combed, and she wore thick glasses and no makeup. As a middle schooler, my thoughts were mostly on how to survive the day. Did I smell funny? Would someone pass me a note that day? Would I ever actually wear that skirt I was sewing in home ec? What if my period started?
But one day Ms W showed up looking quite different. I mean significantly different, at least, to me. Since I didn’t live with her or play regularly with her kids, I recall the shock on my face and the too dramatic praise of her appearance. Wow, Ms W, you look beautiful today!
Of course, I meant it as a compliment. It was genuine admiration. Yet the look she threw over the seat was one of pure irritation. Her hair was in a fashionable slick bun, the glasses were gone, and she had on the most perfect color of red lipstick — not a true red, but more of a burnt red that highlighted her smooth, silky skin and made her dark eyes flash. She was not grateful for my words. No, she was pissed. In that moment I knew I’d hurt her somehow, and I felt badly.
Now that I am Ms W I understand that look. It’s the look that slips off one’s face when she’s rushed and frustrated. It’s the look that says, yes, I could look like this all of the time, but I’m busy taking care of someone else’s needs. It’s the look that says, hey, I’m not a morning person and your praise only reminds me that I look like hell every other morning that I do not brush my hair or put on some lipstick.
About two years ago, when I regularly took the kids to school (I was the mom zooming in at the last minute, before the school officials locked the gate), I got locked out of the house. I had to return to my son’s middle school wearing the very outfit I’d driven to school in: a nightgown, mismatched sweat pants, slippers, a winter coat, and unbrushed hair and teeth. Here I was, a working professional mom, showing up at the school office looking like a hobo. I had to ask the showered and well-dressed woman in charge to please call my son to the front office so that I could borrow his house key. It was at that moment that I realized Ms W’s situation. If I had showed up everyday dressed the same way, and then showed up combed and lipsticked, I know someone would have said, Wow! You look great, with all sincerity. My likely response would have been hers — one of irritation, not gratitude, due to the morning rush and stress.
So I’ve let go of my confusion over Ms W’s look to me that morning way back in the 80s. I also get what those fashion mags (that I rarely read anymore) mean when they write that with red lipstick, we don’t need a lot of other makeup. There’s something about a red lipstick that brings out natural beauty — a blast of color that makes all the other stuff we often put on our faces unnecessary (which it really is, if I’m honest). On weekends, lipstick and clean clothes are the only things I wear out. And while there are thousands of shades of red lipstick, I’ve yet to find one called “carpool red.”