“Lipstick Traces on a Lifetime,” July 9, 2018

When my mother left this world, she took the answers to questions I wish I could ask her.

I remember as a little girl watching her dab red lipstick on her mouth, and seeing the traces it left on her cigarettes.

She had thick, dark hair and high, wide cheekbones like her Cherokee great-grandmother. She didn’t need lipstick to be a beauty. But with it? Oh my.

Lipstick made her more beautiful than the azaleas that bloomed in the woods. Or the hummingbird that buzzed by my head. Or the rainbows the creek spit spilling over the waterfall.

Lipstick was magic. Finally, I tried it myself. I slid open the tube and smeared it on my mouth. My face. And my nose.

It did not make me a beauty. I hid, but my mother found me. Then she slathered cream on my face and started scrubbing.

“I wanted to be pretty,” I said.

“Lipstick won’t make you pretty,” she said. “Remember, pretty is as pretty does.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

“It means keep away from my lipstick or your rear end will be redder than your face.”

I didn’t try lipstick again until my teens. I liked it. But it never made me a beauty. So I decided to try to be a brain. Don’t laugh. I was running out of options.

My mother was as surprised as I was when I won a scholarship for college. I’d worked summers in the mill where she worked and I guess she thought I’d join her there after high school.

“What’ll you do in college?”

“Maybe I’ll get smarter.”

“Books don’t make you smart,” she said. “Life will do that.”

Years later, I flew home to introduce her to my 4-month-old firstborn. She had bottle fed her four babies and was stunned that I was breastfeeding.

“How do you know he’s getting enough milk?” she said. “Why don’t you give him a bottle?”

“He’s getting plenty!” I said. “He weighs a ton! I’m just trying to be a good mother!”

She gave me a hard look.

“Only God can make you a good mother,” she said. “And I guess he failed with me.”

“Mama?” I said. “God didn’t fail you and you didn’t fail us. A good mama does the best she can. That’s what you did. And it’s what I’m trying to do now.”

She nodded and let it go.

Years later, when I told her I’d taken my kids, who were then teenagers, to a Rolling Stones concert, she said, “What in the world possessed you to expose them to such corruption?”

“I don’t know, ” I said. “What possesses you to chew tobacco?”

She changed the subject.

Then one day I called to tell her I’d won a national award.

“What on Earth for?” she said.

“For writing, Mama. I work for a newspaper, remember?”

She was quiet for a moment. Finally she said, “Well, honey, I guess you’re smart, aren’t you?”

Then she added with a laugh, “And you’re a good mama, too!”

She never said I was a beauty. But I like to think she thought it.

I could tell you a thousand things my mother said to me, or I said to her. Some were good. Others were regrettable. None of them can be taken back.

I spent the last two days of her life by her bed in a hospital as she lay dying with lung cancer. I tried to say things I wanted her to hear and asked her questions that only she could answer. But mostly she just slept. So I held her hand and sang. I was doing one of her favorites, “Sentimental Journey,” when she opened her eyes and smiled.

“Well, honey,” she said, “I guess you can sing, can’t you?”

My mother never told me all I wanted to hear. But she taught me things I needed to know:

That we should ask and answer each other’s questions while there’s still time to do so.

That books are great teachers, but life makes you smart.

That good mothers do the best they can and God does the rest.

And, yes, I try to remember that pretty is as pretty does.

But a little lipstick helps.



  1. I can relate to this story in many ways. My mother died from lung cancer too. Thanks for being open and honest about your life. You are smart and pretty and kind! 🙂

  2. I enjoyed the lipstick article I read in the AR Democrat Gazette yesterday! Reminded me that I am missing out not having more conversations with my mother. Thank you for your words!

  3. Sandra R Terry says

    I just read you column in the Decatur Daily. I just loved “Lipstick traces of a lifetime of motherhood. You are so right about asking guestions while there is time. My mother has Dementia, lot of questions I didn’t get to ask!!! Thank you,
    Sandra Terry

  4. Anita Ryan says

    This is such a beautiful article about your mother. Sure made me think about my mother and the things I still long to talk about with her.

  5. Sheila Sprayberry says

    I look forward to your stories weekly. You are such an inspiration. Needed this reminder today. All we can do is the best we can?

  6. Judith Saint Sing says

    My Mom shared this article with me today and said “it’s our love story.” It’s a shared story about her lipstick, me not liking it, and the lessons she still teaches me through her 83 years of wisdom. Sharon, thank you for touching people deeply with your stories.

  7. Sending love to you – grateful for you and your mother. I hope she comes to you in your dreams and smiles at you at her favorite age, with the lipstick.

  8. Kate Sciacca says

    Amen. You are so right… we do the best we can and leave the rest to God. Your mama passed on a quality to you that comes through in every column. She was real. You are too.

  9. Jeri Duncan says

    Every time I read your column I cannot believe how similar our lives have been! From your special sheltie, reading Gone With the Wind and so many other similarities. Now your Mother dies from lung cancer and the saying pretty is as pretty does! I am now saying that to my granddaughter! Love reading your special words!!

  10. Susan Coley Henderson says

    You have always been beautiful & smart. I remember you well!

  11. You have so much writing talent! Does it pretty much just flow out or do you have to do a lot of changing words, moving them around, re-writing parts, etc?

  12. Sherry Thacker says

    Your stories let me relive a lot of the good part of my young life. There was a lot that wasn’t good. Thank you for reviving the good parts and memories.

  13. Heather Vanek says

    Sharon I can’t remember what year I first found your columns in press tribune news paper nampa, idaho but have followed you ever since. I’ve laughed, cried, gave amens to so many of them, sent copies to family. Your canning peaches story is in my cookbook ? what a blessing you have been to me. I cherish this story so much touched my heart. I tried my best to raise my boys as a grandmother now I wish I could have done a few things different, but my failures makes me a better Nana, Mammie, nanny as they call me.

  14. I remember Mom’s Avon lady leaving a tiny tube of lipstick as a sample & I would sneak around & try it. But our church ladies didn’t wear lipstick so I would have to hurry & rub it off! I’m sure my Mom noticed my rosy red lips but she let me keep my secret. ?

  15. I enjoy so much hearing about your family, it reminds me so much of my own ! I was born in McDowell Co. NC and moved to Asheville when I was 13. My parents worked in cotton mills in NC and SC. In 1975 I married my husband ,Ken,( who’s birthday is 2/17/50 ) . We have 2 children, a boy and a girl. In 1994 we relocated to Portland, IN because of my husband’s work. What a big change ! Your stories bring back so many of my memories. Thank you !

  16. Lynn Stanley says

    that was the Cherokee in her..proud, stubborn and , yes pretty. You did good, girl.

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