The annual Martin family reunion. Today’s get-together is outdoors, on the Choctawhatchee Bay. Long ago, my wife’s family used to have a trailer here under the oaks. It’s a house now.
“How’s my lipstick?” my wife asks.
“Do I have red on my teeth?”
“Nope, you’re good.”
She dabs the corner of her mouth.
There are about fifty Martins here. These are loud, happy, expressive people. Devout Southern Baptists who drink a little.
My mother-in-law (Mother Mary) is decked out. Her white hair is fixed pretty. She leans onto her roller-walker, sipping sweet tea.
Now and then, she pauses to reapply lipstick. This is her big thing. Lipstick. She listens to a conversation, then smiles and says, “Wait a minute,” and reapplies lipstick.
Jesus Christ could return and Mother Mary would ask him to wait a minute while she reapplied her Bobbi Brown matte lip color.
Mother Mary is looking sporty. She wears a blue-and-white hairline striped shirt, tied sleeves, hoop earrings, and eyeliner.
“How’s my lipstick?” she whispers.
“It’s good,” I say.
“Do I have any on my teeth?”
“I don’t know, say ‘cheese.’”
She wipes. “How about now?”
“Wipe it off it for me.”
“What am I, a cabana boy?”
It’s loud. The yard is full of chattering people. Everyone holds Styrofoam cups, they are all engaged in the art of conversation.
Elderly people are natural talkers, and that’s what I love about them. You’ll hear tales of the old days, updates on grandchildren, horror stories about hip surgeries, and breakthroughs in the field of blood pressure treatment.
You’ll hear gossip, too.
“Did you hear about Sister So-And-So?” one says. “She lost enough weight to make a ten-year-old.”
“Did you hear about Billy Bob Bradley? He just got released from prison last week.”
“Bless his heart, he cross-stitched the prettiest scripture verse onto a throw pillow for our pastor’s wife.”
“How’s Edna been?”
“Her hip is better, but she’s on so many meds she can’t say a word without drooling on herself.”
“Did you go to her daughter’s wedding last weekend?”
“Yeah, it was the prettiest ceremony, Ella Sue wore the most beautiful maternity wedding dress.”
Mother Mary keeps me closeby. Our arms are hooked together. She likes to embarrass me for sport. She announces to anyone within earshot that I am an author. And I blush when she does this.
“We’re so proud of him,” she will say. “He’s an author.”
“That’s fantastic,” says one man. “What’s the title of one of your books?”
I tell him, “Caution: This Vehicle Stops for Boiled Peanuts.”
He laughs. “No, I mean seriously, what’s the title?”
“That was the title.”
He excuses himself.
I turn to my mother-in-law. “You don’t have to brag on me, Mother Mary.”
“Why not? I’m proud of you.”
“Because it’s embarrassing.”
“Suck it up. How’s my lipstick?”
I join Aunt Katherine on the porch. Katherine is ninety years old. She wears a blue-and-white striped sailor’s shirt, earrings, and pixie pants. We talk about things.
She tells me about her late husband, Lester. He was a good man, a pilot, a veteran in the Second World War. He smoked a pipe, and ate bowls of ice cream every night. I live for stories like hers.
“Excuse me.” Katherine pauses to ask her daughter something. “How’s my lipstick?” she whispers.
“It looks fine,” her daughter says.
“Do I need more?”
“You’re fine, Mama.”
And then you have Dear Aunt Flossie. She’s in her eighties and still rides her John Deere lawn mower twice per week. She’s tough.
She weighs one hundred and eight pounds, grows blueberries in her backyard, is an active member of the Baptist Blue Hairs Brigade, subscribes to “Prevention Magazine,” and has no problem telling Jehovah’s Witnesses where they can put their pamphlets.
Her lipstick is flawless.
And I am in some kind of heaven. Because I love white hair. Each day that another elderly person passes, we lose history. And we’re losing it right and left.
With every obituary we say goodbye to another person who remembered what used to be.
But sometimes our elderly go unnoticed. Sometimes they are overlooked. And it’s a crime if you ask me.
How is it that reality television shows thrive, but nursing home parking lots are vacant during visiting hours? How can millions of TV viewers tune in to watch celebrities learn to do the cha-cha-chá, but old men still eat alone in rest-home cafeterias?
I enjoy the company of those who came before me. And I could listen to them talk all day.
Like right now. We’re at a picnic table. Mother Mary is beside me. We are listening to a story told by Aunt Flossie about her cruise to Mexico. Everyone is laughing. And I am privileged to be part of this family.
Mother Mary looks at me and says, “How’s my lipstick holding up?”
“It’s good, Mother Mary.”
“Do I have any on my teeth?”
“Yes, you look like you’ve been chewing on a vampire bat.”
“Here’s a napkin, wipe it off for me.”
She shows her teeth and says, “I’m so proud of you. I really am. You’re an author.”
Lucretia - July 28, 2019 7:37 am
Sean, I love white hair and family reunions too. Thank you for sharing your talents to remind us of what is truly important. May God assist us as we strive to creatively preserve our past before it “passes over” and it lost from the memories of our youth. May God continue to inspire you and utilize your talents and words.
Harriet - July 28, 2019 11:07 am
I love this, Sean. It makes me laugh early this Sunday morning. Special times with special people.
Grace - July 28, 2019 11:22 am
Your heart is as mighty as your pen ?!!
Janet Mary Lee - July 29, 2019 6:40 pm
Jane Thomas Crawford - July 28, 2019 11:32 am
lovemonteelou - July 28, 2019 11:53 am
My mother is obsessed with lipstick, too. It’s usually about me not having enough lipstick on because she knows her’s is always “fine.” Thank you for another beauty of a post. Look forward to reading ‘Stars of Alabama’ real soon and sharing it with my mama.
Donna Moore - July 28, 2019 11:56 am
I miss those Family Reunions!
Liz Watkins - July 28, 2019 12:06 pm
Sweet❤️ Nursing homes- so sad to see all of those old people wandering the halls waiting for visitors?
Last March, I loss my Dad, and being I couldn’t be with him after Easter, my 2 granddaughters and I went to a local florist and bought $70 worth of gorgeous flowers. Went to our local nursing home and visited these wonderful elderly people and gave them flowers! They were ecstatic!
When my granddaughters would ask them “ so how is your day going?”- almost every response was…. wonderful now that ya’ll cane to visit! How rewarding and fulfilling this was for me and for my precious granddaughters! Not to mention the joy we brought to these wonderful almost forgotten people!
Rhonda - July 28, 2019 1:12 pm
You are a good man. Todays trend is to trick them into a home and then basically abandon them. I have seen some very heartless behavior concerning our elders. And I am sorry but Alabama nows leads the line in protecting the nursing homes and making it nearly impossible to do anything if your loved one is neglected or treated badly. That policy is now national thanks to Beauregard.
I am old enough to remember when ” a home” was at home. As it should be. They took care of you and raised you up. Now there are no vacancies at the “old hell motel”.
Teach your children well. Your golden days are in their hands. And so is your lipstick.
Bobbie - July 28, 2019 1:32 pm
Ditto to what Rhonda and Grace said! Sean, your family so blessed that you appreciate them, REALLY appreciate them. I’m older now, one of the elderly spoken of here. So often I feel ‘excluded’…that’s my word. Don’t fit into a role anymore…but I know the Lord has kept me here for a reason. So I try not to question things, but is hard being from a very different generation. Thank you for listening to your mother in law, your older aunts and uncles tell their stories. You can’t know how much it means for someone to listen, to believe you have something worthwhile to say. Once again, I picture your story, seeing you with all your in laws, smiling and most important, being respectful. You don’t see that much anymore. God bless you….a lipstick checker, a dear husband and friend and don’t forget…an author!! You really are.
I’ll Suwannee ….haven’t heard that in years ❤️?
Jeanne butler - July 28, 2019 2:05 pm
Loved this story. Funny about the lipstick. And I am one of those forgotten old people even though my son and grandkids live with me. It’s like I’m not here. They don’t want to hear any of my stories. I knew all my mom and dad’s stories. Mine will go to the grave with me. Love you Sean.
Emjay - July 28, 2019 8:13 pm
Jeanne, if they don’t wake up they’ll one day regret not hearing all those stories. I loved listening to my aunts’ and uncles’ stories but wish I had recorded them telling them. As soon as I got off the phone or into the car, I’d make notes of the highlights before I forgot them. But they were mostly just the highlights and some details I wish I could recall are missing.
Marge - July 28, 2019 2:06 pm
Smiles, “out loud” laughter and a few tears for this almost 80 fan of yours early this Sunday morning. I was blessed the day someone told me to “read Sean Dietrich’s blog.” You continue to remind me of what was and to look forward to what will be … but to relish the what is.
Karen (Martin) McPhail - July 28, 2019 2:12 pm
My maiden name is Martin, pretty please can I come to your next reunion? Actually, I’ve had it on my to-do list to get in touch with my cousins to plan a family reunion (we live very far apart), today is the day that I’ll make time to do it…thanks for the reminder that time is precious and fleeting and we better share our stories while we can! ❤
ann hays - July 28, 2019 3:23 pm
One of my favorites!!!!!
Linda Moon - July 28, 2019 4:02 pm
Devout Baptists drink a little. I wonder how much the others who aren’t so devout consume. Mother Marys often speak Words of Wisdom. Your own elderly Mother Mary spoke Pride to you, Author. Thank you for noticing these elderly speakers!
Bill T - July 28, 2019 5:25 pm
Miss my Presley reunions. Tried to go to all for 50 years but being in the Army missed a few. Most were held in Grant Park in Atlanta. I loved that. Got to go to the Cyclorama and the Atlanta Zoo to see the gorillas. I love gorillas. Some were held in Hiawassee, GA, the Presley origin. Some in Fairburn GA at my Uncles and some at Aunt Carrrie’s on the Chattahoochee in Austell GA. Even had several at our home. Went to as many Terry reunions as I could but the Presley and Terry reunions came too close together for me to get to both. The Presley get togethers are long gone and the Terrys have dwindled down. I am now the oldest male in our family group and can’t travel any more. I believe it was Jeff Foxworthy that said “You might be a redneck if you go to family reunions to meet girls” I had some awesome cousins and that’s all I’m gonna say about that.
Thanks for the memory jog (and everybody brought potato salad and fried chicken – no KFC back then)
terrykerns - July 28, 2019 6:16 pm
So, how’s MY lipstick?
Loved this one.
Gayle - July 28, 2019 9:19 pm
I miss those who have gone before that could tell stories forward, backward, and all the way around that happened 25, 50 years ago. Funny thing is that they can’t remember what they ate for breakfast because as my dad use to say, “it was so unremarkable, I don’t even remember chewing it!”
Shelton A. - July 29, 2019 5:13 pm
Mother Mary has a right to be proud. You are a published author many times over for your stories and now your novel. Don’t be embarrassed. So many people would love to write like you do…just keep on keepin’ on, brother.
Janet Mary Lee - July 29, 2019 6:45 pm
This one has touched many a heart. You are a GOOD man, Sean!
Carolyn - July 29, 2019 10:01 pm
LOVED this Sean. Yes, it’s so sad how the elderly are overlooked. They are sitting there with decades of wisdom, with so much to share and contribute, but aren’t invited to join in the conversations. Shame on us‼️
Joyce - July 30, 2019 1:29 pm
Love. Love love love! You’ve gone and done it again, Sean. I’m gonna go call my mother.
MyPlace - February 21, 2021 4:02 pm
I remember sitting on the porch with my grandmother and other relatives of her generation as they talked about their lives and what happened “back when”. I would be very still and quiet so as to be allowed to stay and listen. Their conversations were a window into life as it used to be, I am so grateful that I was able to stay and hear what the old folks knew. When I grew up I was amazed at how much of those conversations I retained and how they affected my life and the way I looked at things. I’m 74 now, and I may not remember what I ate yesterday, but I recall the stories I heard during those evenings of “porch sittin’ and listenin’ “. What a gift.
Josie Retan - July 5, 2021 4:04 am
Years ago in my nursing career I used to go to a nursing home to accompany a dr. and take notes, do some assessments. There was a woman who I thought was beautiful, but the staff told me she’d had a stroke and never spoke, never smiled, never interacted with anyone. So I went to see her and talked with her for a few minutes and she actually looked at me, with the saddest eyes you’ve ever seen. I told her she was beautiful. I came back the next day and brought a bright red lipstick and a mirror, and put the lipstick on her and let her look at herself in the mirror. She smiled for the first time in years.
Martha Black - July 5, 2021 7:35 am
Sean, im so glad that you love & respect your mother-in-law as well as you do. It’s charming that she is so unashamedly proud of you & wants everyone to admire you. I’d say you are both equally affectionate & proud. Why else would you be so at ease and accommodating with her lip & teeth needs. Not every man would do that. I’m proud to say I am a Martin of SC & like to think perhaps I might be of some relation. My Great Grandfather, William Gustus Martin was from Georgia until he had the necessity to change his address due to some misunderstanding, I’m sure, concerning some bootleg incident.
Radean Hastings - July 5, 2021 2:23 pm
I, too, am a Martin from Georgia. I love these stories and can picture these folks in my mind as you talk about them. We don’t have many family reunions anymore as all of the older (grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles) ones are gone . (We are down to one Aunt now, and my sister and I lead the pack as the oldest living grandchildren. WOW I still see us running around having the best time at the reunions that went on for years and years. We sure had such fun with our cousins and the best hugs stories. Good times, love and memories. Thanks for the reminder.