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.”