We bury people in style in my family and I mean that literally

The sassy women whose blood runs in my veins always look good – that part skipped me but I sure do appreciate how they do things – they don’t go out or ANYWHERE EVEN DEATH without lipstick

Helen Syl Esther
My grandma Sylvia, on the far right, with her sister, Esther, on the far left, and Helen in the middle.

Last week, I went to the assisted living place to see my great-aunt Helen, who, at 98, is still pretty darn sharp and is fun and interesting. When she answered, Helen apologized.

“I haven’t had a chance to put on my lipstick!” she said.

“I didn’t even take a shower today,” I told her.

I relayed this story on facebook, where my cousin of some degree, A, answers.

A is Helen’s granddaughter, I am Sylvia’s granddaughter, Sylvia and Helen are sisters. I just say A and I are cousins and leave it at that.

Anyhow, A said, “Grandma Helen never walks out of her front door without lipstick. Period.”

Which means Helen is just like her sister. How do I know? Because I saw how my Grandma Sylvia went to meet her maker.

Actually, I helped make sure Grandma Sylvia went to meet her maker in the way she would have wanted to.

Oh yes I mean just what you might think I mean.

I mean that I am one of the women who made sure that my grandmother’s makeup, as she lay in her coffin, was adjusted to what it should have been all along.

Some of you may already know this story from my other blogs because let’s face it – putting lipstick on your grandma at her funeral is a pretty good story.

But that’s not going to stop me from telling it again.


So. My grandmother died. Which was sad. But she was 97 and she died in her sleep after living on her own at home until she was what – 94? 95? That’s a pretty darn good run.

True, she was widowed in her late 50s, which is awful (unless you have a crummy husband, but she described my Papa Al as having “hands as big as hams,” which, to my 16 year old ears, didn’t seem like a big deal, but now – well, anyway, I always had the impression that he was a pretty good guy), but she remained unmarried after that by choice, if I now interpret her comments to me correctly.

When you’re 16, you really don’t think about it when your grandmother looks up from her cigarette and her National Enquirer and says something like, “Yes, there were plenty of men who would have been happy to marry the widow Sylvia,” but in retrospect, it makes a little more sense.

Plus, my grandma was a hot little number who knew how to have a good time and HELLO LATE 50s IS NOT TOO OLD TO HAVE FUN.

Along those lines, my mom, who was widowed in her early ’50s, has been proposed to at least five times. Marriage (and love and sex) are not just for the young.

Maureen Dowd wrote a column once about how she’s too smart and intimidating for men and that’s why she’s not married and I thought, Maybe but my mom is super super smart but she’s also super nice and she doesn’t try to make people feel dumb and many men have wanted to marry her even though she is not a poulet de printemps.

You can be very smart and not be intimidating is all.

So my grandma died and we were sad.

I flew from Memphis to Minneapolis and stayed with my friend Ilene overnight with plans to drive to northern Wisconsin the next day. Ilene asked if she could come with me. She majored in anthropology in college and had never attended a Catholic funeral and wanted to see one.

My family is very much The More The Merrier and who doesn’t want company driving 340 miles round trip in Minnesota and Wisconsin in January, especially when that company is Ilene, who is fabulous?

We got to Medford and got to the church and my mom and my brother and my sister and my aunts and uncles and cousins were there. Other relatives – great aunts and uncles, second and third cousins were also there. My other grandmother, I think. Lots of people. Small town where people have lived their entire lives. It’s a nice way to send a person off.

My mom, my sister, my aunts, my female cousins, Ilene, and I gathered around the coffin. We looked at Grandma.

She was arranged beautifully. Her nails were painted and she had a ring on every finger and her hands were crossed. I think she had a rosary laced through her hands. I believe the word I learned was ungapatchka, which was perfectly appropriate, as German was my grandmother’s first language and as she knew a lot of good Yiddish words as well.

I didn’t know until I was in college that “Oy gevalt” was a Yiddish thing. I thought it was just something that German grandmothers said.

But our heads tilted as we all looked and realized something was off.

“Her lips are – pink,” a cousin said.

“Pink,” an aunt repeated.

“I’ve never seen her with anything but dark red lips,” my sister said.

“When I cleaned out her room at the home, I found 12 tubes of red lipstick,” my aunt Pat said.

“How will Papa Al even know her without red lips?” asked my mom.

How would St Peter know her?

How would GOD know her?

We knew what had to be done.

“She needs red lips,” said my sister.

We all looked around, seeking the dark magic to make this happen.

Ilene opened her purse. Dug around. “I have some red lipstick,” she announced as she pulled a tube out of her bag.

“But – it has to be put on her lips,” I said.

She shrugged. “I’m a doctor. I’ll do it.”

She opened the lipstick. She carefully outlined Grandma’s lips and then filled them in. She stepped back.

We leaned in.

They. Were. Red.

They. Were. Perfect.

“She looks just like herself,” breathed a cousin.

And she did. She looked just like herself.

She had her lipstick on. She was ready to go.





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