Towards the beginning of the Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff’s touching and keenly observed portrait of the grieving Pozner family she includes a small but evocative detail: mother Veronique Pozner’s pink lipstick.
At the center of everything is Veronique. On her right wrist is a tattoo she and Danielle both got the day after Noah died: a small pink rose flanked by two angel wings with Noah’s name spanning the space between them, and his birth and death dates beneath. A torn black ribbon is pinned to her shirt, a Jewish mourning custom. She is wearing purplish pink lipstick and her short black hair is combed into puffy curls around her face.“I hope it doesn’t look callous to some people, but I have to keep taking care of myself physically,” she says, “That is what Noah would want. He would want his mom to be the way she always is.”When I finished this story I couldn’t get the image of the grieving mother’s lipstick out of my head. Lipstick? Bright lipstick? It seemed out of place for sure, this flash of color, buoyant and precise, amidst all that darkness. I am sure some would find it inappropriate. Indeed, Jewish law strictly forbids the use of things like cosmetics, lotions and perfumes. Shaving or wearing clean clothes are also not allowed.
And yet, it was her lipstick more than anything else that allowed me to really connect with Veronique, to let me understand how exactly she was grieving, and to think that is how I might grieve too.
It makes perfect sense to me that Jewish law forbids any celebration of the flesh during mourning. That is not the time for vanity. Though I can also understand how Veronique’s lipstick wasn’t about vanity, but rather an essential act of self-preservation.
Now there are of course those critiques about why women wear make-up at all, and they include some valid points. But putting those aside for now, I can see how the ritual of beautifying, of making one feel presentable or attractive, was one of the only powers Veronique had left when forced to endure a horrific tragedy, and a very public one at that.
While I am fortunate (ptui ptui ptui) to have never had to endure something even a fraction as devastating as what Veronique is going through, I do share an instinct to throw on some lipstick when my world is thrust into chaos. I do it for dignity, for control. I do it just to “feel like me.” Or, as Veronique put it, to be the way “she always is.”
For me, the lipstick serves as a compass, something to remind me of who I was and who I will be again. But it also serves a protective shield, a deliberate attempt to deceive the world into thinking that I am somewhat intact when, in fact, I have mostly fallen to pieces. Because some of the grieving and strife must be left to be done alone in private, with bare lips and a bare soul.
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.