By Cara Lorello
Lipstick and perfume, two things my Nonna never left the house without. It was not for
vanity as she was never a vain woman. It was simply the custom in her day, and nothing more, really.
There was a bottle, half-full when I found it some weeks after she died. Found it tucked
away inside her old make-up bag in the spare room kept for her in my uncle’s house before the nursing home became home. Among the bottle were wads of tissue she’d used to blot away coats of the 10 lipsticks she carried around at all times, all different shades of the same two colors: coral and red. Nonna’s favorite was there, too: Avon Red Plum No. 7.
I could not classify the bottle’s odd shape, holding the heavy glass sphere against the
overhead light, admiring its lemony liquid color and tiny scattered prisms reflecting on my lap like a compact mirror. It resembled a squat vinegar cruet, or the steeple dome of an ornate tower from some far corner of the world. Even the name sounded exotic: Shalimar.
The name, a Wikipedia search later informed me, belonged to a botanical garden in Kashmir India. Introduced to America in 1925, some three or four years before Nonna emerged safely from great-grandmother Corvi’s womb, Shalimar was a mix of vanillin and an 1885 Parisian fragrance, Jicky, concocted purely by experiment. A second note said the inventing chemist was fixated on the legend of an Indian queen whose image inspired her king’s design and erection of the Taj Mahal.
Nonna came from a generation where women were made to feel as naked without lipstick as they would without clothes and proper hosiery. A woman’s choice of fragrance, too, said just as much about her as her choice in husbands. For Nonna, both said ‘expensive;’ Shalimar meant style, and poor Papa never refused a poker game in his life.
The silver triangle cap was a twist top, not a spray press, meant for lightly dabbing
on the flesh—wrist or neck only, never areas your clothes cover, Nonna told me at 7 years old as I helped her get (in her word) gussied up for a late dinner party at the local Italian diner where all food was served on square platters and had a live accordion player.
I would always insist she let me wear the lipstick she chose for whatever occasion, which
she would apply with a Q-Tip, making me blot once with a clean tissue.
Nonna, too, let me have, no more than one dab of perfume to brush along my jaw line,
because ‘the best scent on a little girl is her youth,’ she’d say. Nonna always said my scent was one-of-a-kind: hints of Ivory soap, Mr. Bubble shampoo, and the saltiness of skin. Until I began sprouting hair in dark places, or went to bed with a man, my natural scent needed no covering up. This she insisted.
Naturally, I’d ask her why she wore so much perfume. She always gave the same answer:
‘I haven’t been little like you in a long time!’
Nonna’s room always carried a familiar scent same as her clothes, purse, and red Toyota:
Marlboro ash and Jergen’s body lotion. Over-powering and calming all at once to me, like the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz.
The day I found her last bottle of Shalimar, Nonna had been gone scarcely a week.
Naturally I was far from comfortable being surrounded by a roomful of her last few belongings, all their scents still so fresh.
I thoughtlessly began to dab what likely were drops older than me over the same spot
Nonna’s long nails last brushed, nearly too long ago to remember, where now tears from both my eyes met and pooled to my lap in large, dual drops. I was especially careful not to wash the spot clean that night before bed.
It was still there, though faint, when I woke the next morning to my father playing
Frank Sinatra down the hall; likely one of Nonna’s records from the nursing home. My face was rubbed bare from sleeping face-down. My pillowcase bore the proof in water spots and the unmistakable shade of Red Plum No. 7. I had no memory of putting it on the night before. Staring into the mirror, fully clothed, I felt naked in a way only my Nonna would have understood.
Now I rarely leave the house without lipstick or perfume.
About Cara Lorello
Cara Lorello is a freelance writer currently residing in Spokane, Washington, and the author of the chapbook, Magnum Opal. Her work features in past issues of Noble-Gas Quarterly, FWS, Vending Machine Press, SlushPile, The Sun, and the Spokane-based poetry anthology, Railtown Almanac (Sage Hill Press).