I can still hear the shuffle of the little wooden drawers on my mother’s vanity as she searched hastily for eye shadow and lipstick. She’d already arisen early to cook everyone pancakes and bacon, or biscuits and sausage gravy. Then she’d walked to the farrowing house to tend sows with newborn piglets. Back at home, she had time for a quick shower and an abbreviated beauty routine that included fluffing up her short, curly hair with a plastic, purple pick. She loved powders and creams with the sweet smells of roses and honeysuckle.
Upstairs in our white stucco farmhouse, I always took far too long primping for church. Mom would start the warning calls at something like an hour, then 20 minutes, then her voice echoed up the boxed stairwell that I had just a few minutes until we really needed to go. I don’t know where she found the patience, but she never left me behind, even on mornings when she was supposed to teach Sunday school. Finally, we’d be driving down the dirt road, my juvenile delays making us at least five or ten minutes late.
One of the few things I felt I could do for Mom after her death was to lock myself in her bathroom, away from the din of mourners, and locate her favorite makeup. I carefully opened every wooden drawer to determine which eye shadow she’d been using regularly, which foundation color, what she’d used to brighten her cheeks. I picked through the not-quite-right lipstick colors that hadn’t been touched to find the pink one with the soft curve that showed she’d been applying it day after day. I zipped the little cosmetics bag and readied it for a visit to the funeral home, ahead of the open casket service we’d be having. I was a young, married adult at the time and it would be years before my children were born.
More than a decade after her death to cancer, I’m still having new realizations about what Mom taught me. Of course, she loved me and all of her family with the fiercest, sweetest kind of unconditional love. Her relentlessness in getting me to the First Baptist Church on Sunday mornings must be why I still call myself Christian. Her work ethic on the family farm, her devotion to my father, and her commitment to community were all unquestionable.
Mom’s relationship to cancer was complicated, her exposures to possible carcinogens were many (no, she never smoked), and it will never be clear exactly what caused her death. The perspective of time has helped me see that Ruth Ann Brock’s death at 65, grievous as it was, is not the real tragedy here. She would say that she lived a blessed life. Her love for children, evident as she reared four of her own plus taught others in 4-H and church, would prompt her to say those youngest lives lost and those parents who died leaving young children behind — those are the tragedies. I would add that a half-million lives lost in our country every year to cancer is a number so large most of us can’t process it. We’re numb to the reality that we all know a relative, friend or colleague who’s had cancer.