Rosie Stories: My Mother’s Crimson Lipstick, Part 1 by Angela Kempe

by Matilda Butler on May 15, 2014

Post #62 - Rosie’s Daughters: The “First Woman To” Generation Tells Its Story by Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Stories of the Lives of Rosies, a Continuing Series

This website is devoted to stories of Rosie the Riveter and Rosies Daughters (and even granddaughters). We’ve received some wonderful vignettes and decided to issue a formal call for stories of Rosies. We got some great ones and will eventually put them into an ebook. But rather than wait until we can get that done (our list of projects is exciting but long), we are sharing them on this website and our WomensMemoirs website.

Today’s story is told in the voice of Angela Kempe’s beloved grandmother. We thought it would be fun to share the story between our two websites. So the first half is here and the second half is on our WomensMemoirs website.

If you started on this website, read the first half of the story here and then follow the link at the end for the remainder of the vignette.

Thank you Angela for sharing your grandmother’s story.

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My Mother’s Crimson Lipstick, Part 1

by Angela Kempe

I write this to honor my grandmother. She has told me many stories of her life over the years.

“I was thirteen,” she began, “when my family moved to Fortuna Mines, a tiny mining town chiseled out of the hot Arizona desert. A small group of tin shacks with wood paneling and giant windows on their sides were clustered near the mine as if a great hand had come down and swept away the dust of the desert there, uncovering something old and wonderful, like the bones of a precious fossil. And to me the place was wonderful and mysterious; it’s people, it’s lifestyle, and the memories that come to me like a beautiful mirage, rippling and glistening as they focus in and out of my mind after all these years.”

Over there stands my mother reigning over the desert, as beautiful as a rare flower. Maria Elena Acosta was a fashionable woman, full of complexities, subtle beauty, and poise. She always wore crimson lipstick, even while conducting the simplest of household tasks, like cooking tortillas on her wood stove with high heels clanking on the wood kitchen floor. The town had no refrigeration, so she kept her food fresh by placing wet gunny sacks over a wooden storage unit standing several feet off the ground at about waist high. And although life was harsh, she loved life at the mine as I did. She was deeply in love with my stepfather, Nick Barraza, a quiet man who never reprimanded us. He showed his love by spending long back-breaking hours working at the mine before emerging like a prairie dog from the desert with bronze skin, snow white hair, and a soft smile on his worn face.

My sister Laura and I were from my mother’s first marriage. Nick brought his son from a previous marriage. Nick and Maria together conceived my younger brother Frank and the youngest, my baby sister Elena.

Over the years, I came to realize that my mother’s heart only had room for one true love, a love she nurtured like a rare desert fruit and guarded with many thorns. She married four times, but it was for Nick that she coveted her affection, taking care of him even on his deathbed while her fourth husband stood by. And from the beginning, Nick must have seen those smooth crimson lips and brown eyes that gazed earnestly into his heart. He fell under her spell and worked hard to support her, even though it meant that we traveled from place to place as his jobs required us to move.

But she hid her affection for her children in a deep crevice between two tall desert cliffs, shearing into an abyss of darkness. In the light, she put her attention towards the chores, pronouncing that the house be as spotless as her delicate light complected skin. And we spent some part of each day dusting under every picture frame and statue, as if we, in our desire to please her were conveying a secret message of love in reply, speaking back to her through our obedience. And after all the work was done, she’d burn incense and lay down a sheet for all her children across the dirt floor in the main area of the house and lull us to sleep by doing a hula dance. I remember her smile finally opening up to us with her white teeth sparkling out of her red lips. And there was this desert flower, hips swaying from left to right and hair bouncing around her shoulders as my eyelids grew heavy.

My sister Laura, was one year older than I. She had a small build, but a large stance and she was my protector and dearest friend. We slept in a bunk bed together outside the front window, unaware of the threat of scorpions and other desert animals who ventured out from their rock shelters when the hot sun went down.

And our two Dutch bob haircuts bounced as we skipped through the neighborhood at my sister’s whim, running hand-in-hand. I was shy and asthmatic, but Laura was outspoken and strong.

My Mother’s Crimson Lipstick, Part 2 is continued here. Please join us for the conclusion of the story.

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