Whenever my mother announced that Aunt Todd was coming to dinner, we all fumbled frantically for a reason to be somewhere else as soon as possible, until at least bedtime. However, there were few excuses my mother would accept from me or my sister to stay out after the streetlights came on. Not on a school night. My little brother’s only hope lay in our somehow arranging a sleepover, but those were only permitted on weekends. If it was my best friend Brett’s birthday and his parents invited me to dinner, that might work. When I tried it, my mother gave me a stern look and reminded me that she had bought me a present for Brett’s birthday a couple of months ago. Oops! Every time we complained about Aunt Todd coming over, my mother suggested we would find her more interesting if we asked her to tell us a story. She didn’t understand. No story was worth putting ourselves in the path of a yellow lipstick kiss.
Anyone who has ever been clothes shopping and wondered who would buy the neon orange pants or bright yellow pantsuits has never met my Aunt Todd. Ever the fashionista, all aspects of her outfit had to match. I don’t remember ever seeing her wear more than one color at a time. That means a bright yellow shirt, stockings, shoes, earrings, bracelet, necklace, and yes, bright yellow lipstick. Or bright pink if that was the color of the day.
The first time Brett was over when my aunt visited, she arrived wearing an intense shade of green. I had warned Brett, but when my mother introduced him to my aunt, he just stood there silently gawking. “Say hello to Aunt Frog,” I whispered in his ear, regretting it instantly. He burst out laughing right there in front of my whole family. My sister jabbed her fingers into his rib cage and told him to stop, and although he tried, the giggles had him. It happens to the best of us, especially as children.
I never found the courage to ask how a woman came to be named Todd. Technically she was my mother’s aunt, my great aunt, so maybe it was a normal woman’s name for that age. One thing that was apparently normal for people of that age was planting kisses on the mouths of their nieces and nephews. There was always one when she arrived and one when she left, the latter culminating in the gaudy moisture we dreaded so. Shifting our faces to present our cheeks usually worked on the entrance kiss, but we quickly learned not to try it on the exit kiss. If we made that mistake, she would position our faces like targets and discharge extended bursts of Revlon on our lips.
Once smeared with bizarrely colored cosmetics, the only thing that mattered next was getting it off. In those days, Listerine only came in the flavor chemical and the color dark urine. Children generally wanted nothing to do with it, but thanks to Aunt Todd, my siblings and I learned to love it. We used it not only to rescue our mouths but also to wipe the makeup off our lips, that unnatural sting and medicinal scent assuring us that the cooties were gone.
As I grew older and found interest in the world outside the tiny bubble of my childhood, I developed a fascination with the Far East. I asked my father about Vietnam a few times until I realized the subject was a hidden wound that left him quiet and distant. My mother suggested I ask Aunt Todd about Vietnam; she was sure my aunt had been there. When I left home, I ended up living close to my aunt, but the rest of my family had moved away. At my mother’s insistence, I visited my aunt once, but the lingering scent of the infirm was too much for a selfish punk like me. That changed when I got a girlfriend. The guilt storm released upon me by the combined forces of her and my mother was finally enough to humble me. I agreed to another visit.
On the drive over, I remember wondering, perhaps for the first time, who my aunt truly was. What had she accomplished in her life? What did she believe in? I resolved to finally take my mother’s advice and ask Aunt Todd to tell me a story. This brought a smile that beamed brighter than her most fluorescent shade of lipstick. She pointed to her closet and asked me to retrieve some musty boxes full of photo albums, scrapbooks to be accurate. Each one was filled with photos and mementos from a different country, all journeys she had taken. Aware of my interest in the Far East, she began with Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, and yes, Vietnam. Eventually, we moved on to countries in Europe, Africa, Australia, and South America. We poured through her remarkable life and she recounted one extraordinary adventure after another.
When she opened the last album, I was surprised to find old pictures of America, many of which looked pre-WWII. Yet, the most unexpected photo by far was of women marching in the streets. It was an actual photo of suffragettes. Many of the photos were fading, yellow, and brittle, but one had received exceptional care. It was a photo of her mentor, the first and only person my aunt had ever worked for. She told me what seemed like an impossible story about growing up during the Great Depression, befriending the only woman she knew that owned her own car, and learning, from a former suffragette, that women could be independent.
She passed soon after and I will always regret waiting so long to hear Aunt Todd’s story. I often think back and wistfully slap myself upside the head, knowing I would gladly suffer through a hundred yellow lipstick kisses for one more journey through her memories.