When my mother left this world, she took the answers to questions I wish I could ask her.

I remember as a little girl watching her dab red lipstick on her mouth and seeing the traces that it left on her cigarettes.

She had thick, dark hair and high, wide cheekbones like her Cherokee great-grandmother. She didn’t need lipstick to be a beauty. But with it? Oh my.

Lipstick made her more beautiful than the azaleas that bloomed in the woods. Or the hummingbird that buzzed by my head. Or the rainbows the creek spit spilling over the waterfall.

Lipstick was magic. Finally, I tried it myself. I slid open the tube and smeared it on my mouth. My face. And my nose.

It did not make me a beauty. I hid, but my mother found me. Then she slathered cream on my face and started scrubbing.

“I wanted to be pretty,” I said.

“Lipstick won’t make you pretty,” she said. “Remember, pretty is as pretty does.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

“It means keep away from my lipstick or your rear end will be redder than your face.”

I didn’t try lipstick again until my teens. I liked it. But it never made me a beauty. So I decided to try to be a brain. Don’t laugh. I was running out of options.

My mother was as surprised as I was when I won a scholarship for college. I’d worked summers in the mill where she worked, and I guess she thought I’d join her there after high school.

“What’ll you do in college?”

“Maybe I’ll get smarter.”

“Books don’t make you smart,” she said. “Life will do that.”

Years later, I flew home to introduce her to my 4-month-old firstborn. She had bottle fed her four babies and was stunned that I was breastfeeding.

“How do you know he’s getting enough milk?” she said. “Why don’t you give him a bottle?”

“He’s getting plenty!” I said. “He weighs a ton! I’m just trying to be a good mother!”

She gave me a hard look.

“Only God can make you a good mother,” she said. “And I guess he failed with me.”

“Mama?” I said. “God didn’t fail you, and you didn’t fail us. A good mama does the best she can. That’s what you did. And it’s what I’m trying to do now.”

She nodded and let it go.

Years later, when I told her I’d taken my kids, who were then teenagers, to a Rolling Stones concert, she said, “What in the world possessed you to expose them to such corruption?”

“I don’t know, ” I said. “What possesses you to chew tobacco?”

She changed the subject.

Then one day I called to tell her I’d won a national award.

“What on Earth for?” she said.

“For writing, Mama. I work for a newspaper, remember?”

She was quiet for a moment. Finally she said, “Well, honey, I guess you’re smart, aren’t you?”

Then she added with a laugh, “And you’re a good mama, too!”

She never said I was a beauty. But I like to think she thought it.

I could tell you a thousand things my mother said to me, or I said to her. Some were good. Others were regrettable. None of them can be taken back.

I spent the last two days of her life by her bed in a hospital as she lay dying with lung cancer. I tried to say things I wanted her to hear and asked her questions that only she could answer.

But mostly she just slept. So I held her hand and sang. I was doing one of her favorites, “Sentimental Journey,” when she opened her eyes and smiled.

“Well, honey,” she said, “I guess you can sing, can’t you?”

My mother never told me all I wanted to hear. But she taught me things I needed to know:

That we should ask and answer each other’s questions while there’s still time to do so.

That books are great teachers, but life makes you smart.

That good mothers do the best they can, and God does the rest.

And, yes, I try to remember that pretty is as pretty does.

But a little lipstick helps.

Sharon Randall can be reached at P.O. Box 416, Pacific Grove CA 93950, or on her website: www.sharonrandall.com.