Sitting about two feet from me while I work is my grandmother’s photo. The photo is taped to the piece of foam board that is propped up behind the computer, blocking the most intense rays from our sunroom window and from this spot, I check on my grandmother every day and she smiles warmly back at me. She is wearing a loose grey sweater, seated in a park somewhere on an iron patio chair, her cinnamon hair bouffant-y and red lipstick applied. She was probably in her seventies when this picture was taken, I would guess, which would put her in Houston, where my grandmother moved for a time to be closer to my aunt, her daughter.
Like many who write, I sometimes need to turn elsewhere for inspiration, for courage, for reinforcement that I am not just an fraud. (Of course, I am more than just a fraud: I’m also irresponsible, naïve, a dreamer…) In the midst of a let’s-hope-this-is-brief case of writer’s block or fitful existential crisis, I turn to my grandmother, or at least the complex chemical reaction that allowed her image to be imprinted on film, for a feeling of relief. I also have meaningful quotations up on that foam board meant to lift my spirits copied down in a pique of passion, but I ignore them. My grandmother is usually all I need.
Grandma is probably the most comforting word to me in the vast universe of the English language, a strange one for a person who works with words to choose, but it instantly fills me with the feeling of peace that meditation is supposed to (doesn’t), that chamomile tea claims to (fails). I think of the essence of my grandmother – her sing-song voice, her easy smile, her ability to make those around her feel nurtured, happier, appreciated – and it helps to make what Holly Golightly referred to as the “Mean Reds” within me dissolve, those feelings of freeform anxiety, of biting sarcasm. Interestingly, if you mention my grandmother’s name to anyone who knew her, the memory of her has the same effect: the person will reflexively smile, relax, share stories of her warmly. She made those around her feel better in an instant. What is the word for this gift? Does anyone know?
I have looked at her photo many times in the past, wishing she were here, wanting to smell her cold cream again (she swore by it and did remain unwrinkled for the most part), to touch the soft skin on her arm, squeeze her hand, wishing to transport her over whatever it is that separates us – layers of time and space and realms of existence - to be here now with me. I have done this, felt this way, many times, even before she physically passed, when she began pulling away from us, drifting off on the waves of memory loss and dementia. It was like I had to say goodbye to her twice: once, when I came to accept that she was not the same grandmother I’d always known (this new person couldn’t remember names, she became easily impatient and irritable) and then again when she passed away, about ten years later. A strange – or maybe not strange – thing happened to her as her dementia began to take root, though. Although she was initially quite upset with herself for being forgetful, for her diminished capacities, once my grandmother found a place of acceptance or she simply couldn’t fight it any more, she returned to being the person I knew, at least temperamentally: she flirted with my husband whenever we visited (I’m pretty sure she didn’t remember him in between visits), she lit up whatever room she was in, she was the most popular one on her floor of the nursing home. The workers who would come in to dance the Charleston with the seniors, to sing ragtime songs with them, always ended up being bewitched with the coquettish lady in the front row, so put together, always engaged and deeply alive.
My grandmother was aware of the ways in which she fell short of society’s beauty standards (a long, bumpy nose, a voluptuousness that would not be restrained) but she also knew that these things were not her: she was bigger than any of that superficial silliness, and, even better, she dared to be proud of what made her different. She held her head high and taught me to do the same. My grandmother was confident to her very core and that, mixed with her compassion and unstoppable joie de vivre, was what made her so delicious and intoxicating to be near. If someone felt stifled by her radiance, well, that wasn’t her fault. (Personifying Marianne Williamson’s potent, vitally important prose: “We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?…Your playing small does not serve the world.”)
She was a proto-feminist naturally, without any graduate level gender politics classes or hours building an airtight critical theory. My grandmother let her voice be heard; she would take a back seat to nobody. At the same time, she internalized this self-assurance so essentially that she was always good-natured about it. She simply believed in herself and didn’t begrudge anyone else doing the same thing.
It’s easy to see that I idealize my grandmother. I’m sure that there was someone, sometime that she slighted, maybe more than once. I’m sure that there was an occasion when she didn’t really listen, when she was short tempered, when she was judgmental. She may have raised her voice once or twice and maybe she had moments of pettiness. There may have been someone she disliked for no good reason. I know this. Maybe it’s because I know my grandmother was fallible and flawed, essentially human, that she still has such a powerful pull to me. She chose to audaciously embrace life, make no apologies for it, and be the best person she could be.
I’m grateful to my grandmother for many things – for her rollicking sense of humor, for being there when I felt horribly alone, for teaching me what was important in life – but mostly I am grateful to have loved and been loved by such a marvelous being. She will always be my inspiration. I hope everyone has a Grandma Dora in her life.