I realize it’s trite, taboo even, for one to write stories about her Grandmother. My Grandmother’s not your typical Meemaw or Nanna though. She’s complicated. A woman to be reckoned with. A drama queen of grand proportions. Scarlett O’Hara combined with Mother Theresa to the third power.
Here are some accounts from the year 2001:
“Why, they’re still here,” she puzzles, glaring down at her ever more ample bustline. Befuddled from the anesthesia, my grandmother forgot that she had checked into the hospital for gall bladder surgery instead of the breast reduction she had dreamt of for the past thirty-two years. “I declare; I still look like a Double D. That won’t do. I can never get the buttons on my blouse to meet, and it’s such a bother.” Her words fall somewhere between pride and annoyance as she elegantly sweeps her hand in front of her bosom the way a “Price is Right” girl graces her manicure across a newly won ten speed blender.
Eve is a living cliché straight out of every novel dedicated to portraying the infamous and elusive southern matriarch. But the matriarch label doesn’t even begin to cover all the qualities enshrouding the entity that I call “Grandma.” Actually, “The Force” comes closer, but it’s still too plain.
As the effects of the anesthetic gradually diminish, she instructs me to get my hair out of my eyes and then asks, “Don’t you have a good hairdresser there in North Carolina?” I want to ask the nurse anesthesiologist if we can get another round. Grandma’s been nagging me about my hair since I was thirteen. She begs me to “pull that mess back with a pretty pink bow.” One time, I did. I got the biggest, most hideous pink bow I could find and wore it on the side of my head for an entire day of public gatherings. Grandma found the gesture embarrassing but not persuasive enough to put an end to her entreaties. Even though I’m twenty-eight now, it doesn’t matter. I magically wither down to twelve when in grandmother’s presence.
My eyes fix on a nurse as she gently adjusts the hospital bed to a comfortable position. I stay silent a moment, brooding a bit that I sacrificed a year’s worth of New Year’s Eve plans involving a raucous reunion of college friends in Charleston to come here and feel harassed. But these thoughts dissipate when Grandma suddenly transitions into her ever powerful and disarming “sweet elderly widow” disposition. She reaches up to touch my face and says, “Be a good girl now,” just like she did every morning when she’d drop me off at school when I was a kid. She often does this in my adulthood to produce a connection between us, a mutual remembrance of the special bond we formed following the early death of my mother. She’s also acknowledging that I’ve entered womanhood and that, though it pains her, she recognizes my right to wear my hair in my eyes if I want to.
Still groggy from the Morphine, Grandma grows disoriented again. Never abandoning her southern graces, however, she thanks the nurses for attending her “party.” “Do you think Dr. Lyons (the surgeon) had a nice time?,” she asks one of them. The petite, perfectly groomed nurse, who looks just like the sort of person Grandma would invite to a party, assures her that he did.
I spend the next couple of days keeping Grandma company at the hospital with my father and my uncle. After the men go out in the hallway for a break, she shows me a bunch of tape on her stomach covering three tiny incisions. “One’s right here in my belly button. You don’t suppose they sucked my gall bladder out through there, do you?,” she seriously wonders. (When I took her to Cinema Six to see The Titanic, the first movie she’d since the early days of Cary Grant’s career, she also asked me how many people had to die to complete the disaster scene).
After we get word of her official release, I pull Grandma’s gray Oldsmobile around to the patient pick-up exit. My uncle helps her from her wheelchair into the passenger seat. He then waves goodbye to us before heading to his own car and guest room at my dad’s house. As we pull into the driveway of her retirement community, she instructs me to temporarily park the car at the entrance. She wants to make a quick break for her apartment so she can fix herself up before anyone can see her looking like she’s just gotten out of the hospital.
We almost reach her doorway undetected, but her neighbor emerges from her own cramped dwelling space before we have the opportunity to turn the doorknob on ours. Expressing genuine concern, Vera points out the “Welcome Home” posters that she and Grandma’s menagerie of women friends taped to her door. Grandma is clearly delighted to have a group of people here who care enough to make that much fuss. (Later, she also received numerous notes and a card signed by all of the residents. By that time, my rumor of her post-op behavior had successfully traversed the proverbial grapevine so that her cards bore such smart remarks as “Hope your blouses fit better now.”)
“Now, tell me what I can do to help you.” Vera demands, following behind us as Grandma directs her into the apartment.
“Oh, Vera, you don’t need to worry about me. I’m doing just fine.” Grandma endures the rest of the 30-minute visit poised in her favorite chair just to prove that she won’t take this surgery bit lying down. Like any proper southern belle, Grandma never airs her dirty laundry. Putting on one’s happy face for the public is more imperative than the Golden Rule and the 10 Commandments combined. “No one likes a whiner,” she says.
Though this is a wise philosophy on some level, as with many proper southern belles, it sometimes leads Grandma to express her feelings in more toothy-smiled passive aggressive ways, some of which could reduce Pol Pot into a weeping heap at her feet. Most of the time though, humor serves as her emotional outlet of choice. For instance, she keeps my very first stuffed animal, a brown koala bear my dad brought back from Thailand, in her guest bedroom. Every time I return to visit, I get a welcome home letter from “Bear.” Right after I got married, I returned to Tennessee to find one such letter. It read:
Welcome Home. It’s so wonderful to see you, and oh, how I’ve missed you. I remember all of our good times together when you were a little girl. You used to hug me and carry me everywhere you went.” The note was, up to that point, heartwarming as usual; then Bear spiraled into a jealous rage:
“We just grew up so fast, didn’t we? Now, you’re married, and all you pay attention to is that husband. I don’t like him one bit, and you can tell him I said so. I fix myself up to look nice for you, and you don’t even notice. P.S. I’m much cuddlier than he is.”
Grandma is every good Freudian’s dream case.
To ease the pressure of holding conversation off of Grandma, Vera asks me how school is going. I’ve never met her before since Grandma only moved to the retirement community a few months back, but Vera already knows a good bit about me. We talk a little about my current thesis project, then Vera tells me how much I look like my grandmother. Grandma repeats, as she has many times, that she and I have been very special to one another. Then she smiles and says, “I guess she turned out pretty well, didn’t she?” Translated: “I did a good job of raising her, and I deserve some credit.” And she does. So, I get a little choked up at this. Despite the generation gap and the frequent “differences” that result, I never stop seeking my grandmother’s approval.
After Vera leaves, I help Grandma to bed so that she can rest a while. Later she gets up for dinnertime, puts on her make-up, and encourages me to “make myself look nice.” Next, she parades me down the corridor like it’s a runway for her prize heifer. I smile sweetly.
Grandma struggles to walk for a bit until we reach the cafeteria. She’s supposed to be taking her meals in her room until she recovers a bit more from her surgery, but she insists on making an appearance at what I call “the cool table.” She has worked hard and fast to win her rightful place as leader of the “inner sanctum,” and like a dictator rumored to be in bad health, she must prove the steadfastness of her constitution in order to suppress the clandestine plots of her potential successors.
My youthful naiveté grows apparent as I marvel that such a socio-political hierarchy even exists among this age group. In my current worldview, old people are supposed to be wiser, more enlightened beings. They’re supposed to be like Buddha. And the social configuration of a retirement community cafeteria should certainly not resemble that of a high school. But all this innocence is felled in one quick epiphany; alas, it dawns on me that every place in life, whether it be church, grad school, a major corporation, or a retirement home, has it’s A-crowd.
Then the introductions begin. I’m relieved to find that after decades of severe virtue, Grandma has fallen in with a gang of rowdy octagenarians who are, at long last, helping her progress with her very own sexual revolution. I’m told that she now occasionally sleeps in the buff. “I’m wicked, just wicked,” Grandma says.
Ella, the most assertive of the women, grabs me by the elbow and yanks me downward to whisper in my ear: “I’ve been teaching your Grandmother to appreciate the male form. She’s so repressed sometimes!” I nod as I silently recall a boastful moment when Grandma declared, “they didn’t have French kissing back in my day.”
“Poor, poor Granddad,” I mutter.
Next, I meet Gladys. Plastic vines of purple morning glories from Michael’s Crafts twist around the rails of her walker. I comment on this and Gladys replies that she recently organized a “Christening Party” for everyone’s walking aids. At this gathering, everyone had to bring his or her cane, walker, wheelchair, etc. Then the group helped pick names for one another’s transportation tools as though each were a beloved pet. This was followed by another hour dedicated to decorating the freshly christened bipedal support devices. Gladys informs me that while she preferred a pretty floral motif, another woman with a fancy electric wheelchair went with a tougher, more Harley-Davidson-inspired theme. “Well someone has to plan something fun to do around here,” she says. This is the first of several ensuing hints that their current Activities Coordinator falls short. They’re disappointed because they “always envisioned someone a little more like that energetic, little cruise director on the Love Boat.”
Now, I’m shaking hands with Anne, a trim, elegant, self-effacing woman who was once the sister-in-law of a famous Hollywood film star. She tells me what a close friend Grandma has been to her. It’s a fascinating group really. These women became friends when they were even younger than I am now. Then, one by one, they married and lost touch. Today, they are all widowed and have reunited in this slightly dreary but generally comfortable place.
They spend the first few minutes of our meal trying to determine which Golden Girl they are most like. Everyone agrees that Grandma closely matches the Betty White character. I, on the other hand, would be played by Estelle Geddy. This oddly flatters me. I am, for the first time in my life, suddenly fitting in with the cool kids. By the expression on Grandma’s face, I surmise that this pleases her. She never understood my choice of friends. In her youth, she consistently reigned as Homecoming Queen, and she could only hope I would enjoy the same glory. To her dismay, I gleefully embraced my place within the scholar’s bowl nerd clique. When our far more celebrated peers were partying around a keg, my high school friends and I were playing Trivial Pursuit around the Yearbook Editor’s kitchen table. If we felt really wild, we’d usually break out the Twister.
Ironically, it was here in her twilight years, that Grandma, for the first time in her life, initially failed to mix with the in-crowd. As newcomers, this circle of lovely, well-bred ladies bravely faced the unfamiliar: bottom rung social stations. After learning that they hadn’t made the invitation list to a well-hyped football party, they bided their time until Halloween. Conventional as Grandma may be, she’s also a savvy strategist. Riverdale residents were abuzz about the upcoming costume contest, and she keenly noted that this could spell her salvation.
On that fateful All Hallows Eve, people entered the recreation area in typical garb: a witch hat here, a fairy wand there. Grandma paused a sufficient amount of time before making her grand entrance as Dr. Ima Pain. Her persona came complete with a long, black Elvira Mistress of the Dark wig, bloodied scrubs, and a stethoscope. As legend has it, she was utterly unrecognizable as she approached retiree after retiree with “Gee, you don’t look so good; let me listen to your heart and make sure it’s still ticking.” She won first place, and ever since, folks have been holding their breath to get invited to her football party. I guess that joining a retirement community can be sort of like going to prison. You have to be tough to earn the respect of your fellow inmates. In the end, it really all boils down to pure alpha dog psychology.
Somewhere between cube steak and mandarin orange Jell-O salad, Ella asks if I’ll load them all up in a van and take them to Savannah to see the Lady Chablis next time I’m around. “The Lady,” as Ella calls her, is the drag queen diva featured in the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I tell her that I’d love to share such a tantalizing adventure with them. At this remark, Anne pats me on the leg and says, “You know, you fit right in. It’s like there’s no age difference at all.” I’m not sure how to feel about this.
Jeanette, our cafeteria server, refills everyone’s coffee cup. She automatically knows that Ella is the only regular at this table who takes her coffee caffeinated. Then Evelyn wheels up to greet us. I’ve met her previously when my grandfather was still living. Never married, she was once an accomplished concert pianist. The other things I remember about her are that she’s older than my grandmother and very well read. We usually had plenty to discuss. Noticing that we’ve already eaten, she takes a seat at another table.
Grandma tells me that Evelyn has recently returned from the adjacent nursing home, where she has been recovering from a broken back. Gladys adds that it’s hard to reassimilate after something like that; people don’t like to see sick people around here. It reminds them of death and of their own frailty. This explains why Grandma is so much more hell bent on appearing perky than on complaining about her stitches. Apparently, the staff didn’t think Evelyn would last much longer, so they weren’t planning to move Evelyn’s piano back into her apartment. Too much effort involved, so they were wanting Evelyn’s niece to come and haul it away. But Grandma and the gang rallied in Evelyn’s favor until the establishment yielded to their collective will.
Changing the subject, Ella invites us all back to her place for after dinner tea. Grandma looks tired to me, so before she can graciously accept, I request a rain check. Ella says that she would really like us all to get together again before I leave, and she suggests that we come over after breakfast tomorrow. The other ladies briefly scan their mental calendars and conclude that this should work. They’ve clearly never had their gall bladders removed.
Grandma, striding behind her walker, moves even more slowly than usual. I calculate that I should have time to detour from her side long enough to look at the aviary for about two minutes and then meet back up with her in the hallway before she makes it to her front door. Like a small child starved for stimuli, I am utterly captivated by the twenty or so multicolored finches housed in a glass case by the wall. On the way back to my stroll with Grandma, I note the copy of “Modern Bridge” resting beside a halfway completed jigsaw puzzle on a nearby table.
Back at “the room,” we both put on our pajamas, and according to the usual custom, Grandma gets in bed with her bowl of bobby pins. I don’t think Grandma’s missed a single night of rolling her hair into pin curls since I first moved in with her when I was four. I always thought the gentle clinking of hairpins was a sound unique to my childhood, but I discovered otherwise during a conversation with my own group of southern gal pals. It turns out that we had each fallen asleep to the comforting cadence of this activity, long believing it was solely ours to cherish. But pin curls universally united our grandmothers in much the same way that double pierced ears distinguish us “Gen-X” females from women of the Depression Era.
I’m casually seated next to Grandma and nearly fall off the bed when she says, “Molly, I know that you young women are more educated these days, so I hope you won’t mind me asking you this.” She pauses to muster up some courage. “How do gay people have sex?” I consider whether or not to draw her a diagram but decide that this would just be too much for her heart condition to handle. So, I give her a very matter of fact lesson in homosexual intercourse. Predictably, this is followed by silence and a short lull in the evening’s pin curl effort. Finally, Grandma speaks: “I thought that might be it.” And that was all she had to say on the subject.
A few pin curls later she states, “You know, some of my favorite customers at the bank were gay. They were just as nice as they could be. Well, except for one.” Grandma worked seventeen years for Valley Fidelity Bank in the Safe Deposit Department. She entered the work force to help secure a college education for two of her three children. The third opted out.
As is often the case in discourse with Grandma, there’s hardly a break in conversation for at least another twenty minutes. She proceeds to explain how she found meaning in a job that might have otherwise been quite dull. Apparently her official title was “Vault Custodian,” but she managed to use her position to launch into her undercover role as super hero.
She tells me first about a man who was a dignified local teacher at a school for the deaf. Grandma diligently guarded his safe deposit box for many years. She developed substantial rapport with her clients, and she vividly remembers the day that this man surrendered his status as upstanding community leader only to become an untouchable. “He was so well-educated and interesting,” she recalls. The man’s wife had died, and he suffered a stroke shortly thereafter. His speech and mental faculties were greatly impaired, but that didn’t stop him from coming to the bank. To help him better communicate with the tellers, a relative would send notes of instruction in a small change purse that the man carried.
One day, the frail retired educator entered the bank “looking like a hobo.” His pants were unzipped, “and he was hanging out, you know what I mean,” Grandma informs. Grandmother approached a male employee and asked if he would take the gentlemen to the back and “help him.” The employee replied, “Not on your life, Lady.” She addressed the problem with another male employee, who also refused. Finally, she took the man into a corner and discreetly did the job herself. Her coworkers told her that no one could have paid them enough to do such a thing, but she just couldn’t bear the thought of sending him back out on the street like that. “I just kept thinking that something like this might happen to me some day. I think a lot about that now,” Grandma says.
She grows quiet a brief moment as my eyes scan over the framed photo collection on her dresser. It includes the usual suspects: my cousins and I in our high school graduation garb, a wedding photo here and there, and of course, the shot of my aunt and cousin in glittering formal gowns with a gaping white space separating them. My uncle used to be standing in that spot, but Grandma took the scissors to him following what he called his “obligatory mid-life crisis.” Initially, she had simply covered up his countenance with a piece of index card – “just in case he returns home begging for forgiveness,” she claimed. But once all hopes of that faded, she just chopped him out of the picture altogether. I look closely at my graduation snapshot and then at myself in the mirror trying to count how many wrinkles I’ve developed in ten years time.
My mind wanders as Grandma continues another story, which I miss without realizing it until later. I’m feeling frustrated that she lacks a framework for understanding anything I’ve done professionally. Most of my adult life, I’ve held that the term “career” means something entirely different to Grandma than it does to me. For Grandma, a career is something bearing a prestigious title like “banking,” “medicine,” or “law.” Conversely, I define a career as something equivalent to a life’s calling. Success is finding a paid pursuit about which one is passionate and for which one also possesses talent. For me, this purpose falls under the headings of documentary work, folklife, and ethnography – all terms completely absent from Grandma’s vocabulary.
The only job I’ve had that impressed her was the job that held the least overall satisfaction for me. I worked in a clerical role for a music publishing company at a friend’s home in my neighborhood. It turned out that the company was originally the brainchild of one of Grandma’s favorite composers, Norman Luboff. She has several of his albums in her vinyl collection. My friend was once married to this man, who long unbeknownst to me, wrote for Hollywood stars like Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. One morning, I noticed a small trophy topped with a bronze Victrola. It was exactly what I thought it was.
Suddenly, it occurs to me that Grandma made banking a calling. Because of the people she grew to know and whose interests she guarded over a seventeen year period, her job grew to be a career, something for which she developed both passion and talent.
I’m looking at the yellow DNR certificate hanging in a cheap plastic frame by the door when I realize that Grandma’s stopped talking. I begin to reach for the PARADE section of her Sunday paper so I can read “Ask Marilyn.” I stop as Grandma grabs my hand and begins telling me about Miss Florence Rule. “She was eccentric, and people laughed at Miss Rule, but I got to know her real well,” Grandma’s saying. “She was just a lovely woman. She used to wear those long, ankle-length Victorian dresses with the high collars. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and I never saw her without a hat. She lived across the lake in Blount County. Each week, she would row her canoe across to come into the bank.” Grandma pauses to take a breath, and more clinking noises emit from her bobby pin bowl. “This was all back when TVA was flooding everything. The lake just kept getting bigger and deeper, and Miss Rule’s dog would wait for her on the shore. She couldn’t always see very well, so she would stand up in her boat to get a better view. Her neighbors just knew that she was going to drown, so they eventually stole that boat and hid it.”
Grandma glances up at me for a second and then returns her gaze to the wall as she concentrates on coifing and talking at the same time. “Florence was over eighty years old, you know. After her boat went missing, she’d catch a ride across the bridge when she needed to get to the bank. She asked me for a favor one morning. She wanted me to make her funeral arrangements. I did and she died not long after that. When I worked, I learned just how much loneliness people survive,” she tells me.
Before tucking myself into my cozy sofa space, I kiss Grandma’s cheek and tell her I’m proud of her. These little life reviews of hers prove a bit unsettling for me. Living seven hours away from my extended family, I dwell in fearful awareness that fifty percent of the people closest to me are in their late eighties. Sometimes the phone will ring in the middle of the night, and my stomach tightens as my heart pounds. It’s always a hang up, a wrong number, or a friend in a Pacific time zone, but I know that one night it’ll be my Dad or someone beckoning me back to Tennessee for a funeral.
Flipping my pillow over in search of a cold spot, I try not to think too much about these feelings. Instead, I attempt to recall things that Grandma does to irritate me – like criticize my friends for their choice of what she deems “frivolous” college majors or nag me about needing to wear more make up and dressier clothing. Sometimes thinking of Grandmother’s shallow traits helps take my mind off the morose. But this doesn’t get me far. I have seen Grandma work far too many wonders.
Long before she landed in this place, she grew the healthiest roses this side of Appalachia. Several times a week, she would bring them in glass vases to the patients at the nursing home here. Ironically, in her younger years, Riverdale was a regular haunt for Grandma.
One Christmas, she entered the room of a woman who hadn’t left her bed in seven years. People had tried to roust the spinster out to grant her a little change of scenery, but she had refused their offers. For some reason though, she accepted Grandmother’s invitation. So, Grandma bundled her up in a pink, fleece robe and wheeled her around the corridors to look at all the twinkling holiday decorations. The woman smiled and gasped as she repeated, “Oh how beautiful!” She ventured forth from her room regularly after that, so my cousin and I now refer to this event as “Grandma’s Christmas Miracle.” Satisfied with the cool spot I finally locate on my pillow, I drift out of consciousness longing for those sorts of marvels to continue.
The next morning, Grandma’s voice lifts me from a repeat dream I frequently have when experiencing anxiety. In the dream, my best friend and I are co-piloting an airplane. My friend abruptly steers the plane off the runway and onto Interstate 40. I wonder why she has done such a thing but decide that she must have her reasons. However, as we approach traffic, I panic from worry that we might squash some folks. So, I grab the throttle and attempt to pull us into the air. Unfortunately, this action does something wonky to the landing gear. Very calmly, my friend looks at me, left eyebrow raised, and says, “You break it, you buy it.”
“Damn,” my lips mouth as I slowly return to consciousness.
Grandma’s on the phone with the desk attendant. Upon wake up, Shannondale residents have to call in and inform the establishment that they’re not dead. I choke down a pre-packaged bowl of Golden Grahams that I snagged from the cafeteria at dinner and then get ready for the day long ride back to Chapel Hill.
While I’m brushing my hair, the Activity Coordinator’s voice squeaks at us from the PA system: “May I have your attention please.” Grandma sighs. “I just wish they’d do something about that woman,” she says. “She just doesn’t know a thing about old people. She makes us play bingo in the sanctuary, and she lines us up in the pews where we have to stare at all the white heads ahead of us. Old people don’t like bingo, and we don’t need to be reminded that our hair’s white.” I hadn’t really considered this and found it interesting. Still, forced bingo competition seems a small price to pay to live in a place where you have your laundry done and your meals cooked for you. I puzzle at why recent college grads aren’t scrambling to put their names on the waiting list to move in. If I’d thought of it when I had graduated, that’s what I would have done.
There’s a knocking at the living room door. She’s here to check on Grandma and perhaps to scope out my caregiving skills a little. Our quick greeting is broken as the Activities Coordinator takes charge of the intercom once again. “May I have your attention please. May I HAVE your attention please.” It’s a question spoken more like a demand. “There’ll be bingo in the sanctuary at 2 pm. There’ll be bingo in the sanctuary at 2 pm. Thank you.”
The two women take turns impersonating her. Anne pinches her nose to get just the right effect as she says, “May I have your attention please . . .” Peels of laughter ensue. Apparently, this is an ongoing competition among this group, but Anne consistently wins. As Ella says, “It’s always the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”
Thirty minutes later, I announce that I need to pack my things and get on the road so that I don’t have to drive too long after dark. Anne rises to leave. We hug and say our farewells. I promise to return for a visit soon.
Grandma announces that she can tell how much her friends like me. She’s proud, and this makes me happy. I go the restroom, brush my teeth, and pull my hair back into a ponytail. She calls to me, “Svets, I sincerely hope that you’ve gotten into a good church there in North Carolina.” She knows darn well that I haven’t. Grandma often does this – picks an argument just before I get ready to leave. I know the pattern, and I recognize it as a ploy to delay my departure. If she can embroil me in petty disgruntlement long enough, I’ll give up and stay an extra night.
“I have comps next week, Grandma. I can’t stay any longer this time.” For a moment, she looks frail. The effect of her surgery is apparent, but I try not to think about it.
“I know,” she says and smiles. We hug, and I kiss her cheek. I’ve almost successfully made it to the door when she calls my name again. I sigh and roll my eyes expecting another jab about my hair or for her to remind me to “be a good girl.”
“Yes, Grandma?,” I ask in my breathy, exasperated “holy mother of God, what is it this time” tone.
But all she says is, “Don’t get old.”