Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Lady of Distinction

While I was on my trip to visit family over the holidays - the reason for my conspicuous absence, if there was anyone who didn't know - I had the very good fortune to see my Grandmama again. I had thought that I would never see her again, and this will almost certainly have been the last time, and I wish with all my heart that it had been different.

My Grandmama (that's Grand-ma-MA, not GRAND-ma-ma) is not really my grandmother. She is my sisters' paternal grandmother, from my mother's first marriage. But she has always been a big part of my life, from the time I was born. She was one of those adults who never really learned to deal with children, so inadvertantly paid them the great compliment of treating them exactly like anyone else; that is to say, like adults. She never condescended or talked down; if anything, she would talk over your head and act rather impatient if you didn't understand her. She was intimidatingly small. I'm sure you know the type of person - their lack of stature invites a proportionally imperious character. She was fond of travel, delicious things, particularly if they were white, and good skin. The last time I saw her, in fact, she imparted three bits of wisdom to me, as at the age of twelve I was, in her eyes, on the brink of womanhood. The pieces of advice were as follows:

1) No matter how imploring the interviewer, a lady never reveals her age.

2) No matter how inviting, a lady never succumbs to the rather plebian habit of exposing her skin to the sun. This means very large hats and glasses, and in later years, the sort of sunblock that is reserved for those kids with ultraviolet allergies.

3) No matter how tired or uncaring she may be, a lady never, and I mean never, under any circumstances, appears in public in deshabille. This means less than perfectly coiffed, less than perfectly dressed, less than perfectly made up. And my Grandmama was always an arbiter of style. Photos of her from her youth, and her waning youth, and even her middle age show a woman with good taste and restraint. Her trademarks were her impeccable skin, her tiny (23"!) waist, and her waist-length jet-black hair. Nearly as well known was her biting wit.

This last was sharp was a knife at times. The edge of her tongue could scar you for life if you weren't careful. Luckily, I was never the object of her well-known put-downs, but I heard about them, and heard them in person plenty. Once, in my defense, she said to her own son, "Stop being such a pig to that child, Joey. She is only a girl - something you might understand." He turned beet red and said not a single word to me for the rest of the evening. I thought for sure she was an angel. I adored her for the way she seemed to look down her nose a the people she needed to tilt her head to see, I admired her coronet of raven braids, and I marvelled at her sheer loveliness. My mother was pretty, in a careless, farm-fresh way, but I never saw elegance until I spent time with my Grandmama.

It was lowering, then, to see her in the nursing home. She has Alzheimer's, and it has taken so much more than her memory. Her hair is gone now, cut into a fluffy white bob that is easily cared for, I'm sure, and pink at the roots where an aide "prettied her up" with an auburn rinse. She was wearing polyester, and not the expensive faux-silk she would have chosen thirty years ago for an intimate dinner at home with her grandchildren, but double knit pants and an undistinguished shirt that hung on her too-thin frame. It was the very first time, after three decades on this earth, that I have ever seen her without a smidgen of makeup - never mind full powder and eyebrow pencil, the woman didn't sport so much as a swipe of lipstick. The only thing that was unchanged about her was her skin. It was finely lined, since she is very, very old, but it was still soft-looking, even, and white. The older people I have touched often have skin that feels like fine paper, like tissue. The skin on her hands felt like she was wearing gloves of some sort - kid suede, perhaps, or heavy silk twill. And her cheek was the same: impossibly soft.

I thought there would not be much of her left when I spoke to her. I thought she would not even have an inkling of who I might be. But when my sister brought me to her attention, she said, "Why, child, you've grown!" And I knew that some deep spark fired in her brain, and I was there, even if it was only for a moment. Something inside me broke, because until then I could pretend that this was some other woman, an imposter masquerading as my Grandmama while the real one laughed herself silly on a Brazilian beach somewhere, busying herself with the cabana boys. But no, I was there in her mind, and she really was the woman who loomed so mythologically large in my own mind, made small by the ravages of time.

Before we left, she asked my sister, as she apparently always does, how old she is. My sister replied in all honesty, breaking one of my grandmother's cardinal rules. The number she named is impossibly high. Grandmama thought so, too. "Dear God!" she exclaimed with a look of horror on her white face. My own mother, in a moment of tenderness, replied, "No, Monique. She's confused. You are fifty, but no one knows that except me. Everyone here thinks you are a very well-kept thirty five."

I did not know her when she was fifty. She was already heading into her sunset years, to borrow a terrible euphemism, when I came along. I wish I had, though. I wish that there were another fifteen or eighteen or thirty years I could spend taking the bits of wisdom she offered me and slipping them carefully away like the rhinestone ring she once gave me, right off her finger. I wish that I could say that I believed I would see her again, even in the state she's in. But I can't - this was the last time I will ever see her, I am sure. She isn't really here anymore, and her body is going to figure that out sooner or later. I just hope that there is a decent shoe repair place where she's going, and a pharmacy that sells Pond's cold cream and Coty Airspun powder in Alabaster, because she'll be out to make an impression.