Having returned from getting a filling, I met my grandmother in the mirror.
It’s the Novocaine that does it. The right side of my face sags, much more jowly than usual, so that when I smile, I resemble nothing so much as a wry bulldog, which is pretty much how my grandmother always looked. My mother looks quite a bit like my grandmother, but as often happens, things skipped a generation, and I am a thinner, lanky-haired clone. Since my grandmother died fairly young, in her mid-sixties (I think) and was extremely overweight at the time (cancer and chemo having cooked her thyroid, she was screwed.) I don’t remember her as having wrinkles. She looked a lot like I do–the same pattern of fat deposits shaping the face, broad cheeks and softness under the chin, lines carved a bit more heavily with age at nose and corners of the mouth, but still the same basic face. If I weighed three-hundred-fifty-plus pounds, the resemblance would be terrifying–as it is, wandering in the vicinity of 190, and a couple of inches taller than she ever was, I’m a sort of echo.
I don’t have fiercely curly hair, as she did once, nor am I bald, with thin wisps, as she was after the chemo, and wore underwear on her head because her scalp got cold, but was still tender, and damnit, the underwear was soft and cotton and warm. I remember it quite vividly, her with the wry bulldog smile, head propped on one fist, wearing beige-pink underwear on her head, with small punched out flowers. Wisps of no-colored hair stuck out through the leg-holes, and she wore an energetically hideous muumuu with gigantic tropical flowers. Someone who didn’t know her would probably find her quite grotesque. Everybody who knew her was enchanted by her. It didn’t take long, either–she never paid a speeding ticket in her life. She married so many times that we lost track completely, and even after the cancer, bald, fat, feeding out the last yards of her life a grimly-held inch at a time, old boyfriends would practically beat down her door. The last of the line, my surrogate grandfather, was still trying to get her to the altar when they both finally died. The really weird thing was that a lot of them married her twice. She’d ditch a husband, for whatever reason, and rather than being rejected, hurt, and want nothing more to do with her, they would often walk through fire to try to get her back. Quite a few of them died, too, mind you–we would have suspected she was a black widow, but she didn’t seem to profit financially by the deal, so I think for the most part, she just wore ’em out.
She was not beautiful–I can say this because I’m not, and it’s her face in the mirror–she was not educated, and she had the misfortune to be named Olive Marie and raised Catholic, but despite this, people would fight like rats in a sack to be around her. She was fun. Life with her was an absurd adventure. When I think of charisma, I think of her. She was tough and fierce and sweet and uncomplaining, and occasionally, when something horrible happens and I find myself laughing and shaking my head, because hell, what else can you do?, I can hear her doing the same thing. I remember her standing, fists on hips, staring at the car, stuck to the axles in mud in the middle of a vast, empty sweep of Wyoming, wearing a plastic rain bonnet on her newly permed hair, while a ferocious lightning storm walked across the muddy horizon towards us. Well, no help for it. She jammed cardboard under the back tires and told my mother to gun it. Mom gunned it. Grandma disappeared under the car. My mother said “Oh, god, I’ve killed her.” Grandma emerged from under the car, unharmed, head-to-toe mud, and said “Okay, let’s try that again!” Somehow, the car was unstuck, Grandma got in, took her plastic rainbonnet off, and said “Well, at least my perm is still okay!” Her head was a solid slick of mud. Embarassed silence reigned, as she examined the damage in the mirror. “Oh, well, to hell with it,” said Grandma, laughing, and we drove off into the muddy sunset.
I think about her fairly regularly. I know I’ve blogged about her before, so perhaps that’s obvious. We lived with her for quite a while she was dying, which, since Grandma was, as I said, just a tad stubborn, wound up taking most of a decade. She had six months to live for ten years. This sounds like a horrifically grim experience, I realize, and parts of it were, but because it was Grandma, and she had such a “Hey, shit happens, what are you gonna do? Let’s go have an adventure,” attitude, most of it wasn’t.
I try occasionally to explain to James, but I know I’m not doing her justice. I think he has gotten the impression that she was terrifying and a bit of a control freak, which was all probably true, but doesn’t begin to cover how cool she was. My father, decades and a divorce from her daughter later, rose immediately to praise her when they met. “Just a cool woman. Knew that sometimes stuff just happens, and it’s nobody’s fault.” My cousins and mother and I get together, and she’s all we can talk about–distant planets reminiscing about the primary we all used to orbit. Her response to grave shocks, such as unacceptable boyfriends, was to have a fit (known as “throwing a whingding”) and then settle down to and invite them to Thanksgiving, whereupon they would succumb to her cult of personality before the turkey was even carved. She always let everybody know how proud she was of them, and you believed it. James thinks, since he was fiercely anti-religious when we met, and she a reasonably devout Catholic,* that they would not have gotten along. She would have had him wrapped around her finger in ten seconds flat, and loved him dearly. She was like a Borg who baked really amazing fudge.
I am not as cool as my grandmother. This is not modesty, believe me. I manage some pretty creative stuff now and again, y’all are reading this blog for SOME reason, I don’t think anybody hates me, but frankly, nobody in my family inherited whatever it was. Her charisma was unnatural. If people were heat sources, I might be a fairly bright lamp, but she was a nuclear reactor going full bore. It’s hard to explain, when you didn’t know her, but she was a force of nature. Thinking about her death can still choke me up badly, more than fifteen years later, but mostly she made me laugh like a loon. What I keep finding, and occasionally grinning at, are the little echoes of her behavior in mine–my tendency to yell “Holy Mary, Mother of God!”, a fondness for certain varieties of underwear easily adapted for headgear, the same tendency to throw brief fits, and then sigh and accept whatever needs accepting. And when the car breaks down and costs god knows how much to fix, when things go wrong, I usually wind up laughing, because hell, what else can you do?
*Except for the bits she didn’t like, like birth control, and the whole no-divorce thing. We have no idea how she got so many annullments. I suspect that her tendency to play fast and loose with the paperwork helped–she wound up an accidental bigamist a couple of times, and of course in that situation, a priest would doubtless be glad to help sort it out, so maybe she took advantage of that. Or perhaps it was like speeding tickets, and priests were no more immune to her charm than anybody else.