Saturday, March 29, 2014
In the Kinks' song "Come Dancing," singer Ray Davies laments the demise during his childhood of a dance hall his then-teenage sister had frequented. "The day they knocked down the palais, part of my childhood died," Davies sings of watching the building fall.
As the downtown Younker's building blazed and tumbled into the street this morning, parts of the childhoods of Des Moines natives died as well. Maybe that's a little dramatic, but it's not at all dramatic to say that many of us were saddened by the knowledge that no more memories will be made in that grand building ... and that there's no longer a tangible location on which to hang those memories that helped shape many of us.
I was a little girl in the late '60s, a time before shopping malls dotted the landscape; if you really needed to shop, you went downtown. And the center of downtown was Younker's, the grande dame of all department stores; a place where a child could score not only a new dress and a toy, but also a peanut-butter sandwich and fries, a chocolate malt, a copy of Curious George, and, in a white box with a gold ribbon, a hunk of Roquefort cheese. (Smelly cheese in a box, as a treat? Oh, my God, yes -- how I loved that stuff.)
I had a beautiful grandmother whom I idolized, and it seemed one of her fervent missions in life was to teach me to be a lady. To that end, she took me monthly to Younker's Tea Room, and a shopping trip followed; those trips yielded not only the items I mentioned above, but also afforded me time to study this woman who fascinated me so. She was not biologically my grandma, which made her story all that much more amazing; my mother had died, and Grandma was the mother-in-law of my sister, who was 20 years my senior. The task of raising 4-year-old me had fallen to my sister, so Grandma inherited me by default. She often told me how fortunate she was that I was part of her family, but I was the lucky one.
Grandma was chiffon and decolletage, even in daytime; she dusted her cleavage with clouds of white powder, and her signature scent, Tabu, followed her wherever she walked. She was lipstick and stockings and heels; she was Scrabble and Reader's Digest Condensed Books and pastries and poetry.
I was a chubby girl with a pixie haircut that made my head resemble a nest on my shoulders; I had perpetually chapped lips, impetigo on my elbows, a stutter, and shoes that wouldn't stay tied. To be in Grandma's orbit, though, allowed me to dream that one day Cinderella's mice would come, drape me in velvet, touch me with stardust and turn me into a miniature version of this woman I so admired.
As we walked through Younker's -- or, as Grandma called it, Younker Brothers -- we would talk. Not about typical childhood things; she didn't care about the names of my friends or what I played on the playground. We would talk about my schoolwork ("Of course you're doing well; you're probably smarter than your teacher," she'd tell me), about what I was reading (chapter books at age 5, thanks to her influence), and what I wanted to be when I grew up. She had been a teacher until her marriage, and even when I was small, she would urge me to follow my dreams, not someone else's; "Someday you'll grow up and meet a boy," she'd tell me. "But by that time you'll have written a book and will be famous, so he'll just have to follow you around and do what you tell him."
The elevator operator knew her name. This fact never ceased to amaze me, and it diverted me from the fact that we usually were taking his elevator to the chubby-girl clothing section (I'm not being facetious; it was really called that, sadly). Grandma would pick out beautiful clothes for me, and it didn't matter one bit that I was allergic to the wool jumpers she preferred, or that the lace collars she loved would made my neck and chin break out. She thought I was beautiful in them, so maybe, just maybe, I would think, I really will be pretty one day.
Something else magical often happened on those shopping trips; Grandma would talk about my mom, of whom I had no memory. "Your mommy would bring Teresa here for dresses," she would say as we walked through the section filled with, as she called them, "formals." Or: "When you were a tiny baby, Nana and I came here for presents for your layette, and after you were born, we came to see you and you had such beautiful legs and feet, and you could even point your toes."
I can hear her voice as I write those words, and I can see and smell the parts of the store in which we were walking as she said them; the perfume counter to the right, and the purses (or "pocketbooks," in her vernacular) straight ahead, the book section in a little nook off the stairs, the toys right next to that, and the mysterious French Room, Grandma's favorite, just off the elevator on the fourth floor. I can hear the click of her heels and the beige of her stockings; I see her tweed suit and her hat, and the way she would purse her lips as she surveyed the quality of an item.
Younker's meant different things to me later; as a new reporter, I shopped there on my lunch break for the "power suits" and stockings we still wore in 1985; a few years later, giddily pregnant with my first child, I bought tent-type maternity dresses with giant collars, and pants with giant stretch panels in the front. I bought baby and toddler clothes there; I purchased my kids' First Communion apparel in the store's basement. And one of the last items I purchased there, just before the store closed, was a nightgown for Grandma, just before she went to the hospital for the last time.
I have friends who worked at Younkers; I know people who hosted bridal showers and wedding receptions in the Tea Room. In this city, if you're around my age or older, the store is part of your history. And if you've watched it burn today, you have your own empty place inside, and it will be yours alone, and up to you to define it.
For me, for just a little while, as the building was falling, my grandma came back. In my mind's eye today, she is walking in front of me, and the elevator is chiming, and we're making our way to Fine Furs. "You need to keep your voice down today and stay right here with me; you're in the nicest store in the whole city, Lisa, and you need to be on your best behavior," she says. I know I'll obey; I'm pretty sure a visit to the Tea Room is in my future, and I can already taste the rarebit sauce.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
This week, the Today Show kicked off a segment called “Love Your Selfie.” The point: Even though “selfies” are ubiquitous – even the president and the Pope have been caught snapping them in the last year – most of us dislike the way we look in photographs … to the point, even, of being extremely, even cruelly, critical of ourselves.
So the Today Show hosts kicked off the promotion yesterday by taking off their makeup –- a pretty brave thing, especially under stage lights –- and talking about what they like and dislike about their appearances. I know they’re famous and all, but their words were sort of poignant; Al Roker spoke of his well-known weight battles. Savannah Guthrie said she had spent most of her life hating being taller than everyone else. And Natalie Morales acknowledged the way giving birth had altered her body.
At the end of the segment, the hosts invited viewers to take makeup-less selfies of themselves, then tweet the photos using the hashtag #LoveYourSelfie. Thousands of people did, and I was one of them.
But not before I almost had a heart attack, figuratively speaking. You see, my selfie horrified me so much that I almost didn’t tweet it. But then I realized that my feelings were, in fact, the point of the segment, and I took a deep breath and sent the photo.
And all of a sudden, I was back in sixth grade with glasses, braces and bad skin. I felt embarrassed about foisting my naked, 51-year-old face on the unsuspecting masses, and I almost felt as if I were going to cry.
And then I felt very un-evolved, and almost ashamed. And I forced myself to think back to where and how those feelings took root.
In my family of origin, looks were downplayed. Of course we always looked appropriate and presentable, and at times -– usually during growth spurts and after visits to the dermatologist -– I actually looked sort of cute. But the message was always loud and clear: Don’t worry about being attractive. Just be smart.
That I could handle, little spelling champ that I was; I loved books and was at home in the solitude they provided. So I focused on being smart … but I also yearned so badly to be pretty and popular, to feather my hair like Olivia Newton John’s and to be noticed by a boy. Any boy, but preferably one taller than I was.
So while my head was in my books, my eyes were glancing sideways at my middle-school classmates … at Monica with her golden hair and Mary with her effortless athletic grace, at Julie with her blemish-free toffee-colored skin and knee socks that stayed up perfectly. None of them had muffin-tops or breasts that had appeared too early; none of them sported hips or angry patches of eczema on their elbows.
I continued to look around, then turned my critical gaze inward. As a result, despite the healthy messages I was receiving from the adults in my life, I told myself I was a freak, and I began to hate my looks, my body, and, to some degree, myself.
And as the years wore on, that self-hate manifested itself in a lot of ugly ways: After a breakup with a truly nice boy in high school, I set my sights on a series of inappropriate guys who initially made me feel good about myself, then eventually reaffirmed my self-loathing. With notable exceptions (my husbands somehow being two of them, thankfully), that pattern repeated until the years between my two marriages, when a truly damaging relationship finally awakened me to what I was doing to myself.
Things didn’t turn around immediately; I worked hard to focus on the good in my life, most notably my children, my extended family, and my work. And gradually, as I matured, I began to wonder why on Earth I had been so hard on myself, and why I had so often been willing to settle for so little. Without getting too philosophical, I have a perfectionistic, overachieving personality, and I had never felt my looks measured up to my expectations of them. I come from a long line of tiny, pretty women. I was the square peg, and that hurt.
It's all about self-esteem, for all of us. Always has been; always will be.
A year ago next month, I somehow found the time to be right for shaking off all those destructive feelings. I wish I could tie the moment to something big, but I can’t. It was a Friday morning in March, and I knew I was ready to make a change. It was that simple.
And here I am 11 months later and 65 pounds lighter, with legs strong from miles and miles of running and the beginnings of muscles in my upper arms. As I shed the layers, I shed the feelings that had kept me wrapped in those layers. And now, most days, I feel confident and capable. But at other times, that sixth-grade girl will reappear, as she did after I took the selfie you see at the top of this page.
“You look old and drawn and ugly,” that girl told me before I sent the photo. “People will see that and say, ‘Yeah, she’s lost weight, but she’s ruined her looks.’ You’re going to be ridiculed and embarrassed. Retract the photo.”
But I didn’t, and I won’t. I’ve lived for 51 years, nine more than my mother was allowed. And with a few notable exceptions, I’ve made the most of that time. My experiences have grayed my hair, loosened and sagged my skin, and left blemish marks on my forehead; I have a surgical scar on my neck and a gap in the back of my mouth that’s waiting for a bridge or implant. My natural complexion is rather sallow; I don’t have long eyelashes anymore, and I plucked my eyebrows too thin long ago and now they don’t match.
But that’s all OK. Here I am; take a good look. This is what a naked-faced 51 looks like. With any luck, I’ll be given nine more years, or even 19 or 29 or 39. And I like to think if I’m given that time, I’ll navigate it with aplomb, because being smart has, in fact, given me the tools to like myself, inside and outside.
Are you used to wearing makeup? Take it off and really look at yourself. Then tweet your beautiful, naked face to #LoveYourSelfie. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I did.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
So it struck me the other day that I don’t have any friends.
OK, that’s a little melodramatic, I guess. But I can say quite honestly that compared with my life a few years ago, my life now is decidedly quieter, and I’m missing the people who once made it so rich.
My sister, a therapist, says for most of us, the majority of friends tend to be situational: Our friends are the people with whom we go to school, or with whom we work. Later, they’re the people whose kids go to school or are on sports teams with our kids.
That makes sense; we spend time with those people. We have common interests, and the friendships tend to last as long as we have those interests in common. And my kids are grown now, so my stage in life limits my options.
There are exceptions, of course. Before we reached an impasse a few months ago, I had a friend – a best friend, I guess you’d say – and our relationship had persisted through moves and job changes and family crises. But there had been issues, and I had swallowed my feelings about a few things, and finally I couldn’t swallow them anymore. After a very direct conversation, we mutually agreed, without saying as much, to part ways. And as sad as that was, it was a healthy decision that needed to be made.
There are a few others exceptions: a couple of women who live in other cities, one with whom I’ve been friends since high school, and another who has been a loyal friend since my days as a lowly newspaper intern. I know each of them would offer me comfort and support at a moment’s notice, but it’s not as if I can call either of them up and suggest a trip to the mall. And I do have a long-time friend who doesn’t live far away, but is busy and prefers to spend her free time with her husband.
I know I’m not the only person in this situation. By this point in life, most of us have collected an assortment of acquaintances; like many others, I can’t go to the store without running into several people I know. But would I call any of those people to share a problem or a joy? Nope. We say, “We should get together sometime,” but we know that probably won’t happen.
And I love my social-media friends; that’s a whole other category, because when I’m on Facebook, I feel the warmth and support of real friendships. The problem is: Many of them, again, aren’t local. And others are people I’d like to be “real” friends with, but I can’t just inject myself into their lives.
What is this phenomenon? As my sister says, it’s probably situational. But I think there might be something else at work.
My life looks like this: I work full-time and freelance on the side. Within a couple of months, I’m going to start leading a Weight Watchers meeting every week. I have a husband, two grown children, three grown stepchildren and a teenage stepson, and an adorable 2-year-old step-granddaughter. I have an extended family and a dog. I work out, I travel a little for work, and I try to stay on top of a bunch of reading (and often fail miserably).
So at the end of the day, I’m tired. Face it: I’m not 20. I spent years and years working at one job all day, then going to cover meetings and write stories for another, so I’m happy to go home after work. I’m also not much of a partier; this tends to limit me socially, as so many activities seem to revolve around drinking. (To be clear: This isn’t a judgment call; I just don’t enjoy the taste of alcohol or the way it makes me feel.)
And I think many of us are in the same boat. Our lives are full, and we’re tired. On a Friday night, going to bed early can sound a whole lot more appealing than going out for a beer. So our social lives take a back seat, and our relationships with people outside of our families suffer.
There’s also something else that’s a little harder to address: Many of us, when we get to a certain point in life, have fully formed our ideas about the world we live in; we’re not on the fence about politics or religion or social issues, and we’re not shy about sharing our opinions. True friendships can be difficult with people who have strong opinions that directly oppose ours. Those relationships are not impossible, and I don’t for a minute think everyone should believe the way I do. But friendships shouldn’t be fraught with arguments about ideals we hold dear; it’s just too hard.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m unbelievably fortunate, and I count my blessings daily. My adult children seem to enjoy spending time with me, and I treasure those relationships above all others. I’m married to a wonderful man who makes me laugh; he’s my age and works hard and also feels tired much of the time, so he’s fine with staying home. And as I’ve focused on my health the past year, I’ve met some wonderful new people with whom I’m spending a little time each week. Those budding friendships give me hope, as does a new friendship with a woman at work.
But I feel a pang as I watch my daughter live her life and I see how dear her female friends are to her, especially as she begins to plan her wedding. And I think back to the first time I was married; I had seven bridesmaids because I couldn’t possibly have excluded any of the important women in my life.
And I look around now, and those relationships – and those voices, and that laughter – are just not here anymore. And while my life is by no means empty, there’s a void.
I know and believe the saying, “To have a friend, be a friend.” I know friendships don’t just happen, and I know I haven’t worked on them. So the onus is on me to change things. But have I forgotten how? It’s not as if I can just show up on someone’s doorstep with my Barbies or “Mystery Date” game.
Be warned, then: If you know me well enough to say “hi” to me in the grocery store, I may call you up and ask you do go to the mall. If you humor me and go, I promise not to write any more whiny blog posts.
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
When I was growing up in the ‘70s, I, like most girls my age, had a collection of posters. In fact, I had an entire wall that was surfaced in cork so I could poke thumbtacks to my heart’s content and not worry about harming the perfect robin’s-egg-blue paint that adorned my walls.
As I recall, I hung giant pictures of Donny Osmond, David Cassidy and Tony DeFranco; a poster of Peter Frampton featured the questionable song title “I’m In You” printed above his shaggy blond head, and that one resided just above my headboard. Later on, in college, I used my half of the dorm room to pay homage to Duran Duran – fragile-looking little guitarist Nick Rhodes was my favorite – and Robert Smith of the Cure. And when I had my own apartment, I hung a giant Howard Jones poster on the back of my door, and tried in vain to find a comparable representation of the guys from Tears for Fears.
Unfortunately, I got rid of those posters as my tastes changed; what I wouldn’t give now to have that mint-condition likeness of Donny, leaning against a building in a groovy outfit that included purple socks and a jaunty beret to match. But the posters long ago settled at the bottom of some long-forgotten landfill, and I’m left wondering if it’s appropriate for a woman of my age to once again affix cork squares to a wall so I can indulge my fangirl passions.
What I’m getting at, really is this: I want a poster of James Spader.
Not the James Spader of my formative years, the one who played Steph in “Pretty in Pink” and the creepiest guy in “Less Than Zero.” I want a poster of the bald James Spader as he appears in The Blacklist – wearing a fedora, and looking a little puffy and world-weary from having to kill bad guys all the time to protect maybe-his-daughter-maybe-not Lizzy from the likes of international terrorists and her own husband.
What does this mean? I’m not sure. I’m happily married and not delusional, so I haven’t set my sights on James Spader as I’d set them on Tony DeFranco in junior high (hey, he’s Italian, I’m Italian; our families would have approved); most people my age stopped being “cute” a long time ago, so, fedora aside, the guy looks like the branch manager of your bank.
But then again, for most of us, as we age, our tastes keep up; while I don’t see Justin Bieber as attractive, there’s something in the balding Spader that takes me back and makes me feel … well, not so old. My husband looks at his celebrity crush, Meg Ryan, and doesn’t see that her plastic surgery made her look like Batman’s Joker; he sees Annie from Sleepless in Seattle and probably thinks back to a hopeful time when the possibility of finding a perfect romance with a virtual stranger seemed entirely plausible. I look at the 53-year-old Spader and see myself as 20 and wearing pearls and a sorority pin, giggling as I made drunken snow angels in the middle of a blizzard.
I’m wondering if looking at a poster of Spader might cause me to take an even longer trip in the Wayback Machine; to pretend I’m Demi Moore and sneak cigarettes with the hope of making my voice deep and husky, and to watch “About Last Night” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” while taking notes on how to make a spiral perm look just-so. I wonder if I’d deconstruct “Pretty In Pink” and "The Breakfast Club" as I did in the old days, knowing I should prefer the jock but really did have a hankering for troubled, slightly grimy Judd Nelson.
I’m expecting too much of a poster, but I’m wondering if it might transform me, even for a little while, to a time when I dressed like Madonna (“Borderline”-era Madonna, not “Like a Virgin” Madonna) and really, truly thought Rolling Stone would swoop me up and send me on the road to write about Billy Idol or the Bangles. I wonder if it might take me back to a time when I thought I’d leave some sort of professional legacy.
A saying I like to repeat warns us all that while others might not remember the things we say or do, they’ll remember the way we make them feel. My posters, my silly celebrity crushes, made me feel – as warped as this sounds – as if anything was possible. Not only could I meet Robert Smith, but the rest of the world was also waiting for me and my fingerless lace gloves and my typewriter and my pithy, witty words.
Thirty years later, I don’t see the world the same way; I love the life I created for myself, but I’m also sad for what could have been, had I been a little braver. “Why haven’t you ever written a book?” a friend asked me yesterday. My real answer: Because I've been afraid. Somewhere along the line, I stepped inside a corporate box and stopped thinking I could be anywhere else.
But into the night, late, I wonder sometimes: Does that have to be true? They say 50 is the new 40 or 30 or something …. could there be a second act out there for those of us who took down our posters a long time ago and began collecting crock-pot recipes?
After running some 5Ks in the fall, I created a small bulletin board in our kitchen. Onto it, I pinned my race bibs, a couple of political buttons and bumper stickers, some quotes I found meaningful, and the receipt from my first pair of real running shoes. When I look at it, I almost see … I don’t know … possibility. Promise. Something that takes me back, but also might move me forward.
I still can’t quite explain why this would be, but if the board were bigger enough, a poster of James Spader might look pretty good, right smack in the center. And he’d tip his fedora, and who knows? Maybe I might find the courage to think back to that girl with the fingerless gloves, and wonder if she still might be able to shake things up a little.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
I'm so glad my parents still get along even though they are divorced.
I found that amazing in a couple of ways: First, I love that he, a 16-year-old male, is willing to put his feelings out there for all to see. And second, I love that he recognizes and is obviously comforted by something that’s been a long time coming.
Like most marriages that end, his parents’ didn’t end happily; there was a great deal of friction at first, and when significant others were added to the mix, the friction quadrupled. Kevin’s ex, Leslie, was someone I had known when the two of them were married; our daughters were friends, and we’d do the pick-up-and-drop-off thing; I wasn’t close to her, but I had liked her just fine.
So when I started dating Kevin, I had no reason not to like Leslie, so I still liked her fine. But then it became clear that because feelings were still pretty raw, I needed to choose one camp or the other, so I “sided” with my now-husband and decided I’d better not like Leslie anymore (proof, mind you, that adulthood is a lot like seventh grade, except with taller people).
So we became … something strange. Not enemies, but certainly not friends. And then she remarried, and then Kevin and I married, and suddenly we were dealing with hordes of hormonal pre-teens and teenagers, and no one liked anyone a whole lot. Kevin’s kids were loyal to their mom, of course, and they knew she and I didn’t get along well, so our animosity fueled their dislike of me. And rather than rise above the whole mess, I allowed their dislike of me to hurt me, and I guess that in turn, I blamed their mom.
And for years, we collectively churned, and we festered, and we cried, and I wondered why I had embarked down this path; no one was happy. Looking back, I don’t know how Kevin and I managed to keep our marriage intact.
But then, one day, we looked around and realized most of the kids were grown. And as Kevin’s kids became interested in real-life pursuits, they seemed to hate me less, or at least they showed it less. There were no tear-filled mea culpas, but there seemed to be a détente of sorts. And then one day, I got a text message from Leslie. It was about one of my stepkids -– one who was upset over what she perceived as my dislike of her. Leslie wanted me to be aware of the way her daughter felt. The message, and its contents, chilled me.
I had been so upset over the dislike I felt from the kids that I hadn’t given a thought to the fact that the kids thought I disliked them. And Cinderella’s evil stepmother flashed before my eyes, and the fact that I was being called out –- quite rightly –- for some pretty poor behavior brought me to my knees. I had never, ever set out to be that person.
But I was that person -– at least in the eyes of a few kids I truly did care about. And as I set about making things right, I realized what an extraordinary thing Leslie had done in reaching out. And over days and weeks as our communication increased, I realized that this was a person I really, truly still liked.
From that point, things turned around. Although my stepdaughters were on their own, they saw the four of us -– their mom and stepdad, and their dad and me -– interacting at events. At home, I’d make sure to bring up, with my younger stepson, something funny his mom had said, or I’d offhandedly remark that she had texted me about something. When Logan’s baseball team went to the state tournament, we sat together, and when the team won, we rejoiced together. Logan was able to look up from the field and see his entire family cheering him on from the same row of seats. I thought at the time: I hope this means something.
And it became clear last night that it did, and it does. As Leslie’s and my relationship thawed, that freed Kevin and Leslie to become friends as well. Time is a funny thing; few events are more wounding than divorce, but if we’re lucky, those of us who divorced relatively young are able to look back with more mature eyes at what went wrong, and to forgive our former spouses and ourselves. As I look at my own ex-husband now, so many years down the road, I see the qualities that attracted me to him in the first place: his kindness and humor and the knowledge that he’d be a good parent. I think Kevin and Leslie are at that stage as well.
The four of us don’t hold hands and sing Kumbayah; we’re different people with different interests. But we’re a part of one another’s lives, and the kids witness our interactions on almost a daily basis. And Logan’s tweet last night drove home the point that these mended relationships have meant something. I wish it could have happened when the girls were still home, but here’s something I hold on to: There’s another generation in the picture now, as one of the girls has a baby of her own. And thankfully, that little girl will never know our relationships any way other than the way they are now.
Leslie texted me the other night. “Got your Christmas card; it’s great!” She said. I responded: “Thanks! I think you took the picture of Carly that I used on it; guess I should have told you I stole it from your Facebook.”
And I laughed, Kevin asked me what I was laughing at.
“Oh, just Leslie,” I said. And he shook his head.
“You guys are weird,” he said.
But he was smiling.
Friday, December 13, 2013
|Grandma and me, 1967|
(Note: This was published as a Des Moines Register guest essay in December 2005.)
Three years ago Christmas, my grandmother died. The date is significant; my grandmother was a diva before the word entered the popular vernacular, and family members joke that she wanted to make darned sure no one forgot the anniversary of her death.
Even more significant to me, though, is the fact that she wasn’t my grandmother at all. Not really, if you’re a purist who would classify a grandmother as a flesh-and-blood relative. But she was more a grandparent to me than any of my “real” grandparents, one of whom died long before I was born, two others who died when I was 4, and a fourth who died when I was 20 after never really seeming to know my name or like me much.
Grandma came into my life shortly after I arrived. Her son was preparing to marry my sister, who is 20 years older than I. Grandma, an only child, was the mother of an only child, and she reportedly became excited at the possibility of having a baby around. The first mention of her is in my baby diary, written by my sister because our mother was ill after my birth. “Louise brought a beautiful velvet romper suit from Younkers,” the notation reads. “I’m afraid Lisa has already outgrown it.”
As also is chronicled in my baby diary, my mother never shook the infection that took hold of her when I was a newborn, and cancer claimed her when I was 4; during her last two years, she was too ill to care for me, and my sister and brother-in-law, Jon and Teresa, took me in, as well as my father, who came to live with us after Mom died. Jon and Teresa started their own family at the same time, giving me, for all practical purposes, siblings.
Into this confusion swept Grandma and Grandpa, as well as Grandma’s parents, Nana and Papa. Nana and Papa lived next door to Grandma and Grandpa, and in the two houses that made up their little compound on Des Moines’ southwest side, I became the princess. Whenever anyone says, “Oh, it’s so sad that your mom died when you were little,” intimating that my life must have been awful, I wish I that person could have known the kindness with which my new relatives treated me.
Part of their regard for me was, I believe, borne of being Italian. In the Italian culture, children are revered; there is no such thing as “seen but not heard.” Every Sunday at noon, when we walked into Nana and Papa’s house for dinner, I promptly was handed peanut M&Ms and a Pepsi, even though I made a mess every time by dropping the candies in the soda to watch their colored shells dissolve. And although I was too little for the Chinese checker game on the top shelf of the closet in the foyer, I could play with the marbles, even if I had lost some the previous time.
It’s impossible to approach Christmas without thinking of them – in particular, Grandma. Walking into her house on Christmas Eve was a child’s wonderland come to life: elegant tree and presents, trays upon trays of sweets, table that had been set with china days before, then covered with plastic to keep out the dust. And there was Grandma herself, lacy apron over festive pantsuit, planting kisses our cheeks, sometimes leaving traces of lipstick or flour. Telling me, awkward and frizzy-haired as I was, that I looked beautiful.
And when it was time to open presents, hers were always, always my favorites. Books, usually -- Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott when I was little. Later, the Bronte sisters and poetry – the Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath volumes I yearned for, as well as her own preference, Robert Frost. Gradually, my family came to realize I could not open a present from Grandma first, or I’d go off to a corner and bury my head in a jumble of pages the rest of the night.
Grandma was not a conventional type of Italian nana; she preferred décolletage to housedresses, heels to sensible oxfords. She smelled not of pasta and sauce – she cooked, but preferred baking -- but of Tabu, her signature fragrance. She and my grandpa loved for us to visit, but didn’t relish our spending the night; they kept their beautiful home tidy and liked to go to bed early, and we tended to interfere with both those things. She was artistic, painting china and doing elaborate needlepoint. She believed in her talents and loved the praise she received when she showed them off.
She also believed in me. Perhaps because of the early loss of my mother, I was slow to trust, slow to reach out. In a book of poetry Grandma self-published when I was a young teenager, she called me “aloof,” a word that stung at the time, but was no doubt accurate. And yet she, along with Grandpa and her parents, persevered. They loved me wholeheartedly and accepted that I loved back cautiously.
As I grew into my teens, I began to lower the wall that had kept me from being as demonstrative as I so wanted to be. I finally was able to become the affectionate granddaughter, the one who was able to reach outside myself and visit on my own after school, to sit in Grandma’s kitchen as she baked. We would talk about boys, about my schoolwork, my plans for college, for life. Grandma had quit teaching when she married, and she told me again and again to work, and to keep working. She kept trying to make me believe I was beautiful, but she praised my brains more.
When you’re a child who has lost a parent – even if you have the most wonderful parent-substitute and functional nuclear family – you are different. The effortless way Grandma and her family accepted and loved me made me feel less so. Names and labels are important to children, and labeling relationships was a big deal to me; I may not have had a mother, but I had a Grandma. She called me her granddaughter. Later, she called my son and daughter her great-grandchildren. She went a long way toward making me feel whole.
It was hard to let her go. It still is. She died in the early hours of Christmas morning after having spent Christmas Eve surrounded by all of us. My sister and I had stroked her smooth skin and told her how lovely she was. She wasn’t able to speak, but her dry lips shook a little, and she smiled.
I think of that moment tonight as I rush around my kitchen. I’m not much of a cook, but do I like to bake, and I’m going to make trays this year, the way she did – different kinds of cookies, even candies if I can manage it. As these things tend to go, I wish I had told her, when I had the chance, how much I appreciated her for loving me. For being my Grandma.
She would have told me it took no effort at all – that God had given her three grandchildren, and I was simply the eldest of them.