“When anybody asks, 'What are you writing about now?' if I try to reply, the book-in-the-works sounds so idiotic to me that I think, 'Why am I trying to write that puerile junk?' So now I give up; if I could talk about it, I wouldn't have to write it."
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet


Look At Me #19

Monday, February 04, 2008

Ever since I discovered the Look At Me website, I have wanted to blog their photos. Look At Me is a wonderful compilation of lost photos. This is my attempt at a fictional depiction of who that little girl might have been.

Credit for the photo goes to Look At Me.

Dad and I grew up alone together. My mother was only a part of his memories, since she died before I was old enough to remember her. So it was just him and me, except on Saturdays.

Saturdays were special, because Dad took me to visit Grandma on Saturdays. Sometimes he would stay and sometimes he would leave me there to spend the day, just Grandma and me. He would dress me up in my best dress, coat, and hat and a little shiny black purse that Grandma liked. She always said that a lady, no matter how little, should be properly attired when she went visiting.

On chilly days, he always made me wear that silly hat with the earflaps. He would tie the string under my chin, tap the rim of my hat, and give me a kiss on my cheek. I loved waiting for the kiss; I hated that hat.

But Dad knew that if he didn’t cover my ears, he would never hear the end of it from Grandma. She seemed to think that the cold wind would somehow sneak up in my ears and kill me on the spot. I always wondered how Grandma got to be so smart, and my conclusion was that smartness was a gift that was given to you on the day you became old.

Age wasn’t a process, in my child’s mind; it was more of a series of events. I didn’t understand that people slowly changed over time. I imagined it was like a new look which you were given when you graduated to the next level of age. In my mind, Grandma must have received the highest level one could achieve. Her wrinkles and snowy-white hair were a sure testament to the glory of her great age.

When I would imagine what she looked like as a younger woman, I pictured her as some kind of glamorous movie star with tall blond hair and diamonds everywhere, which is exactly how I imagined my mother. It didn’t matter that the pictures in the photo album didn’t match the picture in my mind.

On the days when Dad left me with Grandma, we followed a beautiful routine. Grandma always complemented my lovely dress (even though it was the same dress I wore every week) and we always had tea together. Of course, my “tea” was watered-down apple juice, but it was a long time before I discovered that.

I always assumed that Grandma’s tea was sweet and fruity just like mine. The only difference was that, as a grown-up, she got to put a bit of lemon and a sugar cube in hers and drink it hot. I snuck a sugar cube into my “tea” once when she wasn’t looking. I have never again used a sugar cube in my tea – or anything else.

When I got older, I came to the horribly liberating realization that I could make my own choices, that my Dad and my Grandma didn’t have to dictate everything I did. So I made the choice not to visit Grandma every Saturday. I told myself that next week I would go see Grandma. Next week, we would have tea together. Next week I would dress up in a proper dress and hat and coat and go visiting. But next week rarely ever came and pretty soon it was next year, and the next, and the next.

And then Dad told me that Grandma’s health was failing and she would have to go live in a nursing home where they would take care of her and make sure she got regular baths and regular meals. This didn’t fit into my picture of Grandma. She was so independent. She was always so clean, and her house always smelled like fresh-baked things. How could Grandma not have regular baths or regular meals?

So I went to see her in her new accommodations. It turned out that there was another level beyond the wrinkles and snowy-white hair. Grandma had graduated again, and the new look this time was stooped shoulders and disorientation, a far cry from the diamond studded movie star of my childish imagination. She smiled and held out her hand to me from her seat in a chair covered in cracked, rose-emblazoned vinyl. I knelt beside her, my mind screaming silent apologies for letting this happen to her, for letting her get so old without my noticing.

The next Saturday I brought tea and apple juice to her little room. She complimented my dress and scolded me for not wearing a hat. I drank the tea; she drank the apple juice. I used lemon and honey and reminded her that she was drinking apple juice when she asked for a sugar cube. We talked about the weather, and events that had been current 20 years ago.

When I left, I promised her I would wear a hat next Saturday, and as I looked back and saw her, withered but smiling in that vinyl chair, I remembered that old vision of a diamond-encrusted movie star and realized that her smile alone was worth more than the value of all the diamonds that I could ever have imagined, even as a little girl on her doorstep in a hat with earflaps.

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