Now that the snapshots have cooked inside my various albums for a while, they’ve acquired a certain historical sheen, although I’m talking history with a very small h. I’ve even tripped across several photos I didn’t know I had. This one of my maternal grandmother is a complete surprise.
In this particular picture, she’s younger than I am now, but dressed like an old lady and not pleased about it at all. She has on a decidedly unflattering silk floral dress, silk stockings, and ugly lace-up shoes with a perforated design. It’s a striking photograph because her Old Lady get-up was probably only adopted a year or two before. Her grumpy expression is a tip-off too, an expression so common in my family, that I could make a whole photo arrangement encompassing three generations of grumpiness.
My mother and grandmother habitually wrote pithy little notes on the backs of snapshots and a number of them say something like, “Here’s Writer to the Stars, looking grumpy because her dress has long sleeves” or, “Here’s Writer to the Star’s baby sister, looking grumpy because she hates her dress”. So our discontents (and not just my sister’s and mine), often seem to be generated by some outfit we’d been jammed into because of age or occasion.
And so my grandma hit fifty or fifty plus, and here came the dowdy silk floral prints, the hideous lace-ups and the familial scowl. But those were the times and she didn’t have much of a choice. Yet, knowing what I know, I can’t blame her for looking so evil tempered. From this photograph, you would never know she was once a beauty queen at OU, that she once lived and breathed fashion in ways I never could, since I lacked her imagination and outright daring when it came to clothes. As an instance, I give you The Hat.
Directly following her wedding, around 1913, her father presented her with $500 as a nest egg of her own, and in those days, $500 was quite a tidy sum. My grandmother immediately spent the whole wad on a hat. Today spending $500 on a hat would be madly extravagant; back then it must have seemed several miles beyond insane. But she bought a hat so perfect and so timeless it could be worn today and garner admiring glances. It was a lacquered black straw gaucho and wearing it she looked unimaginably chic and completely modern.
But when I think of my grandmother, I only see her in what amounted to a uniform: the dark silk floral-printed dress, the silk stockings, a strand of pearls, and the clunky lace-up shoes, either navy or white. This was her afternoon into evening outfit and it never varied. When we visited during those hot summers in Tulsa, it was always my great joy to watch her get dressed, although she went through her elaborate toilette without much vanity. Her clothes seemed dull to her, her hair still reached below her waist but had turned an iron gray, beyond her diamond cameo pin, she had no interest in jewelry, and she dabbed on her Worth perfume with something like boredom.
Later in her life, she retreated more and more to her bedroom, with its rose walls and rose-colored light bulbs. She spent her days taking various pills, getting high, reading Thackeray and once a year she read all of Jane Austin. It became hard to discern the young woman who’d been deaf all her life but, nonetheless, took German language classes in college or who shocked the respectable folks back in Mangum, Oklahoma by riding her horse astride like a man and galloping down Main Street at top speed, a girl with deep red auburn hair who spurned the standard shades of blue and green, and dressed instead in hot pink.
Still, she was also entirely humorless, she relied heavily on fortune tellers and believed in superstitions so strongly she would stay in bed all day on Friday the 13th, and she was an awful racist, although no one else in our extended family was. When I got older, I tormented her by showing her the half-moons on my thumbnails: a sure sign in the South of mixed blood.
But she was my first magical old woman and however hard things got between us, I could never forget that. When I was a child I trailed after her, watching her perform one marvelous act after another. She could make filled chocolates using chocolate molds, she painted china, and whenever she sewed a dress for me, (always an elaborate rustling affair, worthy of a little Infanta) she’d make an exact copy for my doll.
Later, there would be other old ladies who worked their snakey magic on me. There was the novelist, married to one of Bartok’s violinists, who spent WW II hiding Jews in Prague and who believed I had talent, then proceeded to teach me how to write. There was my godmother who traveled all through South America, met Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas (“A very nice boy,” she remarked) and who introduced me to oil painting. And then there was my first sponsor who translated screenplays into French, was married many times to breathtakingly rich men, who lived through the early fascinating years of our anonymous organization and who taught me how to stay sober.
So being an old lady has a certain cachet for me and has its own kind of glamor. Still, these women, however much I cherish them, are not my templates for being old. Also, I’m afraid the time has passed when old women, no matter how magical, are acknowledged as having any value beyond their future as compost. Through the dubious wonders of plastic surgery and mass entertainment, our culture seems headed towards a society where everyone is 29 max.
This is sure as shit no country for old women.
But sometime in the 60’s, I attended two John Cage and Merce Cunningham performances. For one performance, I remember John Cage sat in the balcony making very small talk with Andy Warhol.
I don’t know what it was, perhaps that he lived so obviously in the moment and was so completely alive, but there and then I wanted to be John Cage. Ageless and enraptured. And ever since that time, John Cage is who I’ve wanted to be. He looked every year of his age, but he simply ignored it and immersed himself in whatever his current fascination was.
And that, I’ve also learned, is the best thing to do about getting old: just ignore it. Ignoring age doesn’t take away any aches, pains, wrinkles or limitations, but it spares you a lot of geezery conversations and dull early dinners.