My grandmother had red hair. I don't know when she started coloring it. She was fifty-eight when I was born, and I never saw any gray. This was back when women went to the beauty parlor once a week for a wash and set and slept on their backs with their curls tucked into protective nets. My grandmother always wore a hat during the day. When I was a child, I used to think she wore it indoors because she'd forgotten to take it off. As a teenager I thought it was because she was an observant Jew. Only later did I realize a hat is the perfect antidote to a bad-hair day. Probably all three were true.
She wore her hair up in a bun or a twist, always on the crest of her head. One afternoon, when I was about three, my mother and I walked into a salon in the suburban New York town where my grandmother lived. A woman with hair the same shade as my grandmother's was leaning back in the beautician's chair, her waterfall of dark orange hair spilling halfway to the floor.
I tugged on my mother's hand. "Where's Grandma?" I asked. We were supposed to be meeting her for lunch.
My mother jutted her chin toward the chair. "Over there," she said.
I tugged again. "That's not Grandma," I insisted. Even at three I knew such vibrant hair belonged to younger women. When the beautician spun the chair toward us and I saw my grandmother's crinkled, welcoming face surrounded by that extraordinary halo, I screamed. Screamed and screamed. She held out her arms, laughing. "It's only Grandma," she said, but I wouldn't let go of my mother's legs. I had to be carried outside until my grandmother's hair was piled back on top of her head.
My mother thought this was a funny story, and we added it to the list of anecdotes I liked to hear about my toddler years. Tell me about the time I didn't recognize Grandma. Grandma, remember the time I didn't know you were you? My mother later told me she thought I was scared because I'd never seen my grandmother out of her usual context before, which might well be true. But there was also something a little wild, something a little unrestrained about the way my grandmother's hair flowed so freely down her back in the beautician's chair, and it frightened me. I recognized something decidedly uninhibited about my grandmother that day, and I think perhaps that is why I was not entirely surprised when, in later years, a lack of control began to characterize her relationships with both my mother and me.
What is there to say about a grandmother who loved with a force so powerful it could lose all sense of proportion? That she used to hug me so hard I had to struggle to breathe, that she visited every Friday loaded down with shopping bags full of challah bread and fruitcakes that no one ever ate, that after she got back into her Oldsmobile and slowly drove home alone my parents inevitably closed their bedroom door and the shouting began?
They quarreled about the immutable strength of my mother's bond with her mother, about the difficulty she had, in my father's eyes, asserting her autonomy with any real results. Though I do know my mother tried. She resisted much of my grandmother's advice, most of which was based on Eastern European traditions that did not easily transfer to contemporary, suburban New York I remember how my parents used to laugh about my grandmother's fears of ice cream (which she was certain caused the common cold); the color black (which she forbade us to wear in her presence); and the number thirteen (which she avoided to such a degree that she refused to take exit thirteen off the New York Thruway to reach our house, even though exit twelve took her five miles out of the way). It was easy to laugh at these ideas, particularly because my grandmother often laughed at them, too. If I asked her why she was knocking on wood or tossing salt over her shoulder, she'd smile impishly and chuckle. "Heh-heh," she'd say, "Grandma is just a little superstitious."
Only when her beliefs started sounding extreme to my parents did conflict start to brew in our home. The first time I heard the word cockamamie used was when my father attached it to my grandmother's ideas. Many limes my mother stomped out of a room in frustration, leaving my grandmother behind to clench her fists and squeeze her eyes shut, lamenting, "Oh, Oh, Oh ... if only your mother would listen to me."
But listen to what? She was ruled by superstition and what we called her theories, and it did not seem to me that she liked to entertain the idea that her beliefs might be wrong. She would close her eyes, pinch her lips, and shake her head rhythmically from side to side whenever anyone introduced information that contradicted her ideas. It was impossible to argue, let alone reason, with a woman who held so firmly to her viewpoint that she left no room for an alternative Disagreeing with her only set off a barrage of late-night phone calls and unexpected visits that could go on for weeks. Her tactic was never to convince anyone else that they were wrong, only to prove that she was right In an interesting twist to what otherwise might have been a straightforward matriarchy, however, she had limited success winning others to her side and even more trouble keeping them there.
Yet for all this obstinance, my grandmother was not a mean-spirited woman in any way. Exactly the opposite, in fact. Her concerns always focused on someone else's health or happiness, and nothing could upset her more than the suspicion that one of her loved ones might be suffering. When my mother struggled with infertility in the early '60s, my grandmother spent weeks interviewing doctors, reading about endometriosis in medical libraries, calling university clinics, and writing away to Italy for supposed miracle drugs. She was the kind of grandmother who would serve the largest and most tender pieces of meat to her grandchildren, leaving the smallest and toughest for herself, and she always tried to pass the credit for her own achievements onto others. Even though I have vivid memories of her teaching me to read when I was two, until she died she insisted my mother was the one who deserved praise for the task. It was impossible to stay irritated with someone motivated by such pure benevolence and goodwill.
Faced with the difficult task of trying to please both her mother and her husband, my mother understood it was often easier to fake compliance with my grandmother's wishes than to openly rebel. This was not, however, in her mind, the equivalent of giving in. Throughout my childhood I was witness to the small deliberate acts of subversion she committed to prove her solidarity with my father without triggering her mother's alarms. I remember how she used to dash around the kitchen, hiding all the unkosher food and processed meats while my sister and I shouted progress reports from the living room window-"She's getting out of the car ..." "She's halfway to the door...." Once I heard her tell my grandmother, who was terrified of air travel, that we were taking the train to Florida for vacation, and then immediately hang up and call Delta to confirm our airline reservations She later complained about the secrets I kept from her, without realizing she was the one who taught me how to sneak around.
Tags: Parenting and Families
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