Grandma Miriam had two wishes for me:
1) That I wouldn't go crazy like my father.
2) That I would marry a nice guy like my grandfather.
My father had a nervous breakdown when I was two and Grandma's sister Lily had spent time in a mental hospital. I always had the feeling Grandma was looking for signs of insanity in me.
Still, she wanted me to be pretty, even if it drove me crazy in the process. Pretty was everything in our family. Grandma was not a beautiful woman but she carried herself as if she was. She went to the beauty parlor every Friday morning. She never wore pants. Dresses were hemmed at the knee, blouses were tucked neatly inside skirts. Handkerchiefs were pressed. Silver belt buckles were polished, and so were shoes. Silk scarves were knotted around the neck. If a button was missing, it was immediately sewed on. The only time I ever saw Grandma cry was in college, when she took me on a trip to China and I insisted on wearing jeans with gaping holes in the knees to dinner. That was also the day I told her I was no longer a virgin. It was 1984 and I was 19 but in her eyes, I might no longer be marriage material.
Which brings us to her second goal. I should get married, and stay married, as she had done, but as her mother and two daughters did not do. Grandma was one of nine children, raised by a single mother whose husband had left her. Men and money were scarce. Grandma's mother sewed all of her clothes and when my great grandmother had to decide who was going to get the money for college tuition-- Grandma or the youngest brother Jack --- my great-grandmother chose Jack.
But Grandma was resourceful. She put herself through teachers college, married Grandpa and had a long career running a gifted and talented program at a Brooklyn elementary school. When I was born, she retired. I was the first grandchild and only granddaughter. She had a lot riding on me. When I started to gain weight in high school and refused to talk to a neighborhood boy we had bumped into a bakery, she panicked. She only wanted me to find a nice man like my grandfather and marry him, and in order to be marriageable, I had to look presentable. "Comb your hair," Grandma would say. "Don't you want to put on some lipstick? Don't you want to look nice?" No, no and no. What Grandma didn't understand was that my father mocked me if I gained weight, and looked at me too long if I lost it. Plus, I went to a prep school that had once been an all boys school. I wanted to look like a boy. More to the point, I was afraid to be pretty.
Still, I loved it when Grandma me let me play with her jewelry, long dangling emerald and amethyst earrings, wide gold bangles, double strands of pearls and diamond broaches, and a turquoise bracelet that wound into the shape of a snake. Sometimes Grandma would point to her lapel, and say, "This is a very important pin." She swam at the Y every morning, holding her head above the water so as not to get her snow-white hair wet, and played duplicate bridge all day long. She answered the phone, "Good morning," and when she met someone new, held their hand and asked, "How do you do?" As foolish as I thought her preoccupations with marriage and good manners were, I also knew that despite the dark waters my father had us swimming in, Grandma was the one who would swim out and lead me back to shore.
After college, the things my father said and did didn't matter as much and I found a nice guy. When my father refused to pay for our wedding or my wedding dress, Grandma sent a check. She wore a beautiful navy blue pleated Mary McFadden dress to our wedding and when she died, my mother had her buried in it.
Now that I'm almost the age that Grandma was when she became a grandmother, I understand what she was trying to say when I was a teenager: Start taking care of yourself now. That way, when no one is looking at you anymore, you can still carry yourself as if they are. But it wasn't just that. The daily ministrations of putting on lipstick and wearing Grandma's pearls gives me more pleasure than reason says it should. And when I can't sleep at night, I think about standing in front of her as she hems my skirt, a pin cushion in her lap and a measuring tape in her mouth, as she says, , "Hold still, darling, I'm trying get it right."
Laura Zinn Fromm is the author of Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, published by Greenpoint Press, available from Amazon, BN.Com, Words Bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, Parnassus, Bookworm, Book Passage, Bloomingdale's and Canyon Ranch.