(body talk #11)
Bodies I have known: let’s start with the women.
My grandmother Helen was born in 1906, but she was always old. She was old the way people in old photographs look old — the shape of her face was from another time, one where women were called “handsome” and it was a compliment. She had pale blue eyes and an expression that was wry and sharp and slightly unnerving (the cat that swallowed the canary, a smirking sphynx) and I have many pictures of her looking straight into the lens as if it were a staring contest to see who would blink first (the camera always lost). She was short but didn’t act it and hid her generous bosom under ironclad Gordian undergarments. Her clothes were out of date but not unfashionable — on her, anachronism seemed intentional, a quirk of personal style, those brightly colored synthetic dresses with matching jackets she found at the thrift store, Chanel on LSD. She never wore pants and she always wore heels, even if she’d trip and skitter down the hallway (she’d blame the rug), even after she turned 90. After returning from a trip to Greece, she decided she wanted her grandchildren to call her “Yaya” instead of “Grandma” although she was midwestern with English ancestry and was as white as white can be. I think to her, “Yaya” sounded cultural and enigmatic.
Yaya was a widow all my life. My grandfather Ted, a small-town dentist who wished he could quit his job to play the saxophone, drank himself to an early death. I can’t imagine Yaya with a man. Yaya was above sex the way a chandelier is above a stain on the carpet. In my mind she stands alone, amazingly sturdy on her high-heeled feet, not lonely but monolithic, sexless but never sad, sexless the way a nun or a monk is, one who has found better things to do with her life. She was busy tending her rooftop garden, reading about politics and asian religions, gossiping about the other residents of the Berkeley City Club where she lived, and bringing half-eaten sandwiches wrapped in paper napkins to the homeless on Telegraph Avenue.
When I visited Yaya at her small apartment, I got to play in her closet. It was a large walk-in and I’d yank the pull-string light and shut the door behind me. Completely surrounded by wool coats, pocketbooks, hatboxes, high-heeled loafers with buckles, wigs on styrofoam heads, and festoons of beads hanging on the back of the door; riotous colors, crazy patterns, and the sharp, heavy smell of her, a smell so strong I can still smell it, a mixture of old perfume, dried flowers, and talcum powder. Her closet was a sacred and intimate space. It seemed like that was the closest I could get to her and I’d play as solemn and quiet as a neophyte in a confessional.
All day long, Yaya was righteous and imperious. If I slouched, she’d poke my spine and if I giggled too long, she’d scowl. I was expected to put on a proper, ladylike show all day but at night Yaya would metamorphose into a completely different creature. She’d wait until I was asleep to transform. She’d tuck me in on the love seat and turn off the lights and I’d fall asleep to the muffled sound of her tiny television but in the middle of the night, I’d open my eyes and catch her floating feather-light across the floor in bare feet and a long, white nightgown. Her snow white hair, usually held aloft with bobby pins, trailed thin as cobwebs almost down to her waist. I’d watch with wide eyes as she fluttered around, an endless insomaniacal puttering, and eventually she’d float over to me and press her papery palm against my forehead. “Don’t be afraid. I’m right here,” she’d tell me. Having washed off the callous layers of foundation, powder, lipstick, and arching eyebrow pencil, her face was soft and astonishingly girlish and when she sat next to me, I could feel the shocking tenderness of her flesh, usually firm as a sausage in those complicated girdles, now soft and warm as a pillow.
When I was 19 years old, I wore ripped fishnet stockings, streaks in my hair, earrings all the way around my ear, and I posed naked for a magazine. I was afraid to visit Yaya after it came out: clearly, I’d failed at being ladylike and no pokes or scowls could save me. But Yaya never said a word about it, never let one word escape her stiff coral lips, but in her hallway she hung a picture she’d cut from the magazine — just my face, everything below the neck sliced off with a sharp pair of scissors, but still, it hung there in a fancy gilt frame for all to see.
(Comments are off — not because I don’t want to chat with you, but because I’m afraid I won’t have time to respond. Boooo. Press “like” if you want to leave your calling card and I hope we can catch up later when I’ve gotten the hang of this new job.)