beautiful things


(body talk #12)

In this life, if we’re lucky, we get to know some bodies, by which I mean get close enough so that they leave a lasting imprint. I’m not talking about sex, although that may certainly be one way to do it; I’m talking about how some people get under your skin and how, when you close your eyes (there I go again, closing my eyes to remember), you can see those lips curling up at the corners or smell that scent or hear that voice whispering in your ear, even when they’re gone, dead, lost, or far away, still, they’re with you, residual shadows. It’s not the same as remembering something someone said or did: it’s a lingering sensory impression of a physical presence, carnal knowledge without the pejorative connotations.

How do we hold onto bodies that are long gone? How do bodies defy time and gravity and death? Maybe this is why some people believe in ghosts.

My maternal grandmother Joan was a beautiful woman who surrounded herself with things to match: carved teak and rosewood furniture, sterling silver candelabras, thick wool blankets, a celadon bowl filled with blowsy roses from the garden. In my mind, her belongings were inextricably intertwined with herself. Her aesthetic was what I’d call opulent zen — precious materials rendered in minimalist design — and her body was designed the same way, tall and slender as a bronze deco statue, with long fingers and narrow feet that could only fit into keds or special-ordered Ferragamo loafers. She carried herself like a kabuki dancer, straight and tight, with the occasional graceful flutters in the extremities, although she had no Asian lineage whatsoever, she had lived in China as a child with her family (her father worked overseas as a taxation advisor to the government) and in China and Japan as an adult (her husband imported cotton). The things in Joan’s home were her customary topics of conversation and when I’d come to visit, she’d tell long stories about the provenance and value of each object, an account that would often end with a suggestion about whom should inherit what after her death. Even when she was still young and strong, Joan was talking about who would get what when she died, as if life was a precious museum collection and her job as curator was to catalogue, polish, and and pass it along.

My grandmothers spent a lot of time thinking about the surface of things– they constantly strove for a certain kind of strict but elusive elegance. Perhaps it was a generational preoccupation, but both women also had an unconventional appreciation of the importance of the mind and struggled to educate themselves as well. Joan attended her body and mind as one might tend a Japanese tea garden. She never used soap on her face and she read the New York Times every day, slaving over the crossword puzzle (it often seemed more of a duty than a joy). She believed fingernails ought to be filed, not cut, and she participated in book clubs, taking profuse notes and underlining passages so that she could participate in the discussion although, when asked, she would never say if she liked the book or not — her personal opinion was irrelevant, the importance of the literature was all that mattered, just as the value of her things had less to do with her personal taste but rather sprang from the stories passed down with them. She had graduated from Wellesley College but never spoke about what she learned there — instead, she told the story about how she’d come back to the US from China with a trunk full of embroidered silk and while the other girls were going to parties, she was busy ironing silk underwear.

When my grandfather died, she began spending winters with my mother in California and summers at her house on Martha’s Vineyard until the traveling got too difficult and she moved in with my mother for good. That’s when I really got to know her, but that’s also when the deterioration of her mind and body began, simultaneously, a slow, steady slide, although she covered it with her last ounce of grace. She traded her elegant cane for an ugly walker and eventually spent most of her days in bed. She could no longer do crossword puzzles or read because she couldn’t hold onto a thought long enough and when I visited, she’d repeat her stories in exactly the same tone of voice; conversing with her was sometimes like watching someone pull the same pretty objects off a shelf.

The closer she got to death, the less she spoke about whom should inherit what. Eventually, she forgot her stories, and her lifetime’s accumulation of treasures lost their meaning. Wiped clean of past, possessions, and poses, some deep and essential thing finally floated to the surface and when I visited, she greeted me with bashful joy. There was little left to talk about, so I’d bring my eldest daughter to play in her room and we’d spin the crystal prism that hung in the window and send little rainbows shooting around the room. That always reminded my girl of a disco ball so we’d turn the music up loud so Great could hear it (my daughter called Joan her “Great,” short for great-grandmother,) and we’d have a little dance party, with Great propped up on a pillow, snapping her fingers. She loved it when I read her very short pieces, poems by Dorothy Parker and Ogden Nash always made her laugh, and when I got pregnant again, she wanted to touch my belly.

Sometimes, I’d sleep in the guest room to give mom a break. There was a baby monitor in case she needed help in the night. A baby monitor: no, the irony was not lost on me. Near the end of her life, if she knew I was there, she’d sometimes wake up every hour. The monitor would crackle my name and I’d get up as fast as I could (I was hugely pregnant by then) and run to her room before she woke my eldest. Great didn’t really need anything, she just got lonely. She’d smile apologetically at my burgeoning midsection and wonder if I was getting enough sleep.

One night after she’d awakened many times, I lay there listening for her call and had a lucid dream she was there in the bed beside me, an electronic voice crackling in my ear, her arms wrapped around my belly, her frail old body hungry for warmth. I was surrounded by bodies: daughter sleeping next to me, baby inside, and grandmother clinging to my back, a heavy pile of bones and hair and skin, a fleshy envelope, the sensation of being simultaneously smothered and blanketed, hugged and buried alive, pressed between life and death, death and life I can’t escape and struggling will only dig me deeper.

Fran Lebowitz once said, “The most common error made in matters of appearance is the belief that one should disdain the superficial and let the true beauty of one’s soul shine through. If there are places on your body where this is a possibility, you are not attractive – you are leaking.” Lebowitz meant for this to sound rather ridiculous but for me, it also feels true. My grandmother was leaking. She gushed beauty all her life and in the end, she lay there like a beautiful puddle.

She died eating breakfast in bed. One burst of stroke and she was out. I imagine how the sunlight hit the prism in her window, sending a swarm of rainbow worms squiggling across her blanket.

She died with a mouthful of bacon. She loved bacon.

About Anna Fonté

Girl in the Hat, aka Anna Fonté, is an author who writes about invisibility, outsider status, everyday monsters, and her attempts to befriend the neighborhood crows. The things she writes want you to look at them.


  1. “I was surrounded by bodies: daughter sleeping next to me, baby inside, and grandmother clinging to my back, a hot pile of bones and hair and skin, a fleshy envelope, the sensation like being simultaneously smothered and blanketed, hugged and buried alive, pressed between life and death.”

    That is the most powerful evocation I have experienced in written word in a very long time. Again, you’ve brought my heart back to this BoomBoom revving place, which you seem to have mastered. You are an alchemist in this way.

    Your perceptions are contagiously alive, woman. They have this madness about them, this unwavering hunger that is never satisfied. They see everything on the surface, yes — generational or not — but they pierce right through to the living core of each moment, ravaging all the unspokens and exploiting their reckless beauty, but for their own sake alone. And the feel! My, how the feel of that keenness translates on this page; these pages; your life, summized in such a magnitude of seeing, and sharing.

    The emotion in this post brought back a parallel swelling of thoughts and memories…
    It was the most moving piece I’ve written, for me. A lot in common with this one of yours.

    So this is what a writer looks like! Well freaking done.

  2. Oh AF, this is a beautiful and heartbreakingly well-written portrait of your grandmother. My thoughts are with you and yours today.

    • CB! It took me years to write about her death. This must have happened six years ago. But I know you recently lost your grandmother, I’m sure it must have struck a chord. Grandmothers are so huge, aren’t they? xoox

  3. Anna~ “I was surrounded by bodies…” also blew me open and a single brief but certain sob escaped me, expressing the movement of my deeply felt compassion and awe at your powerful, yes, alchemical, weaving of words and imagery. I love you, AF.

  4. My god, Anna, that’s a beautiful piece of visceral literature. Art and letters.

  5. Like the comments above your words have struck home – the conjured imagery is palpable – real and heartfelt. It may be tricky juggling the new job with your writing but this is marvellous stuff.

  6. MSB

    This, coupled with your piece about your grandma Helen, is absolutely breathtaking. Yes, that image of being surrounded by bodies is a powerful one. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  7. Simply beautiful. Everything you describe is so crisp and clear.

  8. Beautiful, put tears in my eyes this morning. Sorry for your loss. I lived with my grandmother my wholelife…..incredible post.

  9. You wrote so beautifully about her that I could picture her. Classy lady who enjoyed the best parts of life, yet let them go peacefully when she no longer had use for them. What a nice piece Anna. You write on heck of a good description of life; even the ‘in betweens’ such as “Wiped clean of past, possessions, and poses, some deep and essential thing finally floated to the surface and when I visited, she greeted me with bashful joy.” Thank you for sharing your grandmother with us.

  10. I’m reading along, thinking about your grandmothers and your fabulous storytelling and then – and then! – the end knocked me right over. She loved bacon!! This story is priceless, Anna, thanks for sharing.

    There is something about that generation, the collecting and the keeping of fine things, as though those things are a reflection of themselves. My mother in law has recently been trying to give away her favorite baubles to her grandchildren, but they keep telling her “no thanks” that her things aren’t their style and don’t fit in their household. How sad this makes her, how ungrateful they are.

    • So sad, isn’t it? These treasures no one wants– like saying you don’t want your grandmother lying around because she’ll clash with the decor. Our houses used to be filled with things from our ancestors, things we used for generations, now they’re full of new stuff that goes together and says something about us, only us.

  11. Todd

    Dang lady, ya almost got a tear out of a grown man. Maybe the whole world doesn’t know about your writing yet but I’m glad I found you. I gotta stop reading you at work tho, it sends my mind a wandering. When I was nineteen I got to watch my dad go down that path. He didn’t lose his mind but his strong body withered to a stick-figure draped in skin and hair. Our looming, fearless, iron-fisted patriarch shriveled up. 30 plus years on and I can still see, am haunted by, the hallow look of fear in his eyes when he knew he would die. Usually aloof and disdainful of his ne’er-do-well son, he looked to me for assurance, love, and it terrified me. St. Paddy’s day is coming, I think I’ll have a Gueness or four for all our dead friends and family.

  12. Todd

    PS Ditto what Brandy said. “ravaging all the unspokens”, etc., yeah, that’s it… you’re da bomb, etc! That’s all I got (sorry, I can’t do you)… but I mean it.
    PPS I was reading your story on my phone today at lunch over a veggie burrito at some tough LA taco joint. I had already deflected a couple sideways glances for not ordering the carne asada, but when I got to the bacon part I let out a loud, involuntary yelp which turned several heads. I gotta stop reading your stuff around dudes with tear drop tattoos.

    • Are you a vegetarian, Todd? Maybe next time I write about eating meat, I’ll put in a warning to vegetarians.

      • Todd

        Yeah, I went veg the first of the year. I stopped all sugar, soda and caffeine too. Feels great. More energy, less weight, just feel lighter. No warning needed, I’m around carnivores all day and it doesn’t bother me at all. Don’t read a book called “The China Study” or you might veg out too. We don’t really need all that protein. As proof, my trail running pal Laura has been a veg for decades. She runs ultras and just finished the LA Marathon yesterday in 4:05. That’s a good time for anyone, but especially for a 53 year old woman!

  13. Grandmothers do strike a chord, AF, and yes, wonderful one, I am still grieving for mine and will be for as long as it takes to feel my way through the dark. I/r/t your grandmother and this piece of writing here— the writing was so immediate and so fresh sounding that I wasn’t sure if the event of her passing was recent. And I wasn’t sure whether I should ask? (Which sounded odd.) So, I went with condolences.

    Yeah, you’re that good at creating tonal immediacy! In my opinion, which is worth, well, whatever an opinion is worth. But I am amazed more and more by what you are doing right now.

    On a shifted subject, both of your grandmothers were so different in style, but the similarities are striking! Bold women with a specific viewpoint of the world that they were unafraid to display.

    I feel as though your writing is taking on a new layer of muscle, but I can’t suss out the particulars. Whatever it is— I love it. Keep going. More please. More. ❤

    • I think it has something to do with having absolutely no time to write. I steal ten minutes here and there and it’s like starting to write all over again. I so, so envy you the fact that you write for a living, CB.

      Next, I’m going to try to write about my mother. This fills me with almost as much trepidation as writing about orgasms did. Ha. (*suppressing inane noises now*)

  14. vishalbheeroo

    It’s well-etched and beautiful piece that leaves us with a lesson in life. Make the most in this amazing journey called life.

  15. There is something about grandmother’s and the visceral impression they leave behind. As always, you find beauty in the tragedy… The lucid dream… breathtaking.

  16. Wonderful, Anna — not only do I see everything you describe, there’s a mood through all this, like an atmospheric photo.

  17. Only this evening I was talking Bout my granny and now I read this beautiful piece. Struck a chord.

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