(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.