I was always very close to my maternal grandmother, and still miss her every day, even though she's been gone since 1996. I could write an entire book about Gay Ellis Smyer, and maybe one day I will, but today I mention her because she was the first old person that I knew well. And since I'm slowly becoming an old person myself, much of what I think about getting old came from her.
I've always thought little old ladies are adorable. When I was a little girl, I thought our neighbor, who I called Bibba, was the cutest lady in the neighborhood. She had hair the color of cumulus clouds in the Alabama sky, and she was a teeny, stooped little lady, the same height as me when I was nine. But no matter the time of day or the occasion, she always had her orange lipstick on. I was fascinated by the streaks and spots that thick orange product left on her teeth, but her lips maintained their brightness through many cups of coffee and cigarettes. She was always baking something aromatic that drew us kids to her porch door to see what was cooling on her kitchen table. She baked so frequently that even her old basset hound smelled like cookies.
Many caring older ladies peopled my childhood: Mrs. Garrick, Mrs. Deese, and one elderly red-haired lady whose first name was Lolita, who always talked to me about her antiques and her garden. To me, the older ladies of my acquaintance had their acts together. They were beacons of decency and civility to their neighbors, families, churches and communities. I never thought getting old was a bad thing as a kid, because the older ladies I knew were so amazing. And none more so than my grandmother.
I called her Grandmother, which seemed like a genteel title when compared to Memaw or Gammy or any of those folksy nicknames my childhood friends addressed their grandmothers by. But she was a lady of many accomplishments, back when the terms "lady" and "accomplishment" carried some weight in society.
It's not my intention to write a biography here, but I'll list just a few of the roles my grandmother played: daughter, sister, scholar, beauty queen, wife, mother, teacher, secretary, nurse, writer, mentor and "port in a storm." Her talents and encouragement are woven so deeply into the fabric of my being that I can't attempt any task, however mundane, without drawing on some lesson she imparted to me.
I always considered my grandmother the benchmark of beauty for older ladies. And I guess that's why my childish compliments brought a wry smile to her face. I genuinely thought the things that made her different from me were beautiful. I thought her thin halo of gray and white hair was so pretty...but when I told her that once, when she had her hair in brush rollers hidden under a scarf, she looked at me like I was crazy, and probably told me to go brush my thick, tangled locks.
Another thing I admired was her hands. And not just because they made me bacon and grits every morning and sewed, crocheted and knitted vast quantities of clothes and needlework for me. I liked the way the blue veins bulged through the opaque skin of her hands. I truly thought that was an attractive look, compared to my smooth, plump hands. I would often sit with one hand tightly grasping my opposite wrist, to make my veins pop out like hers. She and my mother scolded me for doing that, and warned I would do permanent damage, but I just squeezed my wrists in secrecy. And don't you know, today I have those bulging veins, so I guess that worked just like I hoped.
My grandmother's hands were speckled with spots, what the old folks called "liver spots" back then. To me, they looked like freckles, and as a fair-skinned blond, I desperately wanted freckles. But Grandmother corrected me - I did not want freckles, and she had age spots because she was old. I shouldn't want to look old or be freckled - I should be happy with my peaches-and-cream (whatever that meant) complexion and my youth. Thinning hair, age spots, spreading hips, hammer toes, trifocals, bright white dentures - these were all fascinating hallmarks of senior adulthood that were interesting because they were so different from me, and because they weren't happening to me.
How silly I must have seemed, sitting with my curled toes jammed to the floor, trying to develop hammer toes. I also thought I was the luckiest girl in 6th grade, when I got wire-rimmed glasses that looked just like my grandmother's pair. And my first year of wearing makeup, I bought a tube of Coty lipstick that must have been named "Safety Orange," just because the color looked so beautiful on Bibba. I even remember stealing some gray bobby pins from the bureau of my great-grandmother Dabbo, looking forward to the day when I could pile my hair into an enormous bun and secure it with pins that matched my gray hair.
Well, today I type with hands that bulge with blue veins and gnarly knuckles, and I have quite a few brown spots as reminders of the years of careless, unprotected sun exposure. My hair is still reasonably thick, but nothing like the tresses of my youth. I got my middle-aged spread and the attendant waddle years ago, and during my childbearing years I went from a shoe size 7.5N to 9.5W.
I also have a few non-visible signs of advancing age. I grow more forgetful every day, and start entirely too many sentences with the phrase, "When I was younger..." I find myself very preoccupied with the changes in the world since I was a youngster, which seems to be the favorite subject of 90% of nursing home patients with whom I come in contact. My brain often behaves like it already belongs to an old person.
As a young adult, I was dubious of the idea of Heaven and Hell, and enjoyed vigorous debates about the existence of an afterlife. But when I lost Grandmother, right on the heels of becoming a new mother, and losing my best friend to suicide, my devastation decided that question for me. I became a believer in an afterlife of some kind, because I couldn't fathom an existence without some connection to my grandmother. And as the years have marched by, I have benefited from that choice. I've felt Grandmother's presence in my life many times; often proud of me, sometimes correcting, but always benevolent.
It's a comfort to think that she's up there, watching me grow older and understanding, only too well, how unpleasant it can be. She'd probably advise me to wear better shoes, take care of my teeth and gums, lose a few pounds, walk more, drink less and always wear rubber gloves when washing the dishes.
She'd tell me to put some Jergens lotion on my hands, and don't worry with fade cream, because the liver spots are here to stay. Then she'd tell me to touch up my orange lipstick and look in the mirror, because there is a beautiful older lady there, smiling at me.