My grandma died early Monday. She was 92, and ready to go. She
was surrounded by family and caretakers, but unaware. In the end,
she died alone. Her death was a private affair, an internal
Actually, the Grandma I knew had been gone for a long time. This
tiny curled up woman with the stringy white hair and angry eyes had
not recognized me for five years. And I did not acknowledge her for
the previous five.
My family does not really understand how I felt about Zella Mae.
They only know about our stormy and uncomfortable verbal exchanges,
and my failure to visit her for the past 10 years. They know of my
fear of very old people, my panic in hospitals, and my protective
walls of cynicism and denial.
Yet, Zella Mae has been one of my greatest role models. She was
my first and most enduring example of a strongly independent and
capable woman. She was also the most intelligent woman I recall in
my early childhood. Yet, she was one of the most feminine and vain
people I've ever met.
Grandma always had pretty manicured nails and beautiful rings on
many fingers. Yet, she had a peculiar habit: she would not hold her
hands still to let you look at them. She was very vain about her
hands, which had age spots and wrinkles and callouses. And getting
in line for the bathroom after Grandma was an exercise in
forbearance. I recall watching thirty minutes pass on my my Minnie
Mouse watch while waiting for Grandma to finish "powdering her nose."
When I entered the bathroom after her, it smelled of her soft perfume
and face powder. She hadn't even needed to relieve herself; she'd
just been applying makeup and making her pincurls lay flat on her
forehead. The whole time she was aware that a seven year old needed to
At Christmas, Grandma put together custom tins and boxes of
treats for each of us. She was a true health nut, well before it was
fashionable. I was always disappointed that the carob-covered
raisins and homemade whole wheat zucchini bread wasn't store-bought
candy. Today, I've connected with her quest for healthy cuisine.
I remember picking at a glorious stack of her homemade buckwheat
pancakes covered in molasses! They didn't taste like Bisquick jacks
with Log Cabin syrup! Today, I wish I had her recipes.
Zella Mae loved men, and went through husbands like candy! I
think she just wore them out! Some were saintly and died early, some
were notorious and gave her many children and heartaches. One
committed suicide, and one just disappeared. Through the years of
bearing nine children, she had many husbands and probably more
affairs than we will ever know. When I was fifteen, I asked her why
she had felt the need to re-marry. I'll never forget this: she
looked me straight in the eyes and said, "Because I have always
enjoyed sex after dinner."
Zella Mae would understand my life choices. She would respect my
desire to be happy above all else. She would "get" my credo: "Suck
the marrow out of life." She would know, more than her daughter, my
mother knows, the jealousy with which I guard my chance to have good
sex after dinner.
I have tried to be like you, Zella Mae: feminine but strong,
with the ability to go on. And I think I'm doing it.
At least, that's the view from here.
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