A great female legacy in my husband’s family descends from Grandmother Atwell, a petite powerhouse who lived to be 89. Strong like cognac, she bargained at Neiman-Marcus like she was in a Marrakesh souk. She feigned to forget the name of her son’s second wife for the entire 17 years they were married. She stockpiled garage sale purchases in her attic to give as gifts.
For Christmas one year, my husband and I received a used toaster, complete with crumbs. That was fine with us; we were newlyweds. But we got burned with the inaugural slice. The toaster had a short that caused the metal exterior to heat up like an oven.
“Grandmother, the toaster is broken. We need to take it back,” my husband teased. She demurred.
“What a lady,” my husband still says, which makes me wonder.
In my family, my mother’s mother presides over this bounty of gendered stereotypes, but MeMe was a slightly different brand. Like Grandmother Atwell, Meme commanded old-world etiquette and maintained appearances at all costs. But while Grandmother’s favorite color was lavender (not purple), MeMe’s was fuchsia. Her power was a perfumed blend of Chanel pink and prayer. Grandmother Atwell had warned my husband against marrying a Catholic; MeMe stuffed her purse with patron saint cards. She prayed to them to ward against bad drivers and release souls from purgatory.
“Well, they’re not real,” said Grandmother Atwell, in response to my effusive thanks for a pair of gold earrings. I can imagine her saying the same thing about MeMe’s saints.
Grandmother’s blonde coif was spiced with a streak of platinum; MeMe’s remained a perpetual blonde, with little curls pinned around it like ribbons. In the same way my kids select defining characteristics for their avatars, our grandmothers’ hairstyles conveniently matched their personas: there was a naïve softness to MeMe’s presence compared to Grandmother’s brusque severity.
So preserved and maintained was MeMe’s hairstyle, I thought that her hair just stayed that way, like a helmet. It never occurred to me that it was actually long and arranged up on her head, until one evening, when I walked into her dressing room, and caught her with her hair down. Everything looked horribly wrong and out of place.
One of beauty’s secrets is to never appear to work at it, but I had discovered where the magic happened. Her dressing room was really just the end section of her bathroom, and I was lured there by the robin’s egg blue marble container that held cotton balls, the silver brush set, and the arrangement of mirrors that allowed her to see herself from behind.
MeMe’s evening ritual was ceremonial like church. She sat on her makeup stool in a formal dressing gown, and then, with the same amount of patience she used to get ready in the morning, she got ready for bed, undoing everything that she had done for the day. When she removed her makeup with Pond’s Cold Cream–a messy, time-consuming process–the difference was dramatic, like Oz behind the curtain.
Grandmother approached all life situations with an icy reserve; MeMe’s feelings bubbled out of her like steam from the teakettle that she perpetually forgot on the stove. I’d hear it whistling from the back room where I’d be watching cartoons, that high-pitched sound piercing the suburban quiet, and run to the kitchen. This would rustle MeMe up from whatever she was busy doing; she’d meet me there, in the kitchen, to turn it off, cursing herself for forgetting it for the umpteenth time.
Which brings me to the most prevalent and unique gift of my family’s female legacy, the MeMe squeal, a rush of happiness that comes unannounced, inspired by varying situations. For me, it’s usually food, but for MeMe, it was the people she loved. This passionate display of excitement may come in the form of words or sound alone, and strikes at moments of extreme surprise.
On New Year’s Eve, buying champagne at the liquor store, I spot a tiny bottle of St. Germain and inadvertently let out a MeMe squeal, which is promptly countered by my twelve-year-old’s disdain of equal measure.
But even MeMe’s great granddaughters are not safe. Spotting a tin on the counter, my 19-year-old shouts, “You brought the cookies!” Her voice rises several octaves higher than normal, reaching a slight squeak that can only be defined as the MeMe squeal. It’s so real, so pure, even she can’t deny it.
When she was a newborn, I brought her to see MeMe. I wasn’t supposed to take her anywhere, because she was premature and in danger of getting sick. But MeMe was dying of cancer, so I couldn’t wait.
“You brought the baby!” MeMe squealed in utter delight.
My daughters have some of Grandmother’s fur wraps and beaded evening purses. MeMe’s dressing table stool sits in their bathroom under the refined light of her pink porcelain chandelier. These two different ladies are trapped together in the legacy of my daughters. They stand in opposition, side by side in the name of my middle daughter. Laura. Patricia. The names roll off the tongue with their inner consonance. But the tension from difference between these two types of lady expands like a slingshot to power her through life.