I could not have been more than about two-and-a half-years-old when I recall the safe haven of my grandmother’s lap.
I remember placing a stack of telephone books on top of one another in order to reach her gracious world of heart-space. If you are as old as I am, you may recall phone books, both yellow and white, as the places where we would look up addresses and phone numbers of friends and businesses, long before the Google animal captured our wits.
My hazel-eyed grandma smelled like an exotic mix of pure vanilla ice cream, sachets of lavender lemon and an array of different homemade sandwiches, which she always prepared upon our arrival. These included thinly toasted tuna sandwiches with cucumbers, tomato and chicken salad and her favorite, open-faced tuna sandwiches with garlands of sweet pickles and parsley.
If I were lucky, I may have visited her on one of her particularly “gay” days, when she laughed heartily about her single days, about my father’s younger man antics and even about a few boys she was quite fond of as a saucy schoolgirl.
The subject of love didn’t come up actually at all and I do not recall my grandmother ever actually saying the words “I love you” out loud to anyone in particular, although she showed me love in rare form—more than at least a million stars that greet us in a summer’s hot, country sky.
At about seven-years-young, after I spent quite a few longer weekends at grandmother, Anna Lee’s, home, which was about a mile from the sea, I learned she had left her marriage to my grandfather not long after the Second World War. I did not understand what marriage meant at this age, nor divorce, nor love nor romance for that matter. (Not that I have a huge grip on any of the before-mentioned today), nor really about anything at all, except ballet dancing or reading for hours until my eyes cried, but she did mention a few things that still capture my attention to this day.
When she bothered to talk about my grandfather, who was more suave than the most dashing of 1930s male film stars, she mentioned him in a relaxed tone as if he were merely a necessary personal experience that had passed right through her during youth, rather than as a mistake or a lost love. While slicing rusty red potatoes one early evening, probably on a Sunday, she began to describe how she probably married too young, without giving it much thought.
“That is just what you were supposed to do back then,” she said while salting warm carrots. “Everyone just got married and had families, I didn’t think much of it at the time. But I am so glad that I went to college and got an education,” she gleamed with a flip of her hair.
Grandma Anna Lee was a showstopper, a rebel, a feisty beauty who relied on her brains as much as she did her gorgeous gams. During the 1920s, when many of her girlfriends were dreaming about wedding dresses and moving into perfect shutter-drawn homes with dandelion-front yards, she was preparing to attend an art college for fashion design.
She married again in the 1960s, after having as much fun as she dared. She once said to me, as if from a black and white film scene, as she looked toward a high corner of a room , “Oh, I got so very tired of traveling and living as a single gal. It is possible to get tired of one’s self after awhile, even if I was the most fun company to be around,” after which she laughed.
I didn’t ask her if she loved her new husband more than the last, whether she loved him at all, or whether or not she had any guilt or regrets. After all, by this time, I was an impossible flirt of a teenage maiden, all nubile and vulnerable, while I pranced around her kitchen in her borrowed negliges or polka dot nighties during what I called “fun grandma sleepovers.”
Not so long ago, such things as love, intimacy and the gossip of relationships, failed or otherwise, were rarely discussed or given a lot of weight. Rather, my sisters and I often listened to my grandmothers, aunts and older lofty women carry on for hours on end sometimes, as they spoke in sing-song and hearty voices about the random discoveries of a youth well traveled—stories that helped to spice up our much-too-young faces and prepared us to get ready for our early adventures as young adult women.
During a recent mediation, wherein my mind wandered into my own often-fabled personal tragedies, I vividly envisioned my grandmother in her wild ,English rose garden peppered with at least a thousand purple flowers and how she loved to flirt with the mail man, the post man, the milk man and any man with a mustache or a crooked grin like Clark Gable’s.
Whenever she met a handsome gentleman, she would giggle and after he would leave the vicinity, she would whisper to anyone listening and say, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t kick his slippers out from under my bed.”
After I had my first daughter and fretted about how much work is was to be a new parent, she told me to “snap out of it” so that I could get onto the sacred job of mothering and to try and keep a sense of humor about myself.
I had another grandmother, that I had the opportunity of knowing as well. My mother’s dear saint’s name was Hatsuyo Aoki, and she spoke broken English with mostly a Japanese tongue. I hardly ever knew what she was saying, but happily enough, I wasn’t aware of any language barrier at all.
What I picture in black and white photographic images is that she was the loveliest and most gentle of women I have ever known to this day, with her small hardworking hands and a vulnerable manner, usually only reserved only for the likes of butterflies or young children.
When we visited her home, in Hawaii, most summers, she would first bring my sisters and I into her bedroom and lend us what we called “our happy grandma sweaters.” They smelled like a combination of moth balls and gardenias—they were hung up in hues of pale yellows, washed unhindered blues and carnation pinks. They were spaced far apart so as to feel their different fabrics without even touching them, in cloths of cotton, silk and cashmere weaves, as they awaited a tug from the hands from her only granddaughters, mixed with a combination of Japanese, Russian, Irish and Scandinavian—for good measure.
This was her way of saying “I love you,” although she merely pointed to her small closet and smiled. We knew what would come next, with a soft invitation into her open kitchen to decide what we should all cook together on a Hawaiian, sunlit evening that was scented of palms and fallen guava fruits.
Perhaps it would be a whole fish, that my grandfather caught near the nearest ocean front, or a big steak cooked Japanese-style with onions and tofu,or large bowls of udon noodles and more rice than we could eat in a season.
When my grandfather, who was a retired fisherman and farmer walked into the house, by this time, already in his 60s, my grandmother showed him her love by bringing him his brown corduroy house slippers and making Sanka coffee. He spoke even less English than she did and often just laughed or grunted like a Samurai with either happiness or disapproval.
My mother is also a grandmother now, and when my daughters have the chance to visit her, she begins by orchestrating both large meals and small cultural snacks, handing them dishes to set the table,and often singing one of her “Los Angeles” songs, which my youngest daughter calls Jazz music from the 1940s.
Funny or not very so, I don’t recall my mother ever telling my father that she loved him either, or whether or not he ever told her the same. But they have showed it over and over again, for nearly 60 years now, in simply the way they lived decently alongside one another and with the raising of four children and seven grandchildren, so far.
These might not strike a youngster or even someone of my age as anything special nor interesting. But for myself, as a woman who has lost love deeply, I now recognize the love in many everyday acts that once seemed so ordinary, that I probably fell fast if I paid too much attention.
These include my mother making dinner every day, no matter how tired she was, the way she swept the house while signing, the manner in which she folded a napkin slowly, while telling a joke or a riddle and even the way she walks into and out of a room.
The grandmothers I have had the pleasure of knowing and still know today, have one thing in common, which is what I call “an authentic sense.” Words cannot do justice on any human or imaginative level as to what this genuine sense of honest and courageous living looks like.
I know that I will never have a single memory of them texting me the words, “I love you,” emailing me a personal question, posting a Facebook link nor taking endless selfies of their beautiful faces and displaying them on Instagram.
And I am okay with that.
What they have done is spend their lives living the words “I love you” by bravely loving their own lives and of those around them—in an authentic manner, in heartfelt and solid ways that cannot be measured in pixels, algorithms nor data.
They have taken the pleasure in the little things, the medium size things and ultimately, the big picture—their mindful, colorful and unforgettable lives.
When I become a grandmother, I can only pray that I may be as elegant as all of the ones that have come before me and graced me with their unbridled stance. I hope to remember to talk with my grandchildren, take the time to show them how to do both ordinary and amazing things, spend long days and even longer evenings with them and to listen to their hopes and dreams that I already share with them—even though they have not yet been born.
The next time you see your grandmother, if you are so fortunate to still have one, or if and when you come upon any grandmother at all, remember how she has probably loved passionately for the entirety of her life, and thank her for still being here so that you are able to bask in her salted, experienced and beauteous presence.
We should all be so lucky to love like a grandmother and to act more than we speak.
In the words of my grandmother, found in an old notebook of reminders that I came upon the other day while attempting to throw things out:
“It is a sunny day like most have been this spring, and today I am excited my grandchildren are coming over to visit and that my new kitchen has the room to accommodate them, in the way they are accustomed do. Don’t forget to buy soda and ice cream for their root beer floats. They are always hungry when they arrive and that is their favorite.”