My Grammy couldn’t wink.
Her face just couldn’t do it. So she’d contort her face into a wildly exaggerated, Lucille Ball approximation of a wink. I’d laugh every time. It was a running joke between us.
My Grammy — she who taught me very important lessons about women’s bodies from a contraband 1983 issue of Playboy — would have been 71 today.
She died in 1996 from cancer at the unfair age of 53, which is too young by anyone’s standards. I was 11, and it was the worst day of my life.
I remember it was a brilliantly sunny, unreasonably warm day in October, and I remember being angry that it was such a nice day. It felt like another injustice.
My Grammy, Karen, was born in the spring and she died in the fall — just like her beloved gardens. At the lake, she used to let the garter snakes slither up her arms, her hands in the dirt.
She used to wear striped terry-cloth tube tops to garden (no tan lines). They had ruching down the front, making a sweetheart neckline. I remember thinking they made her breasts look like a bow.
I COVETED those tube tops.
To me, they were the height of glamour. When I was nine or 10, I ‘borrowed’ one with turquoise stripes for a Slurpee run to 7-11. It was the ’90s, so naturally I paired it with bike shorts; you know, the ones with the neon green stripe down one side and the neon pink stripe down the other.
I strutted down the street, thinking I looked like the hottest shit despite wearing the world’s most terrible outfit — but when I looked down to admire my own bow cleavage, I was instead confronted with the alarming sight of my own bare, flat, boyish chest, the tube top rolled unflatteringly around my waist like a doughnut. Turns out, what I really coveted were boobs.
Grammy loved flowers. She made beautiful things with them after their short lives were over — wreaths and potpourri and dried flower arrangements. The Christmas ones smelled of cinnamon and oranges.
The days when she’d prep for craft sale season were the best; buckets upon buckets of fresh roses, in every colour, all over the house. The scent of roses still reminds me of her.
I loved to play dress up in her closet. I’d experiment with her makeup; a real ’60s babe, she favoured bright red lipstick and powder blue eyeshadow.
My go-to dress up outfit was a pair of shiny black patent pumps with Minnie Mouse bows on the toes, paired with what was actually her robe but to me was exotic getup straight out of daytime television — a slinky kimono with bright pink tropical flowers on it.
She was a voracious reader, and she taught me to be one, too.
I’d marvel at friends’ bedrooms that didn’t have bookshelves; I had more than one and they were bursting. Grammy put me on a steady diet of Judy Blume right away. She’d stock me up on books every time she went to her favourite used-book store, which was often, and she’d write my name on the cover with the steady, beautiful penmanship that my mom inherited but I did not.
I inherited her stubborness, her independence, her sense of humour, her love of words.
I have her middle name — Elizabeth — and the charm necklace she always used to wear, the one that rested on her strong, tanned clavicle. One of my earliest memories is playing with it when I was snuggled on her lap to be read to, gently fingering the charms. The blue enamel heart. And the ruby, which was probably a nod to her mother, Ruby. I don’t know. I never asked.
My Grammy swore a lot and laughed a lot and always had well-manicured nails and drank sweating glasses of rum and Coke at the lake. To me, she was the epitome of femininity.
When I said goodbye to her in the hospital on that day in October, she was already intubated. The cancer had overrun her lungs. She couldn’t speak, but I could tell she really wanted to. I remember the muscles in her neck straining in frustration.
So, she did the next best thing. She winked.