My grandmother had a face that made me stop and stare. I was always so taken back by how much I wanted to reach out and touch her wrinkles. I am not sure if I feel this way because I was one of the lucky ones that actually got to kiss her cheek and hold her hand, but I think with just one glance, you would agree that her skin was the softest you had ever felt, even if it was just with your eyes. When she smiled her dimples were so big you felt like you could get lost in them. And I did. I loved looking at her. I wanted to be just like her.
Up until my grandparents moved away when I was about six years old, my sister and I spent a good amount of time at their house. It was a warm place that always smelt good. After school, my grandfather would pick me up from the bus stop and drive me home. It was in that warm home where my grandmother would make me one of 3 snacks: fried egg sandwich, English muffin pizza or peanut butter and banana on toast. I would sit on a comfy chair with an unfolded snack table and we’d watch Love Boat together. I don’t really remember a whole lot of snuggles or even in depth conversations, but I do know that I felt safe. I also know that I understood that there was something about this woman that I couldn’t touch. I didn’t understand how and why my grandmother was such a beautiful, sweet mystery. I wanted something she had, but I didn’t know what that was.
When she was in her twenties, she reluctantly made the trip from Rhode Island to New York City as a wing girl. Her friend wanted someone to come with her to meet some guy. She was setting my grandmother up with her guy’s friend just so she wasn’t alone. My grandmother was not eager to be the buffer but was a good friend. She showed up to meet a man who was not really a fan of this blind date himself. But then they danced. And she knew.
There is so much about this story that makes me swoon. It’s so Disney fairy-tale like. Very prince charming and princess-esque. I remember when she told me that story, I was in my twenties. I had the same feeling I did when I was a little kid eating fried egg sandwiches and watching Love Boat. I wanted to stare at her. I wanted to reach out and touch this soft, wrinkled, beautiful mystery.
Although she never learned to read even one note, music clearly made her come alive. She played the piano and ukulele (hipster before her time) by ear. Music was her light. The sounds of her singing, humming, be bopping, were familiar to anyone who had the gift of her presence. One of her favorite songs was Ain’t She Sweet. I can still see her sitting on my parents old couch during one of her visits, tapping her toes and dancing with her hands as she sang, “Oh me oh my, ain’t that perfection……”
While she was still here with us, and since she has passed, my grandmother has been consistently described as sweet. I’ve said it myself. It was almost as if we all believed that is what those dimples were holding, an unending supply of sweetness.
I spent years trying to be just like her but I always felt more like a bull in a china shop. It didn’t come naturally. I had to work for my sweet. I worked so hard at that I became numb to what I was doing. I cared more about what it looked on the outside than what it felt like on the inside. I’d rather you think I was sweet than you know who I really was. Maybe it was my lack of dimples.
Or maybe it was because I couldn’t be squeezed into a “sweet” box. Maybe I am too many other things. Maybe, my grandmother was too.
It turns out, sweet has only a tiny fraction of her story. I have learned pieces of her struggles, her losses, her confusion, her questioning, her sense of humor, her stick-to-itiveness, her creative passions, her love, her wild heart and her never-ending beautifully mysterious self.
After she passed I saw pictures of her I had never seen before. Pictures of her before she was married. Some of them with her girlfriends out camping. It is undeniable, she was a total bad ass. I knew her with gray hair curled, pearls, and all of us limiting her to sweet, but before that she was wearing flannel shirts out in the woods playing leap frog with her friends and laughing her ass off. What I would give to hang with that woman.
What I would have given to know her as the limitless badass she always was with all her gray hair, pearls, and wrinkles. We would have so much to talk about now. I have so many questions.
This idea of sweet came up recently in our house. My daughter described someone who has been very “sweet” while simultaneously doing things that don’t always feel so kind. We have all experienced this sort of behavior in some way, shape or form. It can cause such a confusing hurt. I immediately began thinking of my grandmother. There is nothing wrong with sweet alone but, in my grandmother’s defense, I am so over the word. There is more. There is more to this little girl my daughter knows, to my toe tapping grandma, to me, and to all girls and women working overtime for sweet when we are just too damn big for that box.
We began to dissect the word and decided we are all, in our bull in a china shop ways, going to honor my grandmother’s legacy with something bigger. Something much more deserving of my grandmother’s memory. We have decided we are dropping sweetness and choosing kindness instead because, in our family, while sweet is attractive, kind is beautiful.
Sweet is smiling on the outside when you are feeling something very different on the inside.
Kind is respectful honesty.
Sweet is avoiding confrontation to make everyone else comfortable.
Kind is recognizing your own worth and that same light in others so that open communication becomes a no matter what
Sweet is saying you “feel so bad” for other people hurting.
Kind is extending your hand to help those hurting people.
Sweet is a one sided reaction to life.
Kind is an intentional choice of love
Sweet is simple note you learn from someone else
Kind is complicated symphony you play by ear.
I don’t know how my grandmother felt about the word sweet. I don’t know if she, too, ever felt numb trying to fit into something she was too much for. I don’t know if she stayed in touch with her flannel wearing friends or ever went camping again or played leap frog with her kids. She had nine of them. Nine kids and a ridiculous amount of grandchildren that are all still wanting to reach out and touch her.
What I know is that although it may have been the sweet, soft dimples that drew me in, I was in awe of the face of a kind woman who lived a complicated, messy, imperfect, wild, strong as hell, kind and loving beautiful mystery.
I am more like her than I ever knew.