Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Old Ladies Visit Old Ladies, Part 2

I'd like to begin by stating in my defense that the title "Old Ladies Visit Old Ladies" is a near-direct quote from my grandma herself. When I told her I wanted to meet her and her sister Betty Ann (Aunt Betty Ann, also ABA, to me) in Champaign, IL, she said:
"Why would you want to do that? It's just going to be old ladies visiting old ladies."

Indeed. Just that. We stayed with ABA and Grandma's friend Frances, who has a house on the north side of Champaign. We visited with her. We visited also with ABA's friend Cindy, who doesn't quite qualify as "old" in the sense my Gma used it, I think, since she's under 75. We visited some old lady friends at the Methodist Church. We visited a cousin who has a houseful of genealogy records and photos of old ladies, old men, and people who are young in the photos but are now old, or, dead. We visited another niece, who had a shell collection. We went to the cemetery and visited Gma's and ABA's parents.

That was on Mother's Day. I stood at my great-grandmother's grave, with my grandmother and her only sister, and called my mother, and for a brief moment there were four matrilineal generations converging in time-space, under the Illinois sun.

My grandma is one of the most endearingly sweet people I have ever met or heard of. My chronicling of the trip took a decisive turn on the first day when I realized that I was not on the path to some grand Revelation of Dirty Laundry or Great Suppressed Story from the matriarch. There are many suppressed stories in my family: alcoholism, suicide, a gay great uncle, a failed minister, an under-age love stuck across the Atlantic, and probably more. But mine is not the grandma intent on airing such dusty buried treasure. Mine is the grandma who wants to see if the old candy shop is still on the corner. Who remembers that her parents dug out their own basement, shovelful by shovelful. Who grew up during the Depression and WWII and was forever imprinted with the unmistakable need to conserve. She is annoyed by litter and excess, and little else. In fact her cheerfulness seems intrinsic, part of her fabric.

So the nearly four hours of videotape I collected is, in some way, a parade of banality. It is a collection of the precious mundane: Grandma drinking white Carlo Rossi from a champagne glass with Frances. Grandma standing in front of her old sorority house. Grandma getting interested in a flower, a bird, an old sign. Grandma and Aunt Betty Ann arguing, briefly, about when or how something in their childhood happened. Grandma summing up her niece: "She's a character." Aunt Betty Ann reading a book about Frances's home island of Bermuda. Grandma trying on a pair of gold shoes at a thrift store at my urging, then putting them immediately back on the shelf.

So I didn't get "the dirt," in the sense that there will be no dramatic unveiling of the Secret Life of Grandma Laura Gordon. But I didn't expect that, exactly. I did expect to discover some way to think or talk about the content of the chatting the women were doing. I wrote to my little sister Kelsey: They chat all day long. It's an all-day Chat-a-thon. She wrote back: What do they chat about? And I could barely answer. I think the chatting falls into three basic categories.

1) What is in front of us now. Comments made on new drapes, what someone is wearing, how cold it is, and so on. After church, we got to chat about the music, which was beautiful.
2) How things used to be compared to how they are now. I think this portion of the chatting was exaggerated by the fact that I was asking questions about the past. However, wherever there was a material change: a building torn down and a new one in its place, for instance, it got chatted about.
3) What people are up to. The old ladies keep large mental inventories of everyone's children and grandchildren, and ask about them. They remember who went on vacation where, and they ask about it. They have projects they are working on, and they chat about those, and they ask about the projects other people are working on. I heard this question: "And your son So-and So? What's he up to these days? Did he graduate/get married/move/finish his project yet?" and its variants many times.

What was most notable to me was the incredible weight of the euphemisms and subtext used in this chatting. There is actually an entirely different symbolic system being used between women who say "he's not doing well" to each other and somehow understand "he's got chronic pain and depression, and hasn't left the house for two months because he doesn't know how to function in the world." There were many times I pressed a phrase like "she's a character" or "it was a sad story" to get at the actual content, which I could not infer. Sometimes the story would come. Sometimes not. I was in way over my head.

One of my favorite moments in the many minutes of my poorly-filmed family history project was, unsurprisingly, a piece of serendipity. I was filming the inside of a theater where my grandpa used to work. A family was walking out, and one of their small daughters was having trouble getting her coat on. My grandma, who had been telling me about Grandpa, got distracted by the girl and helped her into her coat. The girl responded as if my grandma was hers--no flinching or hesitation. The parents called a thank-you on their way. There's something perfectly safe about my Grandma, I concluded. I have very complicated feelings about that fact. But that moment on camera is adorable, pure and simple, and I'm grateful we all will have it.

I cried on the bus when I left them: Grandma, Aunt Betty Ann, and Frances, all waving to me from the sidewalk in their little sweaters. I filmed them waving, and I filmed my tears, on an impulse to have for at least that moment a coexistence of their unflappable appropriateness and my genuine, extreme, emotional response. I don't know what to make of it all, just yet. But I'll make something. I will make something. Grandma and I agree on this: you use your material, and you use it as well as you can.


  1. If only we could hear all the stories. Maybe we become writers because we want to fill in the blanks. Thanks for making the personal so fruitfully public.

  2. Old ladies make me think of Zen Buddhism.

  3. Terrific stuff V. I really love the clan. Wish mine was still intact in material form.

  4. Vanessa- I am so glad you were able to go on that trip and try to capture a moment in time with Grandma and ABA. I am intrigued to see how it all plays out.