This is a particularly unflattering picture of both me and my Grandma, Laura Gordon. However, it does show off two important facts about her: she knitted that hat for me a few years ago, and her favorite color is orange. She knits, she sews, she bowls (lifetime high was in the 260s? I'll have to ask again), she goes for long walks every day, she lives in Arleta but still calls it Pacoima. She drinks only white wine, thank you, and tap danced on television as a girl. She does not like loud movies and had only one love, my Grandpa George, who died when I was seven.
My grandma Laura turns 85 this year. She and her sister Betty Ann (who lives in Florida) are, right now, on a road trip together to visit old lady friends and family. They met in St. Louis. They're driving up to Illinois, then all the way down to Florida. Tomorrow I'm boarding a plane to Chicago, where they'll pick me up, and then I'm spending 3 days with them, in their hometown of Champaign, IL. With my video camera.
It's a family history project. It's a personal history project. I'm a California city girl, and yet only one generation removed from Real Midwestern. I'm going to ask questions that will seem silly to Grandma, about canning and corn and square dancing and salads one can make with mayonnaise. I'm also going to ask questions she may not think are appropriate, about the Civil Rights movement in Champaign, about the four years she spent waiting for Grandpa to return from war, about her decision after graduating from college to be a full-time mother instead of pursuing a career.
I'm the only person in my family who thought to catch part of this trip on camera. I'm the only one with a flexible schedule. I'm the only one who deals in stories for a living. I'm the only one who seems to suspect my Grandma of having thoughts and feelings she hasn't expressed over the years.
A few weeks ago, in preparation for this trip/video project, I interviewed my mother, aunt, and uncle about their childhood road trips from Los Angeles to Champaign. I wanted to know what they remembered from the town. They talked incessantly for an hour, regaling me with stories of scary relatives' basements, sleeping porches, games they'd play in a creek they called The Boney. They remembered what their father was doing during these trips--cracking jokes, disciplining them, letting them choose the next campsite.
"What was Grandma doing during the day on these vacations?" I asked.
They looked at each other.
"Making lunch?" my aunt said.
"Chatting," my mom said. "She and her family in Champaign did a lot of chatting."
I asked what they chatted about.
What did women in the 1960s who didn't have jobs chat about all day during a midwestern summer? I wonder if Grandma will remember. I wonder if all the feminist theorists I've been reading would feel the pain I feel at those lost hours, those lost words, those lost moments of intimacy between women who are now mostly dead.
What do women in 2010 chat about all day? What is everyone chatting about on Twitter and Facebook and what are we writing about in our blogs? Will we remember? Does our constant vigilance about updating and documenting actually mean we will know ourselves better when we are 85?
There's some stories underneath the nearly impeccable mantle of normalcy my Grandmother has carried all these years. There are stories of love and sadness and death and courage and loneliness and hope--all words I don't think I've ever heard her say. Because her memory isn't what it used to be, every time I have mentioned my intention to videotape the trip, my Grandma has seemed surprised and a little horrified.
"I'd like to get you to tell some stories about where you grew up," I've said.
She has maintained, every time, that she doesn't have any "good" ones.
But everybody has at least one good one.