"Frequently occurring ads regarding cures for ‘ED’ depict senior couples headed for the bedroom or beach. They look coy and wanting. Due to the revealing nature of these ads, young children now may know that old folks ‘do it’. When I was a girl, I never thought of my grandmother as sexualperson. Until that day on the porch.
UNDER THE PRINT DRESS:
Connecticut: 1957. The porch on a two-story house covered with gray asphalt shingles on the corner of Ash and Cedar streets; half way up the hill. The air was dense, the temperature in the 80s. The apartment had neither fan nor any type of air-cooling. It was unusual to have such a stagnant day so close to the shore and so a girl and her grandmother sat on the side porch where large trees at the corner of the house provided a much-appreciated shade.
The older woman snored softly while napping in her rocking chair.
The girl watched her from a perch on the railing. Friends would be coming by and she wished Nana would wake up and go inside before they arrived. She was uneasy about waking her and just as she thought she might, the older woman smiled and began to wake up.
“Nana, the girl asked, “ what were you dreaming about? You were smiling when your eyes were closed. Can you remember? Was it funny?”
Coming out of her dream state, the grandmother was startled and confused. She needed a moment to focus.
“What did you ask me dear?
The girl repeated the question slowly and in a louder voice.
“ CAN YOU REMEMBER? WHAT WAS SO FUNNY? YOU WERE LAUGHING IN YOUR SLEEP?”
Nana Jacobs was 72 years old. Janie was 18. The only thing they ever discussed was food and grandpa. Nana vacuumed and dusted when she wasn’t in the kitchen. On occasion she read a magazine, preferring to listen the radio. However, at this moment it seemed to her that her grand daughter was speaking out of turn. Being rude! Questioning her, as if she was stupid and incapable of memory!
“Of course I remember,” the grandmother snapped. “And no, it was not funny. It was personal and none of your concern.”
Uncomfortable in beige summer pumps, rolled nylons pinching her swollen legs, the older woman was bound up in a girdle with a slip clinging to her skin. Even her gray hair was tightly wrapped around a mesh ‘donut’ held tightly it in place. Nevertheless, her summer frock, with the tiniest forget-me-not print, had neither wrinkle nor stain.
In stark contrast, the granddaughter wore plaid shorts over a bathing suit. Dark brown hair loosely tied in a thick ponytail, splayed casually across her shoulders and back. She was tan and barefoot. Even in the old woman’s youth, she was never allowed to expose her pale skin to the sun. Never! She was raised in the strictest traditions, modest and obedient.
Secretly, she envied her granddaughter’s forthright demeanor and openness. But her Victorian manners dictated unconditional respect and it was rude for the girl to wake her with such a personal question.
Visibly put out and irritated that she had been spied upon while napping, she mumbled:
" A person should be entitled to private moments."
The dream was not forgotten. She simply chose not to answer. There could be an unwelcome consequence to the 'telling'. She was fearful, yet something inside of her was compelling her to respond. She felt sick.
So many years locked away, the answer, like everything else about her life wanted to be released. And so...in a moment of vulnerability, it burst forth in a flood of borrowed words from a romance novelette that had been secreted in closet and drawer for years. She'd read it hundreds of times when she was alone.
L.B. would not have allowed it. The only books in the house were texts and The Jewish Encyclopedia. L.B. enjoyed puzzles and he read the New York Times. She was expected to listen.
Now, the secret words she memorized, would speak for her. This was her moment of truth. She would teach the girl a lesson that she would always remember. The girl would never look at her as an old woman without history or feelings again.
In a rehearsed voice from a stage play she spoke to her grand daughter:
“ I dreamt of a firm sweet kiss, and the intoxicating tingle which livens the body and quickens the heart. I dreamt of the owning touch of a lover’s hand on mine. I was dreaming about love.”
The girl stared and began to giggle.
“Nana, you can’t be serious. Not at your age! No, really, you have to be kidding with me.”
The girls’ words, derisive and mocking substantiated the woman’s fear of discovery. Her eyes hardened with anger.
What did not know was that she had stepped on her grandmother’s heart. She did not realize that her grandmother’s inner youth was now rushing to defend the elderly woman. Always subdued by parent or husband, neither of them had a voice of their own.
So, again borrowed words assailed the grand daughter. This time the tone was harsh, the message, defensive, and the voice, louder.
“ You could not begin to understand such love until you have been satisfied by your own. It is not the forever love which nurtures and supports, it is not the contracted love upon which vows are based, but another. It is the love that never grows old, the love that has no requisite or commitment. The love I speak of is desire; it burns you and consumes you. It scorches your senses. It can drive you mad, but it never stays. It cannot. For if it stayed it would become less. Like flames to wood…then ash. It should be savored for what it is, or in my case for what it was.”
The granddaughter, no longer laughing, became tearful and confused. She wondered why her grandmother was so agitated. And what was with the old-fashioned word thing?
"But Nana,” the girl whined, “ I didn’t mean to annoy you… you just looked funny.”
Spurred on by the girls’ audacious behavior, the grandmother continued. Now, less angry, now, more hurting. She knew that she should stop, but she had come too far. There were other words to be said. She needed to finish.
“ I may look old and amusing to you, however, memory has no mirror. Deep inside each of us is a secret place, where no one else can go. In that place we never age. I can be 5 or 25 in a matter of seconds. I may wear ballet slippers or a wedding dress. I, alone, decide the time and the dance.”
And then there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not another word. No questions. No sobs, no tirades. The two women were silent. Neither completely understood what had happened. Both were soaked in sweat and tears, limp in the heat of the day, drowning in emotion, hurt and confused.
And then, as it often does at the shore, the wind shifted and an East wind swept through the porch at the corner of Ash and Cedar. Leaves shuddered and within seconds the temperature dropped. Nana Jacobs took a deep breath, got out of the rocker and walked across the porch to her grand daughter. Taking both of the girls hands in her own she drew her closer and whispered:
“I’m so sorry Janie. Forgive me. The answer to your question is: I was dancing.”
And so, on that 80 degree with unbearable humidity, the bound up woman with swollen feet ended her secret affaire. Conflicted between feelings of remorse and release, exposed and vulnerable, she stepped gingerly out of the Victorian Era into a new age.
Each of us has a private place, which is sacrosanct. Although the preceding story is fiction, my own grandmother inspired the tale with her confession of passion for a man she had loved, but was unable to marry. She respected the man she did marry, my beloved grandfather, but, as she explained to me:
“I never loved him like the other.”
I can remember the day she sat on her side porch, rocking and smiling. She was around 70 and I was 18. It was a hot summer afternoon and the humid air was made heavier by my grandmother’s anguish and my tears.
It was after that initial confession that she was able to talk to me of other things and I found myself playing the role of her trusted confidant. There were so many questions and secrets under her print dress. She lived in a time when women dared not speak of such things as passion and childbirth. Whatever personal feelings she might have had were suppressed and questions she had, unanswered.
I was not sure if I wanted to know about her private life, as I had only known her in my moment and in her approved role of grandmother. But as I grew older I appreciated her candor and I loved her more for being a whole person, not just an actress in an apron.
Beyond the kitchen and the Victorian parlor, far away, was a place where she danced and loved with abandon. And I am so grateful that she shared her total self with me.