Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Lee Smith's "Artists"

The lyrical descriptions in this book brought me way back, deep into the memories of when I was a child and my great-grandmother was still alive.

I saw again what looked like a cavern of a house; her tall wooden house in New Orleans, the way the wood floors seemed to refuse to carry heat even when you'd been sitting on them for hours, the geometric toys, catching doodlebugs in the tiny plot of patio with the two trees I remember. One day when I visited with my aunt and mother, my aunt reached up to the trees that hung almost over the street, brushing the cars at rest beneath them with purple, pink, and white petals, spreading pollen. She took down a bud, and said, "It's a fairy purse. Look," and I looked as she pinched it open along the cracks. "Inside is a spare dress," as she spoke she pulled out the unbloomed flower petals, "and some fairy gold." She let the seeds roll in her palm as my cousin and I watched, fascinated. Aunt Mary had never really left Girl Scouts, and this was probably one of the things she learned in that community.

The grandmother in the story dressed much like my great-grandmother. Her jewelry was very fine, it was hard to tell that they were paste. My mother gave me a lot of it for costume jewelry, when Little Mother died, because it was paste, and outdated, and mostly brooches which my mother would never wear. I have only seen her wear one pin in my life--it was her National Boards Certification pin, which she worked very hard for; very small and plain in comparison to these delicate things, and yet so much more important.

I also was gifted with much of the delicate satin lingeries, gowns, robes, pretty things that were fit for any queen. Dress-up was so much fun because of those gracefully draping, soft folds of cloth. I was every princess I had ever loved, stroking greedy fingers against the silken robes, even though I didn't really think I looked good in them. Looking good wasn't the point anyway. It was stepping into the gowns of a duchess, and pretending to be someone important reveling in private moments filled only with beautiful, fine things.

My paternal grandmother is the one who cared for roses, though. My mother and I still page through the Jackson-Perkins catalog looking at the new strains of flowers, especially the roses. The ones named after presidents and exotic places were the ones I always felt drawn to. But after all, my family were all too busy to do much caring for these delicate flowers. We were better with the Christmas cactus, which liked to be left alone to make its own way. Roses are beautiful, but even a cat is more forgiving.

I don't suppose I was very old when Little Mother was alive. My memories seem to stop a few feet from the floor, and though I try to remember whether there was art on the walls, or decorations of any kind, I cannot recall. I only remember the wood floors, the doodlebugs, and the huge-seeming white-covered bed with a tiny figure in the middle, speaking to my mother. My mother has the rare gift of giving the speaker her undivided attention, and the even rarer one of not saying everything she knows until the time is just about right. I can easily see how she must have been a favored granddaughter, though I can't comprehend how she could care so much about looking pretty. I can't recall a time when I have ever cared about fixing myself up. To me, pretty was something you either found in yourself, or you didn't. It wasn't something you had to re-affix every day; and once you found it in someone you didn't have to worry about losing it. Sometimes I feel a flash of guilt that my significant other doesn't have a really classy-looking dame to flaunt, like my dad has.

Everywhere my parents go, they light up rooms with their dynamic personalities, and the dynamics of their relationship. I see this in my relationships too, more as potential than actual fact. So perhaps "classy" and "pretty" are less about makeup, hair, and the texture of your clothes than the quality of the threads binding you to those around you.

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