My grandmother used to smoke. A lot.
It was something she did that is part of what defines her in my mind. At the height of her complexity and power - in my memory, anyway - I remember her sitting at the round oak dining room table with the huge claw foot. She would sit under the Tiffany hanging lamp, shrouded with these beautiful white ribbons of smoke that poured from her. They were mesmerizing as they sort of masked her face and would hide her for moment at a time. It was so mysterious and a little ritualistic. I loved it.
I seem to remember that she could do a French inhale. You know, it's the one where you blow out through your mouth, and simultaneously inhale through your nose. That's just something I remember. It could be just something my mind wanted to be true because my grandmother was such a badass.
She wasn't like other people's smoking grandmothers in my mind. She was glamorous. She wore gold things. Her hair was a coppery red. Well, at least it was by the time I was around. She wore makeup to go places. She loved bingo. Bingo and an ice cold Miller Lite in the tiniest glass so it wouldn't get warm. That tiny glass better have been in the freezer too.
And the cigarettes. It kept her hands steady I think. I remember her with those ribbons of smoke at that big oak table, with her legs crossed, one sensible Hush Puppy heel dangling off her toes as she jiggled her foot nervously. I know it was nerves because I jiggle my foot like that too when I can't let my thoughts out.
She would hold her cigarette in between her index and middle fingers, as she would put her thumb right above her temple. Just above it. And I remember that because the skin on her forehead would wrinkle a little because of it, and I thought it was the height of stoicism. I remember that because I wondered how she knew she wasn't about to light her hair on fire.
I remember too how she would press that thumb into her cheek, or sometimes on the side of her nose, but always right above her temple, wrinkling her forehead.
Sometimes when I'm working something out in my head, especially if I'm holding a pen, I find myself pressing my eyebrows and cheeks and the side of my nose with my thumb, and once and a while, my thumb will end up right above my temple, just above it, wrinkling my forehead.
My grandma was a Broad in every amazing and complicated way that I hope I will be. She was *The* Broad. The Broad with the fiery personality who was always cold. The Broad who taught me how to make the famous Lower Camp root beer float for the 4th of July at The Lake. The Broad who thought of what was for dessert during dinner. The Broad who survived tuberculosis and the orphanage, and all of the traumas one would read about in a best selling novel. The Broad who loved a jelly donut and coffee scalding. The Broad who sort of looked like Judy Garland. The Broad who defined resilient.
I remember some other things about my grandmother, not many, not in those years, but some things. She went quieter after a while. She was always a presence, even when she was so tiny compared to her uncharacteristically tall Irish grandchildren. She always gave my grandfather a roll of the eyes or a quick lipped comeback. I just know I get my comedic timing from her. That and my eye roll.
I remember her making food. I mean, we're Irish...food wasn't made to win awards. It was made to fill your gut. But there is just something about the weird things our grandmothers would make us eat, isn't there? I hope I'm not wrong, but I seem to remember an elbow macaroni thing with a huge block of Velveeta cheese, and canned tomatoes. I remember the green wreath cornflake and marshmallow cookie treats she'd make at Christmas with the little red hot candy in the middle too. Sometimes she would make me a toasted English muffin with a lot of butter and jelly.
I remember her sometimes singing "The Five O'Clock Whistle" while she was dusting the house and I was doing homework before my parents came home. Sometimes she just sang a few words of a tune she had heard before I was born, but in a way that always made me feel like she was trying to drown out the voices that haunted her mind.
And sometimes she just sat in that chair at that big oak table with her thumb resting right above her temple, just above it, somehow not lighting her hair on fire.