My grandmother had giant brown saucer eyes and giant brown curls as a little girl. She never smiled in her baby photos. She just stared at you with those big brown eyes. As a young woman, small beside the man whose hand she would eventually hold for more than 71 years, she never smiled big and wide.
But when she did smile it would be softly, sweetly and then shoo us out of the kitchen. The kitchen was her fiefdom. Her kitchen and her sewing room. On holidays, I would sneak into her pantry for the green gummy candy she always kept stocked for the bevy of grandchildren spilling down her stairs, playing on her terrace, banging on the organ piano. I would sneak into the pantry for the candy, but really I would want to watch her lording over the feast preparation for Christmas or Thanksgiving. Eighteen mouths to feed. Potatoes to mash. Turkeys to baste. Her daughters swirled around her in aprons she had sewn.
I wondered when the day would come that I would have to don an apron and take up the mantle of femininity she wore so easily. Like so many woman of her time, that cloak hid an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a mostly single mother raising three children as her husband traveled the world for work.
She fit every single storybook stereotype of a grandmother. She put ten thousand times more butter and cheese in everything than my mom did. She let us eat two cookies and as much candy as we wanted. She had such soft skin and smelled like lavender. She had a secret toy room. She had a secret doll room. Just big enough for her grandchildren to sneak into.
She had the whitest, shiniest head of hair. My mother would tell me my hair would turn that color one day, when I was old. I loved to think of my hair looking like my grandmother’s. It shone out in a room full of gray heads. A pure white beacon.
My grandmother was always old. I never knew her—or can’t remember her—with brown hair. But one day, she was suddenly much older. She was so much smaller than me. She became a great-grandmother. She wore purple every day. And she would smile that sweet soft smile as my cheek pressed up against her papery-thin skin and I breathed in that lavender smell.