It’s official. I’m 40!
Yes, that’s an exclamation mark, or, as I called it for an embarrassingly long time, and “explanation mark.” But since I’m also the person who thought that The Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar” was a gambling song called “Crap Shooter,” that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
To celebrate 40, I wanted to reflect on how I got here, and went digging through old photos. The picture above is one of my favorites. It was taken in Bowie, Texas in 1975, more than likely before my sister was born and I was a spoiled only child and granddaughter of this fantastic woman, Mabel High. It’s actually one of a few rare photos of the two of us, because Grandma was usually in the kitchen. This shot was taken at my paternal grandparent’s house, which means Grandma was taking a back seat to my other fabulous grandmother, Dorothy. I’m clearly soaking in the attention that is coming from multiple directions. My hair is following suit.
Grandma was all Texas, and had hysterical country phrases and many of her own. She had enormous boobs, and “complained” about them constantly. She hated seat belts, and would put hers on and then moan, “I hate these things! They make me feel like a big ol’ tit wrapped up in a brassiere!” And then she’d light up a cigarette with the windows up and we’d drive off, laughing so hard it hurt.
I learned to realize her boob complaints came from a constant need for attention and praise. But she deserved it. She grew up dirt poor in the Depression, and had some serious hardships along the way. When we would go to her house to visit, it always smelled like bacon and cigarette smoke, but somehow that wasn’t gross. She was constantly cooking or washing dishes by hand in scalding hot water, and she would lean down on her elbows while doing it, her large chest weighing down her tiny body. If she wasn’t talking to the people shoved into the kitchen to be with her, she’d wash dishes alone, singing old Methodist church hymns. When I got skilled enough to crack open a Methodist hymnal and play the hymns on the piano, I would play the piano in the living room while she sang along from the kitchen. If a YouTube time machine existed, I would love to see one of those sessions.
You can’t tell it by this picture, but Grandma was amazingly stylish. She had an organized closet with tons of purses and shoes. She had piles of crazy costume jewelry. Her bedroom was decorated in rich jewel-toned blues and greens, and my mom and sister and I would ALL sleep with her in her huge king-sized bed, where we would discover wads upon wads of Kleenex in the folds of the sheets, and we would throw them at each other and laugh hysterically.
Growing up poor made Grandma sensitive to waste. Once, she ordered fried chicken at a restaurant and folded up the leftovers in some napkins and put them in her handbag for later. Because she was so stylish, she changed bags frequently to match her shoes, and when she changed the bag, the chicken remained. Time passed, and Grandma’s bedroom began smelling like a dead animal. Needless to say, that handbag (and the rotten chicken) got tossed. But she saved everything else.
She wore dentures that she removed at night and placed in a glass. I would sneak into her pink bathroom with the hot pink fuzzy rug and matching hot pink fuzzy toilet cover and stare at her dentures. I wanted to try them on, but luckily knew better. I had fantasies of hiding them so Grandma would run around looking for them, screaming through a mouthful of gums. We would beg her to flip them out of her mouth with her tongue, as she scared us and delighted us all at the same time.
Grandma doted on me (if you can’t tell from the photo). Because she’d grown up poor, she was constantly throwing $20 bills at her grandchildren. I heard a rumor that when she went on road trips, she kept $20 in her bra, and $20 in her hubcaps, just in case.
My grandfather died tragically when my mother was a teenager, and Grandma managed to keep things together. She kept on cooking, but she also temporarily took over my Grandfather’s oilfield construction business. She was savvy, sharp, quick-witted, and didn’t take crap from others.
Grandma taught me how to cuss (she was a professional), to enjoy washing dishes just by singing, and how to have a great time just throwing bread crusts at the birds outside. She didn’t teach me how to cook (she didn’t teach her daughters, either), but she taught me that feeding people in your home and surrounding yourself with great people makes for a happy, fulfilled life.
When she got older, Grandma started a new catch phrase (she had a ton of them). “Oh, I’m a dyin’!” she’d say. At first, we believed her, and she got lots of attention from it. But after a while, we knew that Grandma announcing she was dying was just Grandma wanting some attention.
When I was a teenager, Grandma made good on her promise and died. She died from complications from a life spent smoking (and possibly from a life spent eating fried chicken). I was on a youth trip to California, and determined that while I was on Space Mountain, screaming and full of life, Grandma’s life was ending. She died too soon, but the life she lived was rich, full of crazy drama, and full of laughter.
I’m going to think of Grandma Mabel as I dive head-first into my 40s. It’s a wonder I got here, given that in this photo, I’m rocking a pretty fantastic 1970’s nightgown that not only could have suffocated me from its sheer bulk, but was probably nowhere near fireproof.
When Grandma prayed (and she did a lot of that in her lifetime as devoted member of the Methodist church), she would face her head toward Heaven. I remember being embarrassed by this, and once, as a gawky pre-teen, watching her face the ceiling when we were sitting in the front pews of church, and tugging on her sleeve and whispering, “Why do you do that?”
“If I face up, I’m closer to God. There’s no sense in looking down at the other guy.”
I look forward to facing my 40’s looking up, knowing Grandma is looking down, laughing.