Beauty is an experience, nothing else. It is not a fixed pattern or an arrangement of features. It is something felt, a glow or a communicated sense of fineness. What ails us is that our sense of beauty is so bruised and blunted, we miss all the best.
~ D. H. Lawrence
I remember well certain details of one particular ride with my grandmother. Windows up. Air conditioner on full blast, because she always liked it cool. We were headed to the grocery store for some eggs and milk. She had walked out to the pop-up camper her and Papaw had erected on the front lawn, my hideaway during summer visits, with her pocketbook in hand, and interrupted my reading, telling me she was ready to go.
She drove faster than most grandmas, I imagine. Everything seemed to go by really fast. Yet she saw everything; noticed everyone. She saw someone she knew coming our way, walking along on the sidewalk, so she smiled big in their direction, took her hand off the wheel just for a second to wave, quickly grabbed the wheel again, and quietly said “Hi”, even though they couldn’t possibly hear her.
Then she began administering advice. In the midst of some conversation I honestly, and perhaps thankfully, can’t recall, she exhorted me to “Keep that thing in your pants! You hear me?!” I checked. It wasn’t out, I assure you. As you can imagine, I don’t remember much else about that particular ride with Memaw. But I’ll readily admit: it’s sort of creepy and disconcerting how her voice comes screeching to the front of my mind when I least expect, or desire, to hear it . . .
Other rides led to memories of destinations that to this day are still scented with the winsome smells of a childhood lived with time to spare for the little things: Aunt Naomi’s house in Mt. Vernon, with its steep gravel driveway and tiny kitchen smelling of breakfast and dish soap; the Five and Dime, kitty-corner across the street from Bob’s Barber Shop, my very own Willy Wonka’s, featuring aisles of bins and wall-mounted shelves filled with innumerable, tantalizing knick-knacks, more than any little boy could ever possibly play with in a lifetime; the beauty shop, nestled in the back room of a corner house a couple blocks away, where Memaw would sit under an industrial, helmet-style hair dryer, big blue curlers in her hair, and read a magazine or work a puzzle book, while I sat by, watching the timer tick away the minutes, trying my best, but mostly failing, to deflect the spurts from the nearby hair spray can, its contents clinging to my tank and watering my eyes for the rest of the day; lengthy road trips with Jackie and Carl, stopping at rummage sales for nickel books and eating braunschweiger on crackers at rest stops.
To hang out with Memaw meant being given an opportunity to perceive the beauty of life. From the sweetness of the multi-colored hard candies she made for Christmas to the gentle squeeze of her embrace – her breath against my cheek as she assured me that she wouldn’t take a farm in Texas for me – she assaulted the senses with love. Being around her brought a trenchant awareness that, no matter how low others may make me feel, there remained one person who cared. She accepted every gift, every school art or craft or woodshop project, regardless of how useless or hideous, with genuine thankfulness and displayed it proudly, telling others when they stared, “Brian Jay made that for me!” She kept the cupboards stocked with cereals and snacks that had sugar in them! And she wasn’t too bashful, too prim and proper, to let one rip in the bathtub; the sound of popping bubbles, followed by her “I still got it!” cackle, never failed to leave me in tears.
Except for that one day, when she decided me and my two sisters needed super-tight curly perms, and then had the nerve to take a picture, my grandma was pretty cool.
See that smile on my son’s face? That’s not a pose. No one forced a smile when they spent time around Memaw. She carried around a bushel and a peck of beauty, and sprinkled it upon every one she knew. Indeed she had her moments, when overwhelming pain, sadness, and pride short circuited the best parts of her. And, living in this bruised and blunted world, the temptation is there to tarnish my memories of her with a dusting of cynicism, to lug around a grudge for each little slight. But there is no beauty there. There is no love there. Only the callousness that comes when one chooses to miss out on the best this ride of life has to offer. And being Wilma’s grandson has made this road sweeter by far . . .
Wilma Marie Thomas
September 14, 1924 – May 6, 2009