Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"I'll be seeing you, in every lovely summer's day; in everything that's bright and gay; I'll always think of you that way; I'll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new; I'll be looking at the moon, but I'll be seeing you."*

   Grandma was angry at the state of Colorado.

   Aunt Dudie had gone to reheat Grandma’s soup so we were alone for a minute at our little booth inside Panera.

   “People are uncouth here,” she said. She was mad. “When I was trying to fill my drink, those people acted like I was invisible.”

   “Well, if it makes you feel any better, they didn’t let me in there, either,” I offered. “Even those big, burly men pretended I wasn’t there so they could refill their Mountain Dews. Not very chivalrous!”

   “That’s the word! They aren’t chivalrous! I think it’s just the way people are in Denver,” Grandma decided.

   Now, Grandma and I both spent a fair number of years living in Omaha, Nebraska, a smallish city, where people will regularly turn themselves into human doormats before they offend or inconvenience someone, so I don’t know that our perspectives are very accurate as a basis of comparison to the fine people of Denver.

   “You seem pissed off,” I suggested.

   “I am pissed off!”

   My Grandma is so funny.

   “Don’t get too mad, Grandma! People are much more polite here than they are in Los Angeles.”

   “Well, I’m sure that’s true,” she harrumphed.

   “Maybe it’s a big city thing? The bigger the city, the less patience and manners people have?”

   “Oh, poor Julie,” Grandma sighed, referring to Aunt Dudie, my Grandma’s fourth of five daughters, my Godmother, and my hostess for the weekend. “She must get so tired of taking care of me.”

   “She does not! She likes it. And Julie’s boys are chivalrous, so it can’t be Colorado that’s doing it. It’s not where you are, it’s who you are, and some people are just nicer and better bred than others.”

   “Well, none of my grandchildren are uncouth, that’s for sure.” She was very proud of this fact and, as a way of proving it, took a huge bite out of her roll.

I wrote this nearly a year ago. Apparently Grandma and I had all our conversations in exclamation points!!!!

   I’d just spent a weekend in Parker, CO, with my family: Aunt Julie and Uncle Rick, my cousins, Connor and Trevor, and my Grandma. Grandma had just moved out there from Omaha and I was lonesome for her, as I was used to seeing her every day growing up and, later, every time I was home to visit. And this year she wasn’t in town for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

   But by January she was fully ensconced in the Leahy’s ENORMOUS basement, and it was as though her entire house had been replicated into an apartment in the suburbs of Denver. All her pictures and tchotchkes were there, along with her voluptuous cat Lucy/Alice, and the best of her beautiful furniture. She was super excited about all the deer she could see in her backyard (and spying on deer seemed to be almost as interesting as her old hobby, which was spying on the neighbors). We spent two days talking and watching movies and running errands all over town.

   My grandmother was born Mildred Rose Wilson in 1925 in Washington, Indiana (pronounced “Warshington,” which, as my cousin Connor pointed out, is the only thing Hoosiers pronounce funny. I’m not entirely sure that’s true). And when she was growing up in Washington, she was so beautiful it makes my face ache to look at pictures of her. It makes me proud that her DNA is floating around in me. She had brown, wavy hair and high cheekbones, big eyes, big boobs, narrow hips, and long, long legs. What’s even more interesting about Millie Wilson is that she was an amazing dancer, something that seems to have eluded most of her progeny. She used to go out jitterbugging with her friends every day after school, taking breaks only for a soda (pop) or a hamburger. And then they’d all run home for dinner and homework. Ah, the “good old days”. It all sounds like a scene from Back To The Future to me (funny...'cuz that movie was made in the 80's).

   Sadly, her kids are helpless fools when it comes to dancing: her daughters do lots of weird disco-era thumbing and pathetic gyrations along with the occasional Prince in “Dirty Mind” imitations (picture middle-aged women doing the splits and bouncing off a mock-velveteen couch. Yeah, that’s what I grew up watching. It's one of my earliest memories of Aunt Krissy who, for some reason, I always thought was "the cool one." Kids are stupid. And it’s a miracle I didn’t run away from home. Or stab my own eyes out).

   Her grandkids, of which I am the oldest (sigh), are a mixed bag. My youngest sister, Penelope, is a very gifted dancer, as are my cousins Ellie and Kate. Hell, Ellie and Kate are acrobats—they can do flips and Russians and all that crazy stuff. Connor and Trevor are natural athletes, but I doubt they’re dancers. Elizabeth, my other sister, could easily twirl her way through ballet lessons, but when is that appropriate at a club or school dance? I’m not sure how she handled it, but given her era in high school, there was no way it made her popular.

   I’m a total lost cause. My generation grew up in the Nirvana/Pearl Jam/Offspring era with flannel shirts and greasy hair and “dance” started to take on a sort of quality that made it look as though one were a drunk puppet randomly swinging his or her arms and pelvis around to no particular beat. I took classical ballet for a couple of years as a young child and it left me feeling as though I couldn’t get my rear end in the right position. It turns out, I just have a really sizable backseat and there was no way it was ever going to stop sticking out, no matter how many times my teacher told me to reign it in.            

   While I was in Denver, Grandma told me that Grandpa Charlie (who I’ve mentioned here and also here) once took Arthur Murray dance lessons, so he could take Grandma out stepping. This was around 1960, and my grandparents already had three of their eventual five children (Mom, Aunt Mel, and Aunt Mary). He went to the studio, without my grandma’s knowledge, and tried to learn to dance so he could keep up with her and take her to, as my grandma and her generation called it, “trip the light fantastic.” But, according to Grandma, he had no rhythm. I guess the majority of us must have inherited his dance moves.

   But when I was a tiny child, she used to pull up her skirts when no one else was looking and dance a little jig for me, and she still had a pair of the most beautiful Ginger Rogers-style legs. And the fact that Grandpa tried to fight his natural inability to dance so he could take my grandma dancing makes my heart heavy and happy all at once.

   Millie Wilson was a carefree dancing queen, but Millie Lett was a mother and a wife and a homemaker. Her husband, my Grandpa Charlie, tried to let her be all four. And that’s kind of what love is all about, right?

   My Grammy died yesterday at home, in Denver, with all her daughters around her. I think she would’ve liked that they were all there and I hope she knew they were. When I think of her, I think of good smells and stylish clothes and The BeeGees. And I think of gardens and picture frames and mac and cheese and small animals. But most of all, I think of dancing.


Mildred (right) with her friend Betty, 1946.
Mildred Rose Wilson Lett
February 20th, 1925 - December 10th, 2012

*I initially had a quote here from "Moon River," but Grandma really loved "I'll Be Seeing You" by Irving Kahal and Sammy Fain, because it was a song that reminded her of the 40's, when all her friends (and her brother) were off in WWII and all the kids would hear this song and think about the people they were missing. Seems more appropriate, somehow.



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