The Measure of Her Powers
On the last Tuesday of June 2004—one of those sweltering days of high summer when the Texas air and the Texas people hang thick and limp as wet velvet, and the sting of the heat and the temperature itself both seem as impossible as snow—I hopped the first plane from New York to Houston and beat my grandmother JoAnn to the hospital. I remember that morning plainly because it was the last time I saw JoAnn as I’d always known her. I remember the sleeveless red summer dress that she, always so effortlessly slim, wore when she entered the hospital; and the novel I’d brought but couldn’t manage to read; and the battered, caramel leather briefcase my grandfather Alfred carried, stuffed with almost fifty years of his wife’s medical history. His executive instincts hadn’t relaxed in retirement: He believed in being prepared. Nothing, however, could have prepared us for the following few days.
Once JoAnn had been readied for surgery, Alfred and I sat with her in a stale, curtained-off stall in a wide and featureless hallway, waiting for the nurses to wheel her away to the operating room. JoAnn’s small body, which had looked lissome in her light summer dress, suddenly seemed fragile in her hospital gown, packed away like bone china in tissue paper. Propped up on her mechanical bed, thinly veiled from a row of identical beds by white muslin, she was already floating aloft on a cloud of anesthetic. So much so that by the time I sat beside her, her honey-colored hair falling softly on stiff, crackly pillows, she’d already begun raving about the people on the other side of the curtain.
If the good Lord Jesus had chosen those unlucky folks with an eye toward irritating my grandmother, he could not have done a better job. They were poor; they were loud; they had lamentable facial hair. It was, to JoAnn’s way of seeing things, a trifecta of wretchedness that she could not be expected to overlook under the best of circumstances. These were not the best of circumstances.
In some silent, spotlit corner of her heart, I believe that JoAnn had been relishing the thought of this moment, this Terms of Endearment moment, the moment just before being wheeled away on her gurney. She had, I imagine, expected this to develop into a fraught, turgid scene, an eleven o’clock number, her own starring turn. From a certain perspective, it was a rare opportunity. After all, in a whole lifetime of Oscar-worthy performances, how many actual gurneys can a lady expect to get?
Another turgid scene, however, competed for our attention. “Robert,” JoAnn began, in an artfully wan, parched little voice, “I want you to always remember just how much I love—”
“Aww, now, Mama. You ain’t got nothin’ to worry about!” A little man, whose wiry, wasted frame I could see through the curtain, began softly screaming to his sobbing bride.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I was forced to say to JoAnn, “but would you mind repeating that?”
“Alfred,” she started again a few moments later, a bit more powerfully than before. “I don’t want you to feel guilty if I d—”
“Do ya hear what I’m telling ya, Mama?” the man, noticeably louder than before, began to howl.
“Forgive me, darlin’,” my grandfather said to his wife, “could you run that past me one more time?”
No matter how hard we tried, it was impossible not to be distracted by that wee, shrieking man, JoAnn’s new peer and rival, who seemed to be taking such obvious pleasure in his own performance. The situation resembled that of two dueling opera divas, who, finding themselves booked into adjacent rehearsal halls, decide to belt the other out of the audible range. Mere moments before, JoAnn had sounded hoarse and weary. But now, warmed by the spirit of competition, she began shouting like a saloon keeper in a shoot-’em-up Western. “Would you look at them!” she hollered, gesturing toward the curtain. “How do they always find me? Why is it always them? He’s as hairless as a Mexican dog, and she’s Moby Dick with a beard! No matter where you go, it’s the same. He’s a Chihuahua and she’s the Bearded Lady!”
According to my grandparents, the Texas proletariat was composed almost entirely of whiskerless, whisker-thin men and woolly, well-upholstered women. It was a frequent subject of their conversations. “Look, Sonny,” my grandfather had told me when I was a small boy, pointing toward one of these Jack Spratt couples on the street, “the poor man wants heat in the winter and shade in the summertime.”
Of course, I was appalled by JoAnn’s remarks, but they seemed to be accepted as a challenge by the man behind the curtain. “Cain’t ya hear me, Mama? Cain’t you hear me tawking to you?” With every repetition, his voice rose in pitch and emphasis, until finally, his falsetto seemed actually to lift him off the floor and JoAnn from her bed.
Waving her arms with a mad flourish—like Tosca, like the Valkyries, like Maria Callas in anything—JoAnn sang out triumphantly, while attempting to rap on the muslin. “CAN SHE HEAR YOU? EVERYBODY HEARS YOU! MAMA HEARS YOU! I HEAR YOU! BUT GUESS WHAT, OLIVE OYL? NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR YOU!”
A low, mortified murmuring began on the other side of the curtain. For a moment, I couldn’t tell if JoAnn had vanquished her opposition or if it was merely regrouping. Either way, it was never wise to underestimate little men like the Chihuahua. Some of them possess surprising stamina. I eyed the curtain anxiously. For a moment we sat waiting and listening. And then, through the muslin, there came a low, defeated wheeze, like a punctured balloon.
“Can you believe that things like this can happen in America? And that you and I have to listen to it? A little GRACE AND BEAUTY? YOU KNOW? A LITTLE EFFING GRACE!” JoAnn continued to rant, her strength and volume decreasing, until she finally wound down like an outraged top, collapsing onto her pillow, mumbling all but incoherently, “I can’t believe. We actually. Have to listen … Just a little effing grace.” Then she was off to dreamland.
I was accustomed to being scandalized by my grandmother. JoAnn was a marvelous person. She was not, however, a peppy, “Hi!” person. She didn’t care about being nice. “Screw nice!” she often told me. That was the sort of advice my grandmother gave. “Screw nice” and “Get a little meaner every day.”
She told me these things because I am (sadly) one of those In-Between People, morally speaking. I’m one of those people who isn’t naturally virtuous but who aspires to be—a person who practically never recycles but feels guilty about it; someone who sails right past homeless people on my way to Starbucks but feels guilty about that, too. Hypocrites, I think we’re called. I don’t volunteer enough. I don’t read the newspaper enough. I’m not prone to frequent, spontaneous little combustions of random generosity enough. I’m simply a guilty-feeling person whose guilt does not alter his behavior. Whereas JoAnn was not a hypocrite, and she never felt guilty. For this reason, she was one of my life’s most refreshing presences. She lived in a post-guilt world that I loved to visit but couldn’t quite manage to live in. “Why are you so mopey?” she’d asked me over the telephone a few months earlier, while I was trying (and failing) to cook chicken and dumplings.
“Mali,” I’d feebly answered.
“Who’s Molly?” JoAnn asked.
“A country in Africa. I just read a blog about it. The suffering.”
“Jesus!” JoAnn answered. “Wait till you get to be my age, with the cold breath of death blowing down your neck. Then let’s see how much time you spend thinking about Misty or Maisy or Polly or whatever the hell it is! How many times do I have to tell you, darling, that it’s never too late to become a worse person?”
One of the things JoAnn and I did share, however, was a personality that gathered steam in the evening hours. We belong to the variety of person made for dinner parties, a type that reaches its zenith of energy and intellect around the time the second course is served. We almost always telephoned each other after sundown, sometimes talking for hours—she from her chintz-upholstered bedroom at our family farm in Tennessee, and I from my apartment in New York City—relaying news and sharing all our latest jokes and outrages. The previous evening, though, she’d made her nightly phone call with news of an unexpected nature.
“Hello, darling,” she’d said. From that first “darling,” I knew there was trouble afoot. “I’m afraid I need to talk to you about something serious.” She was phoning from a hotel room in Houston, the city we both called home, even though neither of us had lived there for years. And I was attempting to fry chicken in my mattress-sized kitchen. “Not having fun?” I asked, trying to hold on to the receiver through the greasy bread crumbs that coated my fingers. I’d been waiting to hear JoAnn’s updates on her annual return to her old stomping grounds. For the past several months, as I’d battered and fried my way through the Paula Deen cookbook, I’d listened as she’d devised rendezvous with all her best girlfriends and epic lunches at all her favorite restaurants. I’d been steadily apprised of my grandmother’s military-style checklists of proposed shopping expeditions. I couldn’t wait to hear all about her trip, even if I did burn the chicken.
“Well, it’s not a day of beauty at Elizabeth Arden, if you know what I mean,” JoAnn said, as though she were still exhaling the cigarettes she’d given up years ago.
“No, I don’t.… Why don’t you tell me what’s happened.”
“It seems I have to have this surgery.”
I leaned against the counter, still grasping the Crisco. “What?”
“Now, it’s no big deal. The doctor swears up and down I’ve got nothing to worry about. Only … I know I’d feel better about the whole thing if you were here. Darling, would you mind terribly flying down? Tomorrow morning? It’s an awful lot to ask, but—”
“I’ll be there,” I interrupted. Because, aside from adoring JoAnn, my relationship with both my grandparents tended, for reasons both sad and happy, to be that of a son’s instead of a grandson’s. Neither of them had spoken to their only child, my mother, for many years. I was their only grandchild, and loved them dearly. Even if they did often make me want to fry myself in a pan of Crisco. “I’m happy to come,” I said. “But what’s going on? What kind of surgery is this?”
“Yes, well. I’ll let Alfred tell you about that.”
It was typical of JoAnn to avoid broaching an awful truth. Within the distribution of labor in my grandparents’ lifelong marriage, bad news resided firmly within Alfred’s sphere. Though, in many ways, JoAnn was the most “self-actualized” of women, and my grandparents’ marriage was an absolute model of absolute partnership, JoAnn enjoyed indulging in the privileges of her petticoats when it came to letting Alfred play the heavy. In reality, she had all the retiring delicacy of a teamster. But she cherished a filigreed conception of herself as a handkerchief-fluttering belle in need of a gentleman’s chivalry. This was a fiction that thrilled my grandfather, as it bolstered his own romantic notion of himself as a sort of Southern Sir Walter Raleigh. While, in principle, I tended to roll my eyes at the whole objectionable setup, as a grandson, I had to admit it was pretty sweet.
JoAnn and Alfred taught me many things about love and fidelity. But one of the most important things was that the story of a marriage—by which I mean the mythology a couple creates about who they are as a couple—eventually becomes, to a degree, the reality of a marriage. We are, largely, whom we pretend to be, at least in love, the part of life most amenable to pleasing self-delusion. JoAnn and Alfred taught me that allowing a spouse to foster romantic notions about themselves (“I was the fastest quarterback in the state”; “I was the most beautiful girl at school”) is an important part of a happy marriage. Which is why JoAnn was so ideally suited for matrimony. She possessed a real knack for fostering romantic notions. Nothing was ever quite so good, or quite so bad, as she made it out to be.
So I wasn’t exactly shocked when JoAnn said she would pass the phone to Alfred when it came time to talk about her surgery. In hindsight, I also believe she had some sense of foreboding—a passing psychic twinge about this surgery. A feeling of foreboding was characteristic of JoAnn. She was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, mostly because she’d had an epically lousy childhood (even before it was cliché) and was well aware of the perils of high hopes. But I also wonder if, this time, she couldn’t help hearing some far-off, existential version of that xylophone they play at the opera to signal that intermission is over.
It’s easy to lend false meaning to the past, to assign plot points in memory where they never existed in life. But here’s what I can say for certain: JoAnn loved me very much. She often wanted me beside her during doctor appointments. And she seemed particularly eager to have me with her for that operation.
Maybe the only reason I feel this way is because I know how cheap JoAnn was. Yet she didn’t bat an eye at my charging the exorbitant cost of my last-minute airfare on her American Express card. In fact, she insisted on it. So considering the price of that ticket, she must have heard for whom the bell tolled.
* * *
“Here’s your grandfather,” JoAnn told me, passing the phone to Alfred while I tried very hard to keep the lard-laden telephone receiver from spurting out of my hand like lathered soap.
“SONNY?” bellowed Alfred, who, in looks and temperament, resembles the top-hatted man on the Monopoly board—bullish, with a white handlebar mustache and a contempt for modernity that began with the invention of the cotton gin and included the push-button phone.
“What’s going on down there?” I asked.
“YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S HAVING A BIT OF FEMALE TROUBLE. WE’LL BE NEEDING YOU IN HOUSTON TOMORROW.”
“Sure, sure,” I answered, noting (not for the first time) that Alfred had a bad habit of phrasing requests like marching orders. “I already told JoAnn I’d be there.”
“I’D THINK IT WOULD BE A RELIEF AFTER NEW YORK CITY,” he said, pronouncing “New York City” in his usual manner, as though it were raw sewage.
“I’m happy to come,” I said.
“BY GOD, I HATE THAT CITY.”
“I know,” I said.
“I’D RATHER BE HORSEWHIPPED THAN SET FOOT IN THAT CESSPOOL.”
“I understand,” I said. (Though just for the record, when my grandparents came to New York, they stayed at the Plaza and dined at Lutèce. Not exactly Mean Streets, if you catch my drift.)
“OR SHOT THROUGH THE EYES.”
“I’D RATHER BE SHOT WITH A RIFLE RIGHT THROUGH THE EYES.”
“But when you say ‘female trouble,’ what do you—”
“THE SURGICAL HOSPITAL. ELEVEN A.M. TOMORROW,” he said. Then he hung up.
Maybe it seems extraordinary that I was willing to hop on a cross-country flight at little more than a moment’s notice in order to comfort my grandmother, even if she was paying for it. But I’m Southern, and Southern men are predisposed to mama worship. Also, I’m a writer, and we’re predisposed to unemployment; that summer, I was working on my first book and only too pleased to avail myself of any chance to escape blank paper. And, for as long as I could remember, my grandmother’s health had reminded me of one of those undetonated bombs under the sidewalks after the London Blitz. Beneath the paces of her life, I feared, the lupus and hepatitis C she’d contracted decades earlier from a contaminated blood transfusion were always lurking.
Part of loving JoAnn meant stepping lightly through the dicey terrain of her illnesses. It meant taking her at her word when she complained of her health, even if she did have a tendency to vamp the scene. Because JoAnn could Camille it up with the best of them—posing limply on a recamier with one lily-white hand poised on her brow, just so, like some consumptive out of a nineteenth-century novel. She had a marked tendency toward hypochondria, and yet I knew she was genuinely ill. I’d accompanied her to scores of doctors. I’d seen her blood work—her antinuclear antibody tests, and malaise panels, and recombinant immunoblot assay tests, and other hideously named methods her doctors had of keeping tabs on her diseases. I’d picked up her prescriptions from the pharmacy and cared for her during bad spells. So while I might have smiled to myself once or twice about the pleasure JoAnn seemed to derive from all the attention her illnesses won her, I also lived with the very real fear that her health could explode any minute.
After Alfred hung up on me, I spent a fitful, sleepless night worrying about my precious, impossible grandmother. As a child, I thought JoAnn carried the sun in a golden cup and the moon in a silver bag. I continued thinking this as an adult, despite my firsthand knowledge of her devastating tongue. Ladling out abuse is one of the privileges typically accorded Southern ladies of a certain age, but JoAnn took this rather far. She got away with it because she was funny (“mascara-streaming-down-your-cheeks funny,” in the words of my godmother), but also because she never seemed entirely well, and the constant threat of illness gave her license.
Certainly, JoAnn had never shown much forbearance in her relationship with my mother. Their chronic conflict had suspended my relationship with JoAnn, repeatedly, throughout my early childhood. For a couple of years—roughly from the ages of four until six—they’d agreed to stop fighting for “the baby’s sake.” During that enchanted, enchanting time my grandmother became a regular presence in my life. But then, inevitably, JoAnn had another idiotic, completely unnecessary fight with her daughter, and I didn’t see her for the next ten years, give or take, until I was sixteen and my father left my mother for a pregnant jockey. (We’re from Texas.)
At that point, my mother had what might gracefully be termed a “mental break,” and we became nouveau poor. So when I found myself in need of at least one stable adult, I took it upon myself to call JoAnn. “Well, hasn’t your life just gone from quail eggs on toast to shit on a shovel?” she surmised correctly, after I’d filled her in on the dissolution of my family life. This dissolution included Mother taking to drink. (We’re Irish.) And it also included Mother shaving her head, and then Krazy Gluing plastic hair to her bald scalp. But I digress.
I turned seventeen, and Mother moved to California in order to become a tragic blonde and marry her second Mr. Wonderful. At this point, JoAnn and I picked up where we’d left off when I was six years old. She always seemed a trifle frail and unwell, but we never let that stop us from spending hours chatting on the telephone and tootling about Houston in her butter-yellow Cadillac.
At the time, Alfred was segueing into retirement from the oil business. He’d stopped working full-time and had become a freelance consultant, advising overseas oil-field developments. So for several years, my grandparents moved back and forth between Houston and our family farm outside Nashville, where they eventually settled permanently in the late nineties, once Alfred found even contract employment too tiresome. Then, in the fall of 1999, I moved to New York City to go to college. By the time I did, JoAnn, from her lacquered hair to her Italian pumps, had reclaimed the exalted status she’d held when I was very young. I thought she was the very pink of perfection, all the more precious to me, I suppose, because I was always so keenly aware of the possibility of losing her.
* * *
This is all to say that my grandmother’s terrible behavior in the hospital, especially given the heavy drugs she’d been administered, wasn’t surprising. Alfred, on the other hand, gazed on adoringly at his wife, which wasn’t surprising, either. He’d been gazing on adoringly at JoAnn since about 1937, when he first laid eyes on her. He was ten; she was seven. JoAnn Peacock had just moved to Bryan, Texas, and, with her little sister, Peggy, was hanging upside down from the branch of a pecan tree. Alfred saw JoAnn’s panties before he saw her face, because upside down her skirts and petticoats hung so low that only the braided ends of her pigtails peeked out from beneath them. It made JoAnn look like a flower being hung to dry.
Like any Southern gentleman, Alfred introduced himself before explaining that he was organizing the New Confederate Army (I know, I know) and asking JoAnn if she wanted to be a private.
“What’s a private?” JoAnn asked.
“A kind of soldier.”
“And what kind of a soldier are you?” she asked, pulling up her dress in order to square him in the eye.
“I’m a general,” he said.
“Good,” she replied. “Then I’ll be a general, too.”
“A girl can’t be a general.”
“Then who needs your stinking army?” she responded, again dropping the hem of her skirt. Alfred started to walk away. But after walking a few feet, he turned back and, succumbing to her charms for the first of countless times, he yelled into JoAnn’s panties, “Fine, then! Be a general!”
“Fine,” she answered. “And Peggy can be a private.”
Isn’t that just the sweetest, most politically disturbing story you’ve ever heard? Ever since that day under the pecan tree, Alfred had been painting the roses red, which is how I privately referred to his moony, pie-eyed devotion to JoAnn, because the way he adored her always reminded me of the Red Queen’s courtiers in Alice in Wonderland.
Since 1937, Alfred has adjusted the truth to convenience his beloved wife. When JoAnn lied and said she had a college degree, Alfred said admiringly, “I’m so proud of your grandmother for finishing her college degree.” When JoAnn told people who complimented her store-bought jewelry, “These jewels have been in my family for generations,” Alfred cooed lovingly, “Didn’t JoAnn’s family pass down some beautiful jewels?” While nobody could really blame him for going along with these garden-variety fibs told largely for the sake of my grandmother’s overweening vanity, Alfred went along with some whoppers, too.
Such as: JoAnn got pregnant with my mother just a couple of months before her little sister, Peggy (retired private of the New Confederate Army), got pregnant with her oldest daughter. Now, my grandmother and her sister had been raised largely by their aunt Kathleen, nicknamed Teen. Peggy adored Aunt Teen, and JoAnn loathed her. Peggy had intended to name her daughter Kathleen, but just to spite her sister, JoAnn snatched the name away from her by giving birth first. My mother always hated the name Kathleen, changed it to Jessica when she was in the eighth grade, and resented terribly the fact that JoAnn had used her name as a weapon against her sister.
But, at some point, after my mother changed her name to Jessica, JoAnn started insisting she had not named my mother after Aunt Teen. She claimed, moreover, that she hadn’t named my mother at all. She began telling everybody that Alfred had named my mother after a character in his favorite poem, which was (are you ready for this?) “The Ballad of Boh da Thone,” by Rudyard Kipling.
There are two things about this story that I find incredible. First, that my grandmother must have spent months on her hands and knees, combing through library shelves and card catalogs, trawling through anthologies, searching for some poem, any poem with the word “Kathleen” in it, so that she could assign it to her husband as his favorite.
Second, I find it incredible that, like JoAnn’s college diploma and family jewels, Alfred whistled right along with “The Ballad of Boh da Thone” in order to make his wife happy. And he was convincing. Poignant, even. “When I suspected we were to have a little girl,” Alfred would recite, like a windup toy, “I told JoAnn, ‘We must name her after the child in my favorite poem, Rudyard Kipling’s immortal “Ballad of Boh da Thone.” We must name her Kathleen.’ And JoAnn agreed.” For years, I bought this performance hook, line, and sinker. I was convinced that my mother had misunderstood the origins of her birth name. Until I found my mother’s baby book, buried in a steamer trunk, in which JoAnn had written, “Baby’s Name: Kathleen—after my Aunt Kathleen.”
So much for the immortal “Boh da Thone.”
Alfred loved his wife so much that if reality didn’t please her, he’d find something better. It was almost pathological, but it was also endearing, the way this otherwise irascible man was happy to see the world through his wife’s eyes, thrilled to consider her every phrase an epigram. JoAnn was often hilarious, but even if she hadn’t said anything particularly funny, Alfred remembered that she had.
“Wasn’t that hilarious?” he asked me that awful morning at the hospital, positively beaming at his wife, who was positively drooling on her pillow. “Now, I ask you? Isn’t your grandmother just the funniest lady? ‘Olive Oyl!’ Heh, heh, heh. We’ll have to remember that one,” he said, attempting to rap on the curtain himself now. “Nobody wants to hear from you, Olive Oyl!” he shouted. “Heh, heh, heh.”
“Very amusing,” I said distractedly, as my worried mind had turned to JoAnn’s surgery. It was, as such things go, a minor procedure—to the extent that any procedure performed on a woman of ill health in her mid-seventies can be considered minor. My grandmother had gotten breast implants in the late sixties. At some point the implants had ruptured, and the leaked silicon was thought to be straining her weakened immune system, posing a further threat to her already compromised liver. This was the “female trouble” to which Alfred had furtively referred over the phone. This was the condition my grandmother considered too gruesome to discuss, although Lord only knows why, since I’d known all of this for almost two years. I’d already accompanied her on perhaps half a dozen doctor visits where her ruptured breast implants, and the possibility of having them removed, were discussed. I’d scissored articles on the subject out of newspapers and medical journals, and mailed them to her. But for some reason (and probably just because it made a better story), JoAnn had preferred to couch the news in cloak and dagger, and Alfred had followed suit. It seemed unnecessarily dramatic. But then, everything about that surgery seemed unnecessarily dramatic. The timing, for instance. I understood the medical reason for having her breast implants removed, but who has a surgery in the middle of a vacation?
No medical necessity seemed to exist requiring the immediate removal of her implants. In fact, there seemed no reason at all not to wait until she returned to Nashville and could consult her regular physicians. Nothing, except the urging of a country club Houston G.P. whose silver hair and silver tongue seemed on loan from daytime television. Apparently, during some recent office visit of which I’d been uninformed, he’d convinced JoAnn of the pressing need to have those implants out. Quite likely he made a dramatic appeal, the drama of which JoAnn appreciated very much. This matinee idol of an M.D. had persuaded JoAnn that though this surgery would be fairly gruesome, and perhaps (at least for a woman of her generation) a tad embarrassing to discuss, it boasted a brisk recovery time. “You’ll be yourself again in no time,” he’d assured her, with the bright Houston sunshine glinting off his beautiful, blameless hair.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Leleux