“Your grandmother was what we used to call a ‘fast woman’ in our day,” his voice comes across the telephone line, wavering with a tinge of old age and tightening toward the end, trailing off lightly, his words wrapped in nostalgia. “And boy did she love to dance,” he pauses for a moment before chuckling lightly; I can almost see his Adam’s apple bobbing in my mind’s eye, his shoulders involuntarily shrugging as the laughter spreads through his body.
Holding the phone in one hand, I stoop to pick up a pile of laundry as I listen to my grandfather speak with a lucidity that comes and goes like a radio station prone to static interruption by unexpected storms. Today the skies are clear, and the sun even shines in his voice – today is a good day and I smile.
I could hear it when I first picked up the phone, his “Helloooo shweetheart,” boomed out jokingly, almost before I was finished saying hello. In his signature way he played with the whistling sound made by the “s”, a steam engine perky, plucky and ready to move.
On the not so good days it takes him a moment to respond, and the tremble his words carry transfers itself through the phone straight to my chest. I still smile, because I love the rich and varied textures of his voice regardless, but my eyebrows furrow together in concern and my stomach drops just a little as I wonder what twists the conversation will take.
Today requires less effort, the Alzheimer’s just a shadow in the background, and rather than sitting down to concentrate on following the labored conversation, I thankfully continue sorting clothes, walking up and down the stairs to the washing machine, playfully dancing through my chores, bantering lightly with him.
“A ‘fast woman’, hunh? And what exactly does that mean?” We both laugh as he pauses to explain the term, less concerned with offending me and more interested in a colorful description.
“Well, my dear, that meant your grandmother, well, you see, she didn’t exactly conform to the rules of what women should do. That is to say, er, well – she liked to live her life ‘fast,’ you know, get the uptight ladies in the neighborhood gossiping and gasping, those old hens.” I laugh, remembering my grandmother, gone now for almost seven years. My memory pitches out an unexpectedly appropriate image of her kicking her legs up, can-can style, after a surgery that replaced both knees, showing all of us what she could still do.
“Why I remember one time, oh God yes…” he trails off laughing, and I know that on the other end of the line he’s shaking his head, nodding up and down, as the clarity of the memory rings true in the sectors of his brain that have remained evergreen. “Well, we were out dancing. Oh there must have been at least two or three other couples with us. And you remember, don’t you, how your grandmother loved to laugh? How when she got to going, well, everyone just had to keep laughing with her until she stopped?” I nod my head, not wanting to interrupt. It was impossible to forget. Even at 77, she would throw back her head and laugh as a bell chiming, its melody a river undulating and sparkling in complete momentary joy. In those minutes she was a golden goddess, and when she got my brother going too, neither could physically stop until one or the other was coughing and gasping for air.
“Well I can’t quite remember what set her off,” his voice brings me back as I absentmindedly pull clothes out of the dryer, “but she stopped mid-laugh, grabbed my hand and looked at me. She had this shocked expression on her face, and in the next instant she was laughing again, almost harder than before.” His voice gains momentum and as the locomotive of his working brain speeds up, I wait for us to hit the climactic peak of his word-constructed mountain.
“So she pulls me over to lean in close to her and she whispers at me ‘John, I’ve just peed myself!'”
I stop mid-fold as shock latches on for a few seconds and then I’m laughing too, joining in with him as we conjure her laugh as well, bringing her back to us in a cacophony of personalities. I ache just a bit for the emotions this memory must evoke within his slowly diminishing body. I can see that the strength of his feelings has refused to crumble and cave-in, defying the decomposition of the pathways in his brain. And so his sentiments hold strong, a rock-solid labyrinth, held in tact by the mysteries of cognition and emotion.
“So then,” he chuckles again, “so then, she reaches under the table, says ‘John distract them,’ and in one deft move manages to wriggle out of her underwear and stuff them in her purse!” Beyond shock at this point, I find myself plopping down on the bed, understanding, finally, this definition of “fast woman.” No doubt they had been drinking all evening, no doubt her inhibitions were more than slightly stripped away, and no doubt that my grandmother also would have loved to hear that story told.
We talk for another ten minutes or so, and I slip myself away from the conversation as I often have to, saying that I’ve got to finish up my chores and telling him how much I love him. “Oh, I love you too, dear. So very, very much,” and I can hear the watery tears in his voice, the moistness trickling over into a sentiment that I wholeheartedly share.
“Talk to you soon,” I counter and as I put down the phone, I sit buzzingly still for many minutes afterward, a human receptacle for my grandparents’ soon-to-be lost legacy.
He’s given these moments to me, snippets of memory laid out like pieces of lace, tweed, gossamer and flannel. Long after he is gone I’ll rub them across the skin of my recollection, taking comfort in the spoken inheritance I have received. And I know that before he’s gone, I’ll sit and help him remember the words to each story, I’ll fill in the gaps that time, age and genetics have stripped from those dilapidated alleys. I will lead him back through the labyrinth to find the strength of those emotions, as he led me through my youth.
Getting up, I walk slowly down the stairs and begin to pull the last load from the washing machine. My hand fishes out a pair of cotton panties in the swirl of my wet, clean garments. Such silly, innocent looking things, panties are, these adorned with yellow butterflies and a black bow. Contrastingly laden with iconic significance across the landscape of feminine interaction with society, they feel heavy.
Yet to peel them off in a moment of incontinence-inspiring joy is to render them a mere object in the wake of life’s experiences, particularly in comparison to my current handling of the item on laundry day, and let’s face it, in my everyday life. So just for the hell of it, and in honor of fast women around the world, I take the small, sopping lump of enigmatic fabric and fling it across the room. It slaps against the window pane with a damp thwack, sliding down the cold, smooth glass, slippery and wet, for my watchful neighborhood to see.