The dictionary defines a grande dame as a “highly respected elderly or middle-aged woman,” which absolutely describes my other grandmother, Georgia, or as we called her, Mama (with the “a” pronounced as in the word “hat”). Of course, she would deny the elderly part of the description and preferred being considered middle-aged. She always lied about her age anyway, and we never knew how old she really was until she died. Elderly or middle-aged-it did not matter to us.
She was definitely elegant in that southern way of hers, and beautiful. She was royalty in her own right-if not in her own imagination. She was always dressed exquisitely and with perfectly applied make-up in place. She had beautifully manicured nails on feminine dainty hands and she moved them gracefully as she spoke in a slow, more formal manner. Her silvery tinted hair was always impeccably coiffed and contributed to her stylishness. She loved the color purple and had many outfits in one shade or another of the color. Her hair actually had a tint of purple to it, so the combination of colors from head to toe, suited her perfectly. Jewelry adorned her ear lobes, neck, wrists and fingers. She was rarely without various pieces of jewelry at any given time. She wore a silver bracelet that had a charm for each of her eleven grandchildren, with our names and birth dates inscribed on the charms. Perhaps the inscriptions helped remind her of her grandchildren’s birthdays, but then again, probably not. She wasn’t exactly Johnny on the Spot when it came to remembering our birthdays, but she had other great attributes.
Besides loving to fish, play bridge, cook and engage in typical grandmotherly activities, Mama loved to smoke and drink. And regardless of its impact on her health, she loved her Kentucky bourbon and had a fondness for vodkas, particularly in a Blood Mary. At one family gathering, I remember her asking me, “Do you think I could have one more of those Bloody Marys?” I readily obliged but reduced the amount of alcohol in that second drink, which was the prudent and responsible action. I was not going to be responsible for a broken hip.
She also loved to go to the horse track, which is probably where we inherited our love for the ponies. The track smelled of horses and the crowd of people fighting to buy that one lucky ticket; in that arena, she was in her element. She could smoke and drink to her heart’s content, and bet on horse after horse in one afternoon. Like Mother, Mama always won a race or two, or three or four, but the trick was to get her to quit betting and go home with her winnings. She chose not to listen to reason and usually stayed to place that next bet, on that next long shot. She just had too much fun at the track, and more often than not, she lost everything she had won and went home empty-handed. Happy, but empty-handed.
As small children, when we visited her in Kentucky for a weekend or holiday, Sissy and I always knew we would have to bathe when we arrived and put on the dresses Mama had bought for us. This made Mother so mad and she complained about this the entire trip to Kentucky. Mama wanted us to look pretty as she paraded us around the neighborhood visiting friends, and I guess that meant wearing a dress. Apparently, slacks or shorts were unacceptable for such a visit and regardless of what we wore-when we arrived, we would have to change our clothes.
I loved soaking in her bathtub, which was an old-fashioned claw foot tub with a rubber stopper on a chain. For me, bathing in that tub was elegance personified. I also loved getting dressed up and visiting the neighbors who would greet us from their chairs or rockers on the wrap around porches of the day. The neighbors always knew we were coming so Mama must have prepared them ahead of time, ensuring their rapt attention during our visits. Remember, I am the Leo, the plain brown-haired daughter, so I loved visiting and showing off my new dress. Mother named Sissy after Mama, so I know it was also a treat for my grandmother to introduce her namesake to everyone.
As we grew older and the other two babies arrived, the dress code lessened and we were not required to parade about the neighborhood as much. Mama and Mother were always fussing about something or another, whether it was making us wear dresses or some other issue that caused friction between them. That age-old dynamic between mothers and their daughters was to be expected. At the end of the day though, I would not be who I am today without my Mother, who would not be who she was without the Grande Dame, my Mama-purple hair and all.
Time to get dressed. I’m having lunch with a friend. A hot bath, a new dress and visiting with a friend. I think I will order a Bloody Mary, too.