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Friday, 05 September 2008

A Signature Woman

By Elizabeth Westmark of Switched At Birth

Elizabethwestmarkbadge Forty years ago, I was a socially hungry teenager in a repressively strict home, secretly reading Cosmopolitan magazine. I lived the life of a shy, studious bookworm, but, oh how I longed to be a Cosmo girl.

One thing Cosmo taught me is that every woman of taste and sophistication had a signature fragrance, a signature color and a signature lipstick, perhaps even a signature signature, and most certainly, a signature piece of jewelry.

Gracie not only had a signature brooch, but a signature style of wearing it. The brooch itself was a reptile of some sort, perhaps a caiman or an iguana. I was never sure. She always wore it to the back of her suit jacket, resting just so on her left scapula.

Her regular pew at the old Episcopal church downtown was the third row from the front, left center beside her plaid-clad husband, Morris. Gracie’s flat brown hair, styled in a modified pixie cut, emphasized her mouse-like features and were seen in sharp relief when I would catch her in profile during the reading of the Word.

Gracie had flair. Surprisingly, her signature brooch caught on with some of the other elderly Episcopalian women in the congregation. I would notice with amusement when some new enamel or bejeweled reptile found a home on yet another boucle jacket, gradually forming a zigzag line behind Gracie’s pew.

I had been observing this menagerie for several years with curiosity, but had never met Gracie. Not, that is, until my husband, Buck, accidentally signed us up to participate in the parish supper club.

On the way home from church that day, Buck said, “I think I may have gotten us involved in something.”

“Oh? What is it?” The Catholics and Baptists had just let out too and I was people watching; only halfway listening.

“Well, you left me for a minute to talk to someone,” he began, “and old Patsy Littleton made a bee line for me. She started talking so fast in that high-pitched voice of hers, I couldn’t understand all of what she was saying. I could tell she wanted me to do something, and I guess my head was nodding in the right direction. Before I knew what was happening, she said, ‘Wonderful! We’re so glad you and Beth are joining the group! I’ll email Beth an updated list!’ She handed me this paper and rushed off.” He ruefully pulled a folded up sheet of paper from his suit pocket and proffered it in my direction.

I unfolded it. “Parish Supper Club Group Spring List” was the heading.

“Oh, my,” I murmured and then sighed. “Well, it’s too late, now. We’re in.”

Looking over the list, I realized we didn’t know a soul on it. There were three other couples besides us: Jane and Bob, Sandy and Tim, and Gracie and Morris. Gracie and Morris! Huh. I got a little more interested, knowing I would finally meet a lady who knew something about creating a signature, a true Cosmo woman.

Some of the parish dinner groups met at various restaurants, but ours was organized to have a supper gathering at each couple’s home. The host was to provide a main course, with hors d’oeuvres, salad and dessert assigned to others within the group. The first dinner of the season was originally supposed to be hosted by Sandy and Tim, but when another member of the group, Bob, fell off his new Harley Davidson motorcycle and broke a leg, it was rescheduled from Sandy and Tim’s three-story, beach house to Gracie and Morris’s elevator-equipped bay front condominium.

Sandy wanted to be helpful to Gracie, so she coordinated with the rest of us on who would bring the appetizer, salad and dessert.

It was a lovely June evening when we converged onto the parking lot of the high-rise building and rode up the elevator together, juggling containers of salad, cheese, crackers and pie, trying not to jostle Bob as he balanced on a pair of crutches.

We found the right door and pressed the chiming doorbell. Gracie looked a little startled when she opened the door and stood there for a beat or two as if deciding whether to let us in. Sandy spoke up, “Hi, Gracie. We’re all here!”

With that, Gracie lit right up with a big smile and waved us in through the foyer. There were greetings and introductions as Sandy, Jane and I made our way to the kitchen, sweeping Gracie along with us. Along the way, I noticed the table was set for seven.

“Where’s Morris?” Jane asked.

“Oh,” Gracie waggled a hand and made a shrugging movement with her shoulders. “Morris. Uh, Morris had to go, you know, to the jail ministry retreat. It’s tonight. He was here earlier. He set the table and fixed up the bar. I don’t really know what he was doing. But he had to go. He’s gone.”

By this time, all the women were in Gracie’s small condo kitchen. The square, free-standing island workspace had been turned into a bar with an odd mishmash of partial bottles of vodka, gin and a yellowish, vile-looking container labeled “dandelion wine.”

Sandy cocked her head like a bird hearing a secret whistle. Jane and I had also begun to realize something was amiss. There were no cooking smells in the kitchen. “Gracie?” Jane began. “Do you think it’s time to put your roast in the oven?”

Gracie looked totally blank. She gestured to the cold oven. “Well, here’s the oven.”

It was too much for Jane, who fled the kitchen. Sandy and I, at least a head taller than the diminutive Gracie, exchanged a meaningful look.

One of the other couples had brought a large jug of white wine. Now seemed like the time to pour some, which I proceeded to do. “Gracie! How about a glass of wine?”

“Oh, yes. I would like that,” she said.

“Great. Would you excuse Sandy and me for just a minute? We’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” Gracie nodded, sipping from her glass.

“Oh God,” Sandy began, once we were out of ear shot. “Oh God, oh God, oh God. There’s no dinner. I called her yesterday to remind her. She said she was going to the store for a roast. Oh God.”

“Sandy,” I said, but she kept muttering and had begun wringing her hands. “Sandy!” I took hold of her hands. “Get a grip. Something is obviously going on with Gracie. Her husband knew we were coming, but Gracie has no memory of it. Buck and I will go to that little market just down the road and come back with some of their roasted chickens and potato salad. Meanwhile, keep the wine flowing.”

Sandy’s nurse training took over and she began to move as if on automatic pilot to play hostess, pour wine and act as if nothing was wrong.

I called Buck over from where the men were standing in the living room, poor dears oblivious to the crisis. “Buck. We need to go to the store.”

“Now?” Buck looked at me as incredulously.

“Yes, sweetie. Right now,” I said, taking him firmly by the elbow and pushing toward the door. He looked at me sharply, saw the expression on my face and then stopped resisting.

I explained the situation in the elevator, whereupon he turned into the Sir Galahad of dinner party rescuers, and drove us quickly to the market. He filled one basket with hot chickens while I filled another one with potato salad. I clutched a half gallon of jug wine under my arm to supplement the bar.

By the time we returned, the group was already fairly well lubricated. Word of the dinnerless dinner party had quietly spread, and so everyone except for Gracie had a touch of anxiety and wine-produced giddiness.

Buck and I quickly deposited our purchases in the kitchen, poured a drink and joined the others in the living room for some crackers and cheese. I sat in a huge armchair which was designed to look like a giraffe and tried to balance my drink and food on a foot stool carved into the replica of an elephant. Gracie introduced us to her tiny chihuahua, Augustine. They looked remarkably alike.

Jane slipped into the kitchen to toss her salad and summoned us all to the table. One of the men held Gracie’s chair and we all stood until she was seated. We held hands as Bob delivered a poignant blessing of thanksgiving for our dinner and all assembled. Gracie beamed like a bride. The moment was sweet.

There was nothing wrong with Gracie’s long-term memory and she talked through the lettuce, the chicken and potato salad, and the pie. She told us about working as a WAVE during World War II. She was one of an elite group of women who served as navigation instructors for the male pilots. Women, it seems, have always been accepted for voluntary emergency services. The WAVES acronym encoded that tradition.

“Sometimes late at night when we were off duty, we girls would go swimming in the officers’ pool,” Gracie confided, “and sometimes, we wouldn’t wear our suits. No one seemed to mind! Oh, it was a wonderful time, and we were doing important work.”

Buck asked her how long she and Morris had been married. Gracie spoke rather loudly, “Sixty-three years!” The number seemed to astonish her, and she looked down at her plate for a long moment, turning a spoon over and over in one hand. Then she solemnly fixed Buck with watery, blue eyes, and said very slowly, “Sixty-three years. That’s a long, long time.”

Gracie’s dog, Augustine, had lain in her lap as still as one of the wood carvings in the living room throughout dinner. Finally, Gracie spoke softly to Augustine, as if we were not there. “Maybe if they would leave, you could take a nap.”

Almost as one, we popped up from the table, did our best to quickly clear the table, load the dishwasher and clear away any residual debris.

Gracie walked us to the elevator. Bob was at the back, leaning on his crutches. Jane was nearest to the elevator control panel. Several times, Jane pushed the button to take us to the lobby. Each time, just as the doors began to close, Gracie would wave again, sticking her hand inside the elevator car far enough to cause the doors to reopen. After about the third time this happened, we began to get a little giggly and then Gracie leaned into the elevator car, looked sternly at Jane and said, “Dear, if you will push the button, the elevator doors will close and you may leave.”

From the back, Bob muttered, “Oh, help me, Lord.”

Thank goodness, the doors fully closed. At last, spilled out of the elevator and into the parking lot, we laughed long, letting the tension out, even though we all really felt like crying.

The last time I saw Gracie was at communion. Her signature brooch was missing. She sat unmoving on the worn, wooden pew. Morris, the husband who had abandoned Gracie at the dinner party, sat beside her that morning, a vision in flamboyant plaid, matching petechia blooms on each cheek.

The missing brooch troubled me. I feared she had finally, irretrievably come unpinned.

And here I sit on this Shrove Tuesday night, preparing to go to communion tomorrow where ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday will be mixed with consecrated oil and drawn in a cross on my forehead. I relish the bleakness of this particular service. It fits my current spiritual crisis perfectly and the inventory of my own soul is perpetuated by the season.

I think of Gracie with respect and also a dark wondering about her new destination and whether there is tangible comfort to be found for any of our unmoored souls beyond the border of hands held in a common prayer.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. Instructions are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Oh my, oh my, I was spellbound and totally moved by this wonderful story.

So was I (spellbound). I'm in awe of your writing ability. The story is so sad; I know women like Gracie and I pray to God to take me before I become like them.

There's something about your stories, Beth--little bits of them come floating into my mind long after I've read them. Gracie will be with me for a long, long time.

Again, I was spellbound reading this. I love your soft touch with words--that you know exactly what each one weighs.

..excuse my irreverence. It must be a "girl" thing.

Thanks for an insightful story of how we all become each others keepers.

I enjoyed the story very much. What it said to me is that we all look at each other and assume that everyone else has all the answers to life (perfect dress, booch, etc.) but when we get to glance a little deeper, we find out we all really are . . . equal.

I enjoyed the story very much. What it said to me is that we all look at each other and assume that everyone else has all the answers to life (perfect dress, booch, etc.) but when we get to glance a little deeper, we find out we all really are . . . equal.

I enjoyed the story very much. What it said to me is that we all look at each other and assume that everyone else has all the answers to life (perfect dress, booch, etc.) but when we get to glance a little deeper, we find out we all really are . . . equal.

Wonderful writing, great story, very touching. Acquaintances become friends and surround the lost one with love and compassion and ultimately find themselves changed spiritually and emotionally. Thanks for sharing this experience.

Oh at 62 I'm fearful this is my next journey. We all fear death and we also challenge when we'll need care.

Great story.

Dorothy from grammology

Well, jjhjr, if it's a "girl thing", then I may be drifting to the dark side.............

The writer put me in the room with Gracie and after an eloquent introduction helped me glimpse a bit of her soul -- the author's as well as Gracie's. And, perhaps, my own.

Thank you.

What a moving and universal piece of writing! The writer captured so well the discomfort between pain and humor and where they overlap.

Thank you.

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