An Open Letter to my Grandmother

Kara Lessin

Dear Grandma,

We were never that close – at least not by my measure. I have fleeting memories of times with you: your pink house, your small second wedding (and the unwieldy weight of the basket of flowers I held throughout it), and playing with your rings.

You preferred statement rings: hunks of turquoise, lustrous gold, exploding with rubies. When you died, my mom allowed me to go through your jewelry and take what I wanted. It was then that I learned that the rings I so adored being decked in were only large enough for a slight woman such as yourself, or the entranced child that I had been. Instead, I took a pair of earrings. I wear them often, though I rarely think of you when I do.

When I do think of you, it is mostly of the pinkness of your house and the burden of your wedding flowers and the closeness I felt with you when I dressed up in your rings. Recently, however, I remembered one of the last birthday gifts you gave me: funding for a fuchsia streak in my long, blonde, 14-year-old hair.  You always wrinkled your nose at it, but the streak was the crowning glory of my middle school rebellion. For years, I had been journeying towards being perfectly righteous and rebellious and loudly myself – the streak, which I felt spoke volumes, was the zenith of it all.

You would appreciate all the work I put into my hair nowadays. Before you died, I cared most about that streak and spent little time trying to tame the frizz on which it had been applied. Now, I have special hair products that I use to maximize my natural curls: shampoo, conditioner, and gel are the bare minimum. I have a special towel I use to dry my hair and special clips to tease it just right.

You were a woman “back then”, you were a doctor’s wife. Your hair, I’m told, was perfectly done on your deathbed. You would approve of how much time I spend on my hair now, much more than you did of my hair in the days before you died. But this approval makes me wonder sometimes. My femininity and its relationship with the world are tenuous and transient: am I soft or hard, angry or complacent or simply at peace, bare bones or powdered and bejeweled, well-coifed or rebelliously dyed – and are these even indicators of anything true? Are these measures of how progressive I am, or just malleable and meaningless external factors?

Sometimes I think that I am light-year ahead of where you were. How could I not? After all, you were never prominently featured in any of the family histories I’ve read. I wish the fuzzy-bearded scholars of our clan had bothered to write more about you, you who always stood in relation to your husband, difficult to make out in the gleam of his brilliance. I sometimes imagine what I could have learned.

I know a couple facts, dusty from our familial apathy. You earned a B.A. from Wellesley College and an Ed.D. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education: there must have been a struggle. You were pregnant and taught in Hell’s Kitchen: there must have been a struggle. You were a woman and a mother in the ‘50s: there must have been a struggle. I wish that all the family historians had written accounts of you. I wish that you had written accounts of yourself. Because while how I present myself – from my hair down – is always a factor of only how I want to present myself, surely what I saw of you was not a life lived for your own satisfaction.

Sometimes I think I am so far beyond where you ever could have been. But then I remember that it was you, wearing your shiny rings, with your always-perfect hair, from your pink house, who gave me the power to go fuchsia in the first place.

It is with your life behind me that I am given power to proceed, fearless.

Thank you.

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