"Before I went to Hollywood," my grandmother was saying, "I had hardly ever eaten in a restaurant, never gone swimming in an ocean or slept in a house without my parents. I had never seen a man naked."
I wasn't really listening. I had heard all this before. And at the moment I was trying to keep my grandmother's huge maroon Buick on the Long Island Expressway during the worst blizzard in fifteen years. I was going twenty miles an hour, because it was snowing so hard I could barely make out what was the road and what was not. There were hidden patches of ice under the snow. I had the headlights on at eleven in the morning. In the past ten minutes we had seen six other cars. Luckily, we only had to go two exits. We were on our way to my grandmother's weekly hair appointment. One of the few reasons she would go out in a snowstorm was to get her hair and nails done.
"My life had not prepared me for Hollywood. The year I was born, my father bought a house in town that's still there to this day if you care to visit Drinkwater, Iowa. But who would? I had taught school at home, but I had no common sense. Within the first month of my arrival in Hollywood, a producer asked me to come to his office," Gram went on. "He said I was a perfect Pollyanna for the new movie he was working on. I was twenty-six years old, but I believed him and I went. Of course, there was no such movie. I was lucky I got out of his office without being raped. I lost a shoe trying to hurry out the door and had to go home on the streetcar without it. That's when I learned the most important lesson of my career: You can't trust anybody who has anything to do with movies or the theater. They are all a bunch of lying cheats, no matter how good and kind they appear. And how is your friend Nick?"
"He's fine, Gram," I said. "He's not a lying cheat."
"Yes, well," she said. Then she went on with her story. "Shortly after that little episode, I went to work at Winnie's. A lot of movie people had their hair done at Winnie's. If I close my eyes, I can just see the place." I didn't dare look away from the road, but I knew she was closing her eyes. "The telephone, the leather appointment book. I can smell all the different things they used on people's hair. I got my hair done there for free, and it changed my life. I mean that. That's how I got into the movies, moved to a better neighborhood, and met Walker Kincaid, who became my lover." She stopped. "You should be getting all this down."
"Pardon?" I said.
"On videotape," she said. "I saw this on the Today show. Fellow wrote a book about people telling the stories of their lives, oral histories. Just your regular video camera you'd use for home movies is all you need. I won't be around forever, you know."
"I don't have a video camera," I said. "Let me just concentrate on getting us there, Gram. This is very scary driving." We passed a car on its side in a ditch. "I shouldn't have let you talk me into this. It's much worse than I thought, really dangerous."
"Shall I ask Mary Lou if she has any ideas about your hair?" Mary Lou was my grandmother's hairdresser.
"No," I said. My hair was brown, unstyled, not curly and not straight but bumpy, falling just below my shoulders. I was always trying to figure out what to do with it and then, in the end, doing nothing at all. When I was a little girl, my mother had told me, "You have lovely hair, Alice, and someday you will be a very pretty lady." I had waited and waited for some kind of transformation to occur, for many years believing that my mother had known something about me that no one else did. Nothing happened. I was as plain grown-up as I had been as a child. To some people, maybe, appearance was not important. But to my grandmother, a person's worth was measured first by looks. Intelligence, wit, kindness, sense of humor—to my grandmother, these were only resources to fall back on if you failed to be beautiful. "I like my hair," I lied.
Gram said, "That's unfortunate."
I almost missed the exit because I didn't see the sign until I just about ran into it. The temperature was seven degrees, and I was sweating. My heart was thumping in my chest. "You don't drive much, do you?" my grandmother said. "I can tell you're not comfortable behind the wheel."
I managed to get my grandmother's car to Mary Lou's Beauty Spot, a small hair salon in a house. As we pulled up, Mary Lou peered out the kitchen window. I went around to my grandmother's side of the car and opened the door. Holding on to the back of the seat with her right hand, she worked her body around until she was facing me. First she took her right leg out, lifting it with both hands, and put it on the ground. Then she took her left leg out and put it down.
Mary Lou appeared beside me in her bathrobe and boots. "What? Are you kidding?" She held my grandmother's left elbow while I took her right one, and together we pulled her to her feet and steered her toward the back door of the house. "It's a blizzard, Mrs. Williams. Don't you listen to the radio? I'm sitting here in my robe drinking coffee," Mary Lou said. "I'm thinking I'm going to have a Saturday off for once in my life."
My grandmother said, "This is my granddaughter Alice, my houseguest this weekend."
"Nice to meet you, Alice." She gave me a sympathetic look behind my grandmother, bent in concentration on the icy ground. "Mrs. Williams, you must be out of your gourd coming here on a day like this. You could slip out here and bust a hip."
"Just look at my hair," my grandmother said. "It looks like a bird's nest. I can't let anyone see me like this."
"You look like a million bucks," Mary Lou said. "As always. I should be coming to you every week. Look at my hair."
My grandmother stopped, straightened, and examined Mary Lou's hair, which now had big lumps of snow resting on it. "I've seen you look better," my grandmother said. "I think you've got the color too dark for your skin."
"Oh, shut up. Who asked you?" Mary Lou said. "Alice, you going to stick around? Come on, where you going to go, weather like this? You can have the coffee I was going to drink with my feet up."
I stayed and listened to the two of them talk. My grandmother was getting color today. "Last time it was too red," she said to Mary Lou. "But I don't want it too blond, either." My grandmother had been dyeing her hair for about sixty years. If she didn't, she said, she would look as old as the hills. She was eighty-nine. She slept in a terry-cloth turban and used a special satin pillowcase. During the day, she wore a hair net made of human hair to hold it all in place.
"Golden," Mary Lou said. "Don't tell me. You want it 'golden.' We go through this every six weeks," she said to me. Mary Lou was the kind of person who could call my grandmother an old bag and get away with it. I wished I could do that.
"My daughter, Bonnie, was going to come out for the weekend too, but she canceled because of the weather," Mary Lou said, slowly lowering my grandmother's head into the sink. "You know, I hate to say this, but I'm just as glad. Lately we're always arguing, and it gets me down—you know what I'm saying."
"Yes, I do," Gram said. "I surely do. You don't like Bill, and she knows it."
"I guess that's it," Mary Lou said. They went on, talking about why Bill was wrong for Bonnie.
My grandmother probably knew more about Bonnie's life than she knew about mine. I didn't often visit Gram. We didn't get along. But the day before she had called me at my office in New York, where I was an editorial assistant for a publishing company, to invite me for the weekend. I hadn't heard that a snowstorm was coming, and I didn't know that Eleanor, her maid/ cook/ chauffeur/ gardener/ housekeeper, had walked out on her just moments before. When I got there, she had me drive her to the Shopping Basket to buy a hundred and fifty dollars' worth of groceries (including over twenty frozen diet entrees), carry them all inside for her, and put them away—while she barked at me for putting the milk on the wrong side of the fridge and the peanut butter behind the box of crackers, where she couldn't see it. Then she wanted me to drive her to the video store and pick a movie for her while she waited in the car.
My grandmother wasn't supposed to stay alone. She didn't drive anymore, since she had flattened a stop sign once on her way home from the dentist. About twenty years before, she had had a heart attack, and she was supposed to have someone around to make her take a walk every day and keep her on her low-salt diet. This was not humanly possible, but my aunt and uncle felt better believing that there was someone there trying. My grandmother did not cook, so she also needed someone to do that for her. I didn't cook, either. The best I could do was put little frozen food trays in the toaster oven. Aunt Louise and Uncle Richard came from Connecticut about once a month to pay the bills that Gram crammed into drawers; to chop away at the bushes and trees in her yard, which always seemed to be either growing or dying too rapidly; and to take care of hazards like frayed electrical cords and scatter rugs on slippery wood floors. My aunt and uncle were giving a big dinner party this weekend, or they would be here now. And they were about to leave on a trip to Europe, I expected my aunt to go into high gear trying to hire someone to look after Gram while they were away.
I wouldn't have minded if Gram had asked me to help her over the weekend. But my grandmother was not that direct. She didn't ask me to come out to help her. Instead, she said she just thought I might like a change of scene, a weekend in the country.
Text © 1992-2007 by Sara Lewis.