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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Atypical Granny

Beach attire will never tip off your age,
as long as you've covered the gray. 
Here are several grandmotherly things my Vovó did not do:

       Bake cookies. 
       Let her hair go gray ever. 
       Babysit us.
       Tell stories. 

She visited the hairdresser weekly, which is a grandma sort of thing to do. Only she didn't stop with the old-lady curlers. She dyed her hair jet black. So no one would think was old. At 70. Or 80. Or 90.

She was a terrible cook - some day I will tell the tale of The Thanksgiving Turkey We Could Not Eat, alternatively titled The Last Time Vovó Flora Hosted Thanksgiving - but she made a Portuguese flan that was pure heaven. It set thick and firm like a cheesecake, soaked with a dark red caramel that put the usual thin golden syrup to shame. The closest I've tasted is my great-aunt Tia Alzira's flan, and it turns out she uses Vovó Flora's recipe.
Vovó Flora's Flan

Maybe Vovó would have told me stories about walking uphill both ways in the rain if I spoke Portuguese. As it was, we barely communicated beyond greetings and basic phrases. Given her tendency to pick fights and reduce people to tears with scathing comments, this language barrier was not entirely without benefits. It's far more likely she would have delivered instructive insults than charming old world tales, but who knows?

I am so accustomed to thinking of her as un-grandmotherly that I forget the ways she acted just like a typical grandma. She kept hard candies in her purse and placed them on our eager palms as if they were jewels. At church she pressed dollar bills into our hands so we could toss them into the collection basket that quickly darted in and out of the pews. She poured 7-up from half-sized cocktail cans into tiny jelly glasses until they nearly overflowed, urging us to "Kiss the bubbles! Beijinhos!" Soda was strictly forbidden by my mother, but at Vovó's house parental rules never applied. She exercised that delicious grandmotherly privilege: Grandma Knows Best.

Vovó Flora may not have been the gray-haired granny from a Norman Rockwell painting, but what grandmother is? I never bought into the myth of a perfect June Cleaver housewife, yet somehow I believed everyone else had an archetypal grandma. I judged my vovó based on a fairy tale, and unsurprisingly she did not measure up. She was flawed and difficult, a mere mortal. If she was short on the kinds of skills that produce lace doilies it was because she never thought of herself as a grandmother, or an old woman. She was true to herself, a trait I could use a lot more of. Her legacy includes tales of serial nurse-slapping, conversation with dead bankers, inviting herself on honeymoons and a reckless driving ticket in her own driveway. That's far more exciting than a plate of fresh-baked cookies.


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