My father's mother was not a prissy person by any means. I don't think I ever saw her wear a skirt or dress in my whole life. She grew up as a displaced partial Jew in Poland and Germany. She had two boys for her children (that's not exactly a gentling experience!). She had a roughish, almost raspy voice with which she'd peck about at my Dad in Polish, usually followed by an exasperated flop of the hands when he'd "ja wiem!!!!!"-ed her enough for her to give in.
She protectively loved us very much, but I never thought of her as girly in any way. There was one thing that would give her away. When I would go spend the night at Grandma's house by myself (AKA no brothers included), after dinner I would sit down at the old table on Grandpa's side after he would finish his 7 Up and leave the room with the two waddly dogs trailing behind him. When their little toenails would finish clicking away into the distance, Grandma would clear off the table and carefully wipe the vinyl table cloth. Then she would open the painted kitchen drawer directly behind me and pull out of it a maroon handled brush. The bristles on it were curiously soft and pliable, perfect for getting a girl's hair to a silky smoothness. She'd every so gently brush out my hair for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, telling me how she had always wanted to have a girl. Her work-worn, wrinkly hands were gentle as she brushed away, stroking the hair back away from my face and ears.
She told me all kinds of things while she brushed my hair. She taught me what she used to keep the copper bottoms of her pots shiny. She told me how many eggs she used to make Grandpa's pound cake. She even told me the story of my Dad hiding a pet monkey in the basement and how scared she was when she happened upon it in the dark.
She loved her children; she chuckled about their crazy boy antics. Deep down, though, in her heart, she wanted what she had never had--a little girl to dote on and dress up. She had never had anyone decorate up her hair with ribbons and dress her in frilly, lacy dresses. She never indulged herself in a girlish, pampering way. Her heart's desire was to do the brushing and caring and pampering. I have often wondered since then if her mother had ever sat her down after dinner and brushed her hair when she had been little, before she had died, leaving her largely alone in the world. Did Grandma remember her Mom showing her love with her work-worn hands?
I didn't realize it at the time. In fact when I was little, I was a little scared of Grandma. She seemed so tough. As I grew to know her better, I realized that under the exterior that a difficult childhood had created, my Grandma was one of the most loyal and tender people I'd ever known. She loved without exception; she was gentle not only with her hands, but with her heart.
Grandma's been gone for almost fifteen years now, but any time I brush out my Cara's long, straight hair, I think of my Grandma and how much she would have loved knowing this whole flock of little girls I have. I miss my Grandma, and the pleasure of knowing her as an adult didn't last very long. I wish I would have been able to lay the first great-granddaughter in her arms and look at her face. It would have given me great joy to see her love them in her quiet way. I wish she were here to soothe away the tangles of life for my girls, too.