My grandmother, Willie Pearl, is dying. Willie is her real name, not a nickname or short for Wilhelmina. It is a name as blunt and bleak as her early life in Texas where she was raised by her grandparents after the Spanish influenza epidemic left her orphaned as an infant. It is not, however, appropriate for the grandmother I got to know when I was growing up.
In my eyes my grandmother was all about sophistication, from her royal blue Mazda RX7 to her beloved Pomeranian, Foxy, to her weekly visits to Doris the hairdresser with copious amounts of aerosol hairspray in between. Her most glamorous accessories were a diamond bee brooch and a matching three-piece Samsonite luggage set in Dijon mustard yellow leather. (The carry-on for the latter was a tackle box-shaped treasure trove of cosmetics mysteriously referred to as her “training case.”) She never left the house without lipstick, jewelry, matching knitwear, and three-inch heels—the last until sometime in her seventies when she broke an ankle at the garden store. By the time I knew her, she and my late grandfather, Woody, had realised the American middle class dream. This was not so unusual for their generation, but what was unusual was that this was not achieved on the income from my grandfather’s career alone. Willie didn’t just work; she had a career too, culminating in heading a county department complete with headcount and her own office where I remember hiding as a little girl when we came to visit. When she retired it was a big deal. Woody threw her a party at the Arrowhead Country Club with all her friends and the people who had worked for her as guests. It was big as any wedding I had ever been to.
I came of age in the nineteen-eighties, the era of industrial-strength shoulder pads and Working Girl. Society was doing its best to tell me that women could do it all, but I already knew that. I had learnt it from Willie. I will always have more grandmotherly associations with her—of roses and snapdragons, the strawberry planter and hummingbird feeder on the back porch, her copious supply of Delaware Punch drunk through bendy straws, and shopping, lots of shopping: at Fashion Island, Bal Harbour, Rubel’s jewellers, and the Cooper Building. But looking at my life today, I suspect being a working girl is her real legacy to me.
For the past few days Willie has been at home in a hospital bed. Her name has again become appropriate for her as she faces down death, no longer eating or drinking or speaking except for the occasional words summoned to chastise my mother. I am told she is setup with a view out the window to where the snapdragons would be planted in spring. Her roses are just the other side of the bedroom wall.