Grandma wasn’t like the other grandmas.
She wore tailored designer suits, smoked cigarettes, cocktailed with friends, attended balls and galas on the regular, and entertained with the same ease as a seasoned duchess. I have no memory of throwing my arms around her, nuzzling my nose in her neck in a warm hug, the smell of brownies wafting from her oven, or even her reading me stories as grannies do so well. She just wasn’t the type. She was a stickler about manners, demanded composure, influenced my appreciation of art, and was keenly intelligent. She drilled us on etiquette and expected us to converse with anyone. I once planked my knife on the side of my plate instead of laying it across the rim and her reaction was such that you’d have thought I belched audibly in front of the queen. On another occasion she held me at the dinner table to discuss evolution with a priest. I was maybe eleven at the time. I should have been frightened of Grandma. My other grandmother was the kind who baked and tickle-scratched our arms. All that being said, I thought Grandma was fabulous and I aspired to her dignity.
I’m not sure when it happened because I was still too young to appreciate time, but Grandma was mugged one day walking down Prytania Street on her way to the liquor store. After that, she changed. Through a subtle, gradual shift in her perspective and demeanor, over time the fire in her that fascinated me as a young girl fizzled. She was still beautiful, still an accomplished hostess, but everything she orchestrated was done on a smaller scale. It was as if her will remained, but her edge dulled and her resolve eventually went with it.
I didn’t realize that it was the mugging that triggered her decline until her health began to fail too and I heard someone say that we could trace it all back to that fateful afternoon. I thought about how awful it was for such a person of poise to be knocked off balance in one instant. Only now when I look at images of her in dark cat-eye sunglasses, bright red lipstick and fur stoles, do I realize that none of it – her characteristics or her setbacks – assimilated or happened in an instant.
Without knowing it, we’re all walking around armored, suited up for a daily joust with the world. Grandma wore a controlled grace that moved seamlessly through the seriousness and the frivolity of life – from obtaining a chemistry degree in the 1930s to throwing Mardi Gras balls in her own house. Others use comedy as a shield, deflecting with jokes. Then there are those who go about indifferently, their armor preventing attachment to anything. Some yell, their anger a proud suit, and some masquerade in a veil of perfection – everything is in place in their faultless world. These protections take just as long to build as Grandma’s did to ultimately crumble. Somewhere in that muddied time of life when our exterior starts to take precedence over our interior, we select armors to defend us moving forward. Their density accumulates over time.
But, something lies beneath the sheathing – something like Grandma’s coolness and control – and it isn’t as polished.
I’m a professional of armor apparel, and I have more than one line that I pull from. I people please, I’m indecisive, I paint perfection, but I also have this curious piece that pretends to be unarmored, but isn’t: I say too much. My word vomit is my most worn armor. I tell you everything I’m doing wrong before you even see it. I appear humble and approachable, but all I’m really doing is preventing myself from the embarrassment of my faults being exposed. I spend the rest of the day embarrassed by my word vomit instead. It’s utterly ridiculous and I’m happy to say that I haven’t worn that one as much lately. But I haven’t tossed it completely either.
In my case, I’m afraid of being unlikable. You might be afraid of a painful truth you’ve hidden for decades, or you could be hiding from something as universally normal as not being happy with where you are – physically, professionally, emotionally. The ironic thing about armors is that nothing we’re hiding is nuanced. It’s nothing someone hasn’t experienced before. No one is that special, and yet we convince ourselves that we are.
Grandma was stripped of her armor when she learned the well-oiled machine she ran only went so far and that the world could be far uglier than she had thought. She chose a milder armor next, one that was guarded. But I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t been jolted, or what would happen if none of us were to wait for trauma to force us to look into the eyes of what we fear. And how quicker would our recovery from anxiety be if we just let ourselves feel? Armor is important. It keeps our emotions in check when we need to. In the thick of grief these days, sometimes I have to suit up just to get the laundry done. Armor hides pain so that we can remain strong and focused. Armor isn’t terrible, but we needn’t always defend it either.
I know enough to know that stripping myself of the armor I wear might reveal truths that I’m not ready to see. I risk exposing myself to who I am and who and what I’m yet to accept. Or maybe there’s something inside me that I shouldn’t accept? My armor hides the good and the bad. But before I let the world jolt me out of my shell I should first see for myself what lies beneath. It could be that letting it all hang out is the safest option of all.
In her last couple of years Grandma was soft. Her great-grandchildren have memories of gleefully jumping on her bed while she sat at her vanity applying lipstick. Such shenanigans would have been unthinkable when I was a kid. But in her final phase of life, all bets were off. Grandma was a complexity of gentility, weakness, judgement, gaiety, and charm. She was just a person, like all of us should we come from behind the iron mask.