On a table in my living room there is a small black and white picture. It’s of me when I was five. I’m walking between my grandparents, Bess and Reg Taylor, on a street in a city I think is Vancouver.
It was taken by one of those guys who used to set up and take random shots of people passing by and sell them. It is actually one of quite a few pictures like it my grandparents bought in different cities. They are distinguishable by my height, and sometimes the style of Reg’s glasses, and maybe our shoes.
What is the same in them is we are all dressed up. I’m always wearing a dress that matches my shoes, and carrying a purse on my arm. Bess is always wearing a stylish dress and pumps, and Reg is about as slicked up as he ever got. They are holding my hands.
The pictures tug at my heart and bring back floods of memories. I grew up knowing I was the center of my Grandmother’s world. I was not only her first grandchild, but a girl, after she had raised two hooligans who were never out of mischief. She was darn lucky I was born before my sister, who would rather stick needles in her eyes than wear a dress.
With me, she could finally curl someone’s hair and dress them up and spoil them. And she did a really great job of it. There were dresses and shoes and matching purses and promises that one day I could have a fur coat just like hers. She let me wear her jewelry and even her lipstick.
Some afternoons we would watch her “stories”, information I was not to share with my parents at any cost. She also had a somewhat optimistic approach to nutrition, telling me that chocolate pudding for breakfast was ok, because after all it was made from milk.
On every single trip to Kalispell she took me to the 88 cent store and, after buying the mandatory ugly ornament as a gift for my Mom, she let me buy glue-on nails. These nails, not the press-on ones of today, came with glue toxic enough to keep you high for a week. Bess just told me to hold my nose while we glued them on and to stay clear of Reg’s lit cigarette.
I was the most sophisticated six year old ever with those inch-long nails (at least for an hour til they all fell off). In all the time I spent with her as a child she always impressed on me, accurate or not, that I was the brightest, most beautiful, best child in the world. She was my soft place to fall. She didn’t always push me to make the best choices; her opinions of me were not always based in fact or even truth. I had parents who had that responsibility.
She was just always on my side. If you had a romantic problem she could fill you in on how they did things on How the World Turns. Her advice about career choices mainly encouraged me to find something where you could wear nice clothes and smile a lot: bank tellers were definitely the best you could do.
One summer in college when I was working landscaping for the town, she was mortified. She felt my father should not have allowed this. To compensate she sent my grandfather in search of me everyday bearing a bran muffin and a banana, requiring that he report back to her that I was ok.
My grandfather has been dead for seven years. Bess is 97 years old. If she finds out I put her age on the internet she’ll kill me.
She still gives us fashion advice and can tell you what kind of shoes every visitor she has had was wearing. I wish for the days we were strolling down the city sidewalks, holding hands, carrying our new purses, being the center of each other’s worlds.