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What My Grandmother Taught Me That I'll Never Forget

She was elegant, colorful and timeless.

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illustration of granddaughter observing grandmother getting ready
Isabel Albertos
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Maybe it is not so odd that my grandmother, who I called Nana and who died 15 years ago at the age of 94, comes to mind when I sketch at my drawing table in the corner of a sunlit room. It was with her that I first heard what the essayist and poet Mary Oliver names “the call to creative to work.”

When I close my eyes, at 53, I can still feel the pearl white shag carpet of Nana’s dressing room floor tickling my little 5-year-old legs. I spent hours sitting there with my ankles crisscrossed, mesmerized, even starstruck, as she transformed herself from pretty and plain to stunning. She was elegant. Colorful. Timeless. It is easy for me to return to that 10' x 14' room. I see the mirrored vanity table, floor to ceiling drawers, shelves and hanging rods filled with clothing and accessories. The sweet and spicy scent is a combination of Chanel N°5 and the first burn of the match that lit the Virginia Slim precariously balanced between my grandmother’s index and third fingers.

Today, her perfume would make my eyes water and I would be irritated by the cigarette odor that lingered on my clothes. As a kindergartner, however, I felt the veil of smoke added to the artistry and mystery of her transformation from my grandmother to an ageless fashion model.

She was as much of an artist in her dressing room with her many pots of shimmering eye shadows, shiny tubes of lipsticks and the prism of her wardrobe as she was in her sunny glass-enclosed studio. There, my grandmother painted landscapes bursting with bright colors along with images in grays that were profoundly sad.

One painting depicts the back of a dark-haired young woman and three small children standing side by side, beneath an umbrella in the rain. With bowed heads and slumping shoulders, each seems to be carrying a heavy and invisible burden. This piece, painted soon after my parents’ divorce, does not disguise the abandonment and vulnerability of her subjects — my mother, a 2-year-old me and my two older siblings.

My grandmother’s dressing room was like a fantasy world not only of glamour and impeccable style, but one where I felt calm. In there, I wasn’t a soldier at the ready in anticipation of my single and overwhelmed mother’s unpredictable and fiery temper. I also wasn’t belittled and told don’t be baby when I was scared and stop being so sensitive when I expressed my feelings, especially hurt ones.

I was well into adulthood before I understood that my mother’s behavior was evidence of her own deficiencies rather than what she deemed as unworthy in me.

I was confident and creative in my grandmother’s dressing room — allowed to freely experiment with her makeup and play dress-up in anything within reach. I remember feeling spectacular in a multicolored gown splattered with sequins from neckline to hemline. Her garments all hung from padded, satin lavender hangers.

And the shoes! They were preserved in clear plastic boxes, creating a structure that looked like a Jenga tower made for a giant. I was successful at removing the boxes most of the time, and no one yelled at me or called me careless when the structure collapsed.

While my brother lost himself on the pitcher’s mound dreaming of the major leagues, what lived in my imagination was someday drawing fashion designs inspired by my glamorous grandmother.

Today, as I sketch images from the pages of fashion magazines, I realize that more than an escape, her dressing room is where a love for color, line and drape come together. This creative emancipation comes after decades of burying my interest to pursue a career in design, possessing neither the courage nor the parental encouragement that pushes children to pursue their passions.

My artistry remained a sideline hobby. The doodles in the margins of my college notebooks, although crude, were renderings of dresses from my weekend field trips spent wandering the couture floors of department stores as if they were museums. I did not want to own the apparel displayed on the store’s mannequins and racks. To me, these garments, like those I found in my grandmother’s closet, were works of art — sculptures that I touched and observed from different angles teaching myself about texture, construction and finishing.

Spending hours drawing and visually shopping ended with motherhood. It was not until my children were in their late teens that I read Mary Oliver’s essay “Of Power and Time,” in which she describes what happens when the call to creative work is ignored. She accurately forecast the shadow of regret that had begun following me, having silenced the creative call that I first heard in Nana’s dressing room.

Oliver’s essay played an important role in lifting my haze of self-reproach when she explored the concept of three selves. She wrote of the ever-present child self who is driven by impulses related to anguish and expectation. The second is the practical self, concerned with day-to-day matters. Both are grounded in the ordinary. The third self, which she describes as “occasional in some of us, tyrant in others,” is ethereal and in search of the extraordinary.

The idea of the third self who is “creatively inclined” and a dreamer reminded me of the girl who swirled around Nana’s room playing dress-up. She is the grown woman I am today, perched on a stool at a drawing table in the corner of a sunlit room, sketching a dress.

I know it is one my grandmother would have loved when red, blue, green, yellow and violet hues begin to dance on the paper. Inspiration for the kaleidoscope of vibrant colors streams from the empty bottle of Chanel N°5 that sits on my windowsill catching the light.

What do you remember most about your grandmother? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Fulfillment
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