Saturday, June 28, 2014

Right Turn Only: Memories of my Great Grandma Peggy

My great grandma Peggy passed away last month at the age of 90, and I've wanted to jot down some memories and impressions of her. This is the first time in my life where I've been a part of going through someone's belongings after their death, and I've found it fascinating and curious how much more of her I suddenly know after spending time with extended family and literally going through the drawers of her life.

Something I definitely did know of her in life was her pride and poise as a proper lady. She was the definition of class, in a way that most woman don't even strive for nowadays. In a story I recount below, I found myself typing, "everything she did was beautiful and neat", and that is probably my most lasting impression of her. This song by Jeff Buckley is actually kind of sad and compares his more ordinary woman to that "other woman" who wears french perfume, manicures her nails, and always has fresh cut flowers. To me, Grandma Peggy was a class of woman who took time for all of those things, but she was no "other woman." Even if I, or my generation, will never manage to have everything quite so together (nor perhaps place such a priority on doing so), it makes me smile deep down to have known a woman who carried out her life in that way with the utmost sincerity.

Grandma Peggy seems to have thrown very little out in the past several decades, but all in all, seeing so many of her things - both treasures and trash - made me wish that I had known her better when she was alive. She was something of a character. There were many things I saw that made me wish I'd had the opportunity to ask her about them, because now there is a little bit of knowledge and history, wrapped up in her person, that's lost forever. Only our constructs of what's left will live on, and it's strange to realize that we'll almost certainly remember some things differently than she would have wanted, or simply just remember things wrongly!

Although I was not blood related to her (she was my mom's step-father's mother), we were always considered her family, and I feel I have more in common with her and am more proud to have been "related" to her than many people probably feel about some of their extended family. She loved fashion and fine things, sat on the boards of Los Angeles art museums, ate and drank well, entertained in style, knew her way on public transport to events like Celine Dion concerts (are you sure we don't share the same blood?!), gave extremely generous gifts (everything was from department stores - she gave me Kate Spade plates, which is pretty jaw-dropping for a family who shops at thrift stores), and was never short on stubbornness or eccentricities. She really enjoyed life, and she was an interesting person, and those are two things I greatly admire in a woman. [the photo above is my absolute favorite that I found of her! It was taken the summer after she graduated from high school, 1942, and the guy on the ground is her first husband, before they were married]

For example, she was famous for never making a left turn when driving. She was also famous for her sherry cake, but absolutely refused to share the full recipe. She would give you most of the recipe, but told people there were "a few tablespoons" of sherry in the cake, when there was really 2/3 of a cup, and she never divulged that there was butter flavored extract in the cake at all. I only know now because my aunt spent an hour and a half going through every single one of her recipe cards until she found the recipe. That's saying something too, because she had at least 100 cookbooks in her house. Although I'm never sure I tasted her sherry cake, I love that story about her, even if it seems totally unnecessary to guard recipes like that.

She would give me her old copies of Vogue magazine (in spite of my mother), and when I got married, she gave me a beautiful silk kimono, the only piece of lingerie I received that I've kept. She was so excited to see my ring when I got engaged [photo below from 2011], and she later told my mother that she not only approved of my wedding, but was impressed, which means a lot to me because she was a very proper and stylish lady in many regards (and because I abhorred planning my wedding and was so stressed out about the details the whole time). After she passed away, I was able to keep the beautifully beaded peacock shawl that she wore when she attended my wedding, which I'm very happy to have.

She lived in Studio City, California for almost her entire life, with the drummer(?) of the Foo Fighters as a neighbor on one side, and Jack Osbourne on the next block. She loved to take us to the Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen, or the Italian restaurant Vitello's, where the actor Robert Blake allegedly murdered his wife. When her health started to decline (only within the last year, remarkably) and she went out a little less, she requested that my mom make her a batch of gazpacho from a family recipe. Neither my mom nor I had ever had gazpacho before (nor really cared to try, honestly), but I'll be darned if this recipe isn't in the top 5 best things I've ever made. I'm happy to have it to remember her by.

In going through her things, I found a handwritten cookbook by grandma Peggy's aunt, who owned a Chinchilla farm, and once leaped across a table to scare hiccups from my mother. Unfortunately, it seemed to have worked, because my mother did that to me and my siblings growing up. It didn't work as well on us. Grandma Peggy also kept the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, and knowing how much I love both fashion magazines and vintage fashion, my mom brought it home for me last week. Jonas and I were laughing at all the old ads and advice on how to tell a person's character from their facial structure, when we stumbled upon the real reason for having kept just that one particular issue - the first male nude centerfold (the link shows the photo, but the main "subject matter" is covered, just a heads up) in a popular woman's magazine. We were both shocked and highly amused at the photo and that grandma Peggy kept it.

I also took home the few now-vintage dresses she had kept, mainly from the 70s, which I adore. It was a bit difficult given my stage of pregnancy, but I made an effort to look as fashionable as possible at her memorial, to honor her impeccable style. Years ago, she gave me the orange dress she's wearing in this photo, which was her second wedding dress. I love the [candy?] garter she's wearing in the picture. Along with costume jewelry, nick nacks, most of the contents of her liquour cabinet, and a giant stack of cookbooks I inherited, there was a bottle of  Estee Lauder Private Collection Tuberose Gardenia perfume, which I have declared my love of before, but pretty much never dreamed I'd own. It's both strange and wonderful to have so many of her things (a cast iron skillet, some glassware, bras, packets of gravy mix, eye liner, etc. etc.) suddenly part of my daily life for a while.

When people pass away, they seem immediately immortalized and almost larger than life to me, and yet, when you have objects from their every day life surrounding you, it reminds you that they were very much human, and led a very present life only recently. I will miss her comments on Facebook (she was better at using Facebook than many I know who were decades younger than her), and the way she used to sign her name when she left a comment. Everything she did was beautiful and neat. Once, we had Easter brunch at her home and she made these macaroon nests, with little speckled chocolate eggs in them, wrapped in clear bags with ribbon. My family was on the way to a camping trip in Yosemite after we left her house. I forgot the macaroon at the bottom of my backpack, and in the middle of the night in Yosemite, I was awakened by my dad who seemed somewhat on edge, which is unusual for him. I looked over to see a raccoon sitting on my sleeping sisters' head, inches from my face. The raccoons had unzipped two doorways in to our tent, taken out all my clothes and books from the backpack, and retrieved the macaroon. They were entirely unperturbed by my dad hissing at them and shining a flashlight in their faces. I can't remember how we got them out without total chaos ensuing, but apparently we did, since I only remember the first part of that incident.

One of my other distinct memories of her is probably from a decade ago, now, when she spent Christmas with us at the beach in Oxnard. In our family, stockings are fair game as soon as you wake up (ahem, 4am??), but everyone must be present to open gifts. I can't imagine grandma Peggy slept in past 9am, but to us, it felt like she was going to stay in her room until lunch!

Once again, I'm almost positive I have a companion photo for this one, but it's not on Facebook and it could take me quite some time to track it down! I will add it here if and when I come across it later. Anyway, in this photo, Grandma Peggy is second from the right, my real grandma Nita ("Mana") is in the middle, and my mom is on the left, holding me. If I'm not mistaken, the more recent version is of Grandma Peggy, Mana, my mom, myself, and Ishmael. I'm really glad Grandma Peggy got to meet her great, great grandson before she died. At her funeral, the pastor of her church said that she couldn't wait to place a red rose on the alter in honor of her new descendant when he was born, which warmed my heart.

Sometimes I roll my eyes at memorials when every person who has anything to say about their loved on says "they were the best person I knew" or something of that caliber, because we can't ALL be the best people, right:? I've heard that Grandma Peggy could be very stubborn, perhaps beyond what was reasonable or necessary at times, but to me, she was always a lady. I admire her independence, even if it did make things difficult for others at times. Plus, she had a pink bedroom. I love her for it.

We'll miss you, Grandma Peggy, and I'll do my best to carry on your vivaciousness. And manicure my nails from time to time, and keep fresh cut flowers when I can. 

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