Listening to Old Women -The Toast

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The oldest woman in my family, my grandmother, died four months ago on the night before her 94th birthday. Her voice, to her dying day, was loud and rough and jarring. This may seem like a strange thing to focus on, but not if you consider that she was a woman whose entire world was structured to teach her what she said wasn’t worth listening to.

She wasn’t alone in this way, of course. One day last year, I was thinking about the erasure of aging women in our culture and searched for the term “venerable women.” I was curious about what images of wise and respected women the world produces. Google’s seemingly baffled autocorrect responded, tellingly: “Do you mean venerable men or vulnerable women?”

For decades, I pestered my grandmother with questions whenever I saw her. She was born in the Ottoman Empire, in what is now Jordan. The family fairy tale was that a young, handsome man — her father — gallantly rode into a village and swept a beautiful girl off her feet. We forget that fairy tales are all told from some perspective, however, and this one — like so many others — had a man’s. Whenever I asked my grandmother about her childhood, she began: “My father was a hard man. My mother, po diable, was sick.”

Her voice, to her dying day, was loud and rough and jarring. This may seem like a strange thing to focus on, but not if you consider that she was a woman whose entire world was structured to teach her what she said wasn’t worth listening to.

A “hard man” is one who, at age 21, took a 14-year-old girl and “made her his bride.” They were married, and she gave birth to seven children. Their family, part of a flood of Christians who spread out across the world as Empire collapsed, made their way to Haiti. My grandmother, who was three when she arrived, lived there in the unending chaos and violence of colonialism, American occupation, and Haitian dictatorship.

When I pressed her and her friends for details of her childhood, they inevitably talked of her mother. She sat, they said, for years, slack-jawed, eyes blank, trembling incessantly, in a rocking chair on the veranda of their house. Everyone said she was mad, but I thought it made more sense that she’d been left speechless by the incomprehensibility of her life. My great-grandfather, on the other hand, was a jovial, hale and hearty man about town. We loved him very much – he was fun and affectionate. Tradition and misogyny are complicated, and at the time no one was equipped with words like marital rape, post-traumatic stress, patriarchy, or postpartum depression.

A “hard father” and a severely damaged mother might cow a person, but my grandmother was fierce and resilient. She didn’t brood. “Po diable,” an affectionate way of saying “poor devil” in Creole, was her sole summation of her mother’s life. She would segue seamlessly, saying nothing and everything, to “I never let anyone touch me.” That truth landed her in jail one day after she fought a Duvalier henchman who sexually harassed her in the Port-Au-Prince airport.

As a young woman, she was glittery, vivacious, flirtatious, and brazen. She smoked and played cards with men. She never turned down a good party, and she was famous for throwing her own. That she sought pleasure, and defined what that meant for herself, was clear from the fact that when she was 23, she married my grandfather. When they met, she broke off an engagement to someone else. My grandfather was a foreigner in every way, and she took a huge risk. He had laughing blue eyes, and being of Anglo descent was, to her, the exotic. When they married, they didn’t speak any of the same languages sufficiently enough to hold a complete conversation.

My grandfather defined my grandmother’s life. He was a warm and thoughtful father and, to me, the best grandfather imaginable. Their marriage, however, was a 45-year slow-motion disaster, leaving wreckage in its wake. It was punctuated by periods of joy, adventure, and prolonged intemperate exchanges. My grandfather’s approach to marriage was symbolically bookended by two early-1970s phenomena: Pan American Airlines and Playboy. I was in my grandmother’s kitchen one day in 1975 when she called him during one of his business trips to Columbia. A woman answered, and when my grandmother explained that she, his wife, wanted to speak to him, the woman said, “I’m his wife.” Decades later, our family got a letter from three siblings in Mexico, apparently his children, trying to find him. He managed, remarkably, to simultaneously be a philanderer and a bigamist and a pious Anglican who didn’t drink and taught his children, under threat of the switch, to never lie.

Divorce was not an option for a woman like my grandmother — she was Catholic, uneducated and socialized to understand her vocation as a wife. And, besides, she’d chosen him of her own accord. He hadn’t ridden in on a horse and taken her. He’d flown in and asked nicely.

She took care of him long after he could no longer take care of himself, and she wasn’t gracious about it. It was hard and thankless work that he frequently made harder. Nurturing was not a word easily associated with her, unless it had to do with her fruit plants. Until late in life, her approach to her offspring could be likened more to a bulldozer run amok in a field than a gardener’s deliberate tending of a garden. For long periods, she ceded the parenting of her children to others. Critics were rife, but no one seemed to consider why she did what she did.

When we, a passel of grandchildren, were little, a hug from her was an act of aggression, to be strategically avoided. When she saw us coming, she would lock us out of her house with a jug of water that we had to stretch amongst our many selves for the duration of long afternoons in the brutal heat of her yard. This was a woman who might hit us with a fly swatter that seemed to be grafted to her arm if we complained. Though we all knew she loved us, for a long time, if you’d asked, we couldn’t have said how we knew. You had to pay attention. Which was, actually, precisely what she needed and loved.

When I was five, she let me comb her hair. Until then, I thought the tight, elegant black bun on the back of her head was just the way her hair grew. The first day I saw it cascade down her back, I thought she’d performed magic and was amazed. She had a secret, hiding in plain sight.

She not only condoned but cultivated mischief. As a toddler, I routinely jumped off of her refrigerator, yelling, “Catch me!” I have no memory of her telling me to stop, but I also I have no memory of splitting my head open on her kitchen floor. She caught me every time.

She snuck out of the house with my sister to teach her how to smoke and curse.

She saved chocolate in her freezer that each one of her many grandchildren thought was theirs alone.

She peeled our grapes for us.

When I was ten, she let me alone come inside from the heat so I could read in my grandfather’s study, a kindness that, after more than an year, ended abruptly the day she realized I was quietly making my way through my grandfather’s pulp fiction porn collection.

That was on one of many Sunday afternoons, always spent at her house. Each Sunday I came to think of as The Yelling of The Men, who would debate furiously as the women swirled around them. Waves of food that took my grandmother hours, sometimes days to prepare, we consumed in a handful of chaotic minutes.

Well into adulthood, I heard her described as miserly, difficult, loud, unreasonable, dramatic, selfish, and unladylike. Her stubborn and instinctive unwillingness to conform made people uncomfortable, and they fell back on stereotypes, the truth being so uncomfortable. But where they saw a penny-pincher, I saw a smart and pragmatic woman who understood her financial situation and was trying to plan. Where they saw unreasonable, I saw a woman who knew she was playing a long game and would do what she had to, even if others failed to understand. Where they saw selfishness, I saw her insistence that she mattered as an individual, not as an eternal handmaiden. She would work, for pay, instead of taking care of everyone else and their children.

Her independence, her expectation of respect, and her refusal to provide unpaid labor that was taken for granted were all viewed as “unnatural.” So, too, was her “callousness” in parenting, sending her children away when they were young. Only after talking to her many times did I come to appreciate the profound sadness of her choice — she knew her children were much safer elsewhere, and she couldn’t, in polite society, say why.

She was vain, everyone said. But this, too, was a deliberate misunderstanding. To her dying day, she demanded to be allowed to live with dignity, which is not the same thing as vanity. Last summer, while she was slowly dying, the nurses in the hospital nicknamed her “The Ninja” because she physically fought with them. She was 4’10” tall and sometimes three, four nurses could not make her agree to procedures that would make their jobs a little easier. When I heard that, I laughed out loud.

As a child, I’d quietly studied her every move. As an adult, I realized, she had always filled me with a secret glee. A few years after my grandfather died, my grandmother’s difficult, tough and abrasive turned to soft, generous, and considerate. She would pat your hand. She’d send you kisses over the phone. She’d say out loud that she loved you, your children and their children. She would send great- and great-great-grandchildren she’d never know $10 in the mail. For years, this surprised me.

We know and care so little for older women’s thoughts and experiences, their knowing and sharing. But old women, despite everything we’re taught, are worth listening to.

Here was a wise old woman, never considered smart, who lived unapologetically. Spoke her mind. Intuited the difference between being sociable and being true to oneself, being popular and not. She showed us how to be self-sufficient, something still not to be taken for granted when you’re a girl basted in benevolent sexism. She taught us to seek love, even if it was flawed; to work hard, to care quietly, to complain loudly, to be loyal and firm. She was an example of the much disputed idea that people can change over time. She did of all of this without giving any of us more than a few scant words of direct advice. In other words, this old woman with no power trusted us to know what was best for ourselves, something rooms full of old men with too much power can have serious problems understanding.

We know and care so little for older women’s thoughts and experiences, their knowing and sharing. But old women, despite everything we’re taught, are worth listening to. Google’s question in response to my search was actually an insightful one because, in point of fact, wherever and whenever only men are venerable, women have been and will continue to be vulnerable.

When my grandmother died, her face was deeply etched with lines. But she was beautiful and her smile was dazzling. This year, for the first time in 94 years, she isn’t here to chide, cajole, cackle, muse, demand, or regale. I have so many questions that I can’t ask her. While I miss her presence, I can’t find it in myself to be sad. There is so much that I’ll forget, but I will always remember that on her 85th birthday, on the hottest day of the year, I left the dance floor at two in the morning and she stayed until the sun came up.

Her name was Julia. She was a very old woman with a very loud voice.

Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and writer whose work focuses on the role of gender in politics, media, religion and pop culture.

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