My paternal grandmother was not a pretty woman. She was, God bless her, a heavyset, sallow-skinned lady with a face like Sun Yat Sen. I saw her for the last time when I was seven, and my memories of her visage would had faded long ago had it not been for photographs. We don’t have many of them… an unremarkable picture of her walking with my father, at some point in his teens… a few shots of her at my christening, blending into a sea of relatives. But we do have a few images of her that are burned into our psyches… indelibly imprinted in that naughty, rascally corner of the mind where cheeky disrespect flourishes and laughter springs up inappropriately.
All of those pictures were taken at my parents’ wedding.
You see, my poor grandmother lived in the country… in a little town in the Eastern part of Cuba far removed from the cosmopolitan elegance of Havana. When she came to the big city to attend my parents’ wedding, she had a black lace dress to wear which was perfectly appropriate, but she didn’t have a fancy hat or fascinator, which was de riguer for women attending nuptial ceremonies in the 1940’s.
Now at the time, my mother’s uncle (the one whom I always called Grandpa) was married to a woman who was breathtakingly beautiful, and dressed like a celebrity. When she strode by in tulle and feathers, she looked like a flight of angels; few others had the grace or elan to carry off her frocks, jewels, or hats.
You know where this is going.
My poor homely grandmother needed a hat, and my grandfather’s wife asked her to select one to wear from her breathtaking collection.
And they marched off to the wedding, where many photographs were taken.
Wicked, wicked photographs.
I first remember finding them when I was about eight years old. My brother, sister and I asked my mom to show us her wedding pictures, and she, innocent soul, pulled them out. Did we focus on the fact that mom looked like a queen? Noooooooooo. Did we noticed that Dad looked like a million bucks, dressed to the nines in his natty cutaway? Uh uh.
“Oh my God,” one of us asked. “Is that Grandma? Why is she wearing a feather duster on her head?”
“That’s not a feather duster,” another one replied. “It’s covered in mosquito netting!”
“Maybe it’s a buzzard that got trapped!”
“Why didn’t anyone try to swat that thing off her head?”
My mother looked in horror at her three impertinent children, laughing uncontrollably, breaking out into louder and more raucous peals every time they turned a page in her wedding album.
“Stop that!” She yelled at us. “Show some respect! That’s your father’s mother!”
“And she’s wearing a feather duster!” we cried out.
“Shut up before he hears you!” she implored. This should have had the desired effect… we knew my father had little patience for disrespectful urchins… but then we saw the twinkle in my mother’s eye.
“You’re busted, lady! You think it’s funny too!”
And that’s how it started…the countless afternoons we spent leafing through that album laughing at the feather duster lady. It was the one activity guaranteed to chase away ennui, to distract us from the stresses of childhood, and to fill us with unfettered glee.
In time we grew up and got married.
Knowing how my siblings and I visualized our grandmother, I swore that my mother would look regal in my wedding pictures. I had my cousin design her a gown that royalty would have coveted… an elegant creation made of richest Belgian lace… and indeed, whenever my children look through my wedding album, I know they see her and think, “Wasn’t Grandma Cusita a lovely lady!”
I should have worried about my mother-in-law.
The irony of it is that my darling Mazey was normally one of the best-dressed people I knew. She had a wonderful figure well into her later years, and a real appreciation for fabrics, textures, colors and trends. The woman had closet after closet filled with truly elegant clothes; beautifully cut dresses, exquisite separates, and enough expensive shoes to make Imelda Marcos feel like a piker.
But a few months before my nuptials, she called me and said, “Wait till you see the dress I bought for your wedding! It is the most magnificent gown I have ever seen!”
“What does it look like?” I asked.
“Oh, it is so beautiful! It has your blue and pink colors, long sleeves, and a big, full skirt. So flattering!”
She sounded so happy, so triumphant at having found this perfect frock, that I honestly rejoiced for her, and really looked forward to seeing her on my wedding day.
As my bridesmaids and I got into our gowns in the dressing room of our wedding venue, the door flew open, and Mazey made her entrance with all the confidence of Carol Channing on the stage in Hello, Dolly!
And my sister-in-law cried out, “Holy shit, Ma, you look like Glinda the Good Witch!”
She did, too. The dress was indeed pink and blue… it had a layer of diaphanous blue fabric draped over another layer of gauzy pink, looking for all the world like a cloud of gossamer ham. The sleeves were so full and so poofy that even Princess Diana could not have carried them off, and awkward embroidered flowers that echoed the wilted lavender weed sitting on top of her head.
And the future became clear to me… my children would spend rollicking afternoons leafing through our pictures, pointing at their grandmother, and asking, “Why didn’t anyone garnish that dress with pineapples?”
I thought of them today as I shopped through the Internet, looking for something divine that I could wear to my daughter’s upcoming wedding. I found an outfit that filled me with delight. It’s a cross between a jumpsuit and a caftan, made of a nice, flowing fabric in a scrumptious aubergine color…
And I heard my unborn grandchildren cry out, “Grandma looks like a big purple bat!”