You were always a vision. Auburn hair perfectly coiffed after your weekly Sunday morning salon visit, where you perched under the massive globe of the hair dryer, your hair in rollers, body dwarfed by your rumpled nylon cape, your feet braced beneath you.
Even then, you were regal.
You held yourself with shoulders flung back. Chest puffed forward.
The nylon cape, a royal mantle.
But then, you were always careful about the way you presented yourself. Boiled wool skirt suits with double-breasted blazers, pearlescent shank buttons gleaming in the light. Shining English lock earrings, strands of pearls, jewel-encrusted brooches chosen from the jewelry dish on your bedroom dresser. Nylon tights in nude, gray, black. Orthotic shoes that nevertheless only added to your stately bearing.
You took just as much care with your home, and it was only when your grandchildren made a mess of things—building forts out of the couch cushions downstairs, pulling out all the knick-knacks from the cupboards, taking greeting cards from the basket under the living room chair and laying them down in winding pathways throughout the house, like brightly colored pavers—that your composure faltered.
Still, everything was always back in its place by Sunday afternoon, when your daughter and her family came for dinner. You’d have them set the dining room table: casual china pulled from the built-in corner cabinets and placed on the plush polyester tablecloth; silverware laid down carefully (forks on folded napkins to the left of the plates, knives on the right, blades facing in); tumblers and wine glasses set down above and to the right of each plate. Meanwhile, in the other room, you would pull tins from paper bags, pulling off the lids to reveal fried calamari, clams oreganata, veal francese, linguine with white clam sauce. Sometimes, on special occasions, there would be lobster tail. Little plastic tubs of clarified butter. Always, there would be a bag filled with half-loaves of Italian bread, sliced almost all the way through so you could pull the pieces, soft and warm, from the loaf and dip them into your sauce. The smells of butter and basil and fried oil filled the kitchen, the dining room. Everything unpacked and poured onto plates, you would each sit around the dining room table, the painting of an Italian contessa watching over you.
“That’s my girlfriend over there,” your husband would always say, face flushed with Merlot. “She’s always watching me.”
You’d shake your head. Roll your eyes, the barest hint of a smile at your lips. Eventually, he’d lead the family in grace. Everyone would murmur the words in unison, hands clasped in laps, gazes down. They’d make the sign of the cross. “Good appetite, everyone,” he’d finally say. An amen. A hallelujah.
As everyone picked up their forks, placed napkins on laps, you would slide your wine glass over to your granddaughter and let her stick her finger in, suck the acidic sweetness from the tip.
You were a firm ruler of the domestic domain, but you were also magnanimous.
Over the years, you attempted to impress upon your granddaughter the importance of appearance. As she grew her hair long, you’d finger the locks, tug at them until it smarted at the scalp, wrap them around your finger and wonder aloud why she was so resistant to curls.
“Wouldn’t it look pretty…?” you’d ask as she pulled away from you, scowling, hiding behind the curtain of her hair.
As she grew older, picked out dresses for school dances, you’d arch your eyebrows at sleeveless shifts, grasp her fingers and insist she get a manicure, hum disapprovingly at her resistance toward the usual trappings of femininity.
“Wouldn’t it look pretty…?” you’d ask as she pulled her hands away from you, scowling, tucking them into her armpits.
As you grew older, you remained fastidious about maintaining your own appearance. Even as your hair thinned out, as your body thinned out, as you became more stooped, unsteady, fragile, you made the weekly pilgrimage to the nearby strip mall salon to get your hair colored and curled. Sometimes, your granddaughter accompanied you and, as you sat beneath the dryer, a queen upon her throne, she would curl up in the waiting area, more interested in the old, hand-me-down paperbacks scattered across the glass-top table than in the glossy magazines filled with hairstyle recommendations and celebrity gossip.
When your granddaughter went off to college, you (mostly) accepted that there was nothing more you could do. When she was home for weekend visits, you would wait for her to wander out of the room, mutter to her mother about the choices she was making. About the person she was becoming. But she was outside your sphere of influence now.
“Wouldn’t it be nice…?” you’d ask your daughter. And she would shake her head at you, insist that your granddaughter needed to make her own mistakes.
The year you passed away, your granddaughter was only 20. Still so different from you. So different from your daughter.
Not known for polish or decorum—God, no—she was still figuring out who she was. Still making mistakes.
But she had always been listening. Each time you tugged her hair, grasped her hand, muttered under your breath, she had heard. Ears burning, she had heard. But while your judgment made her crave your approval, she remained unable to reconcile the woman she was with the model of womanhood you valued.
When you died, however, the realization gripped her heart and squeezed:
It was too late.
No matter what happened in the coming years, you would never see the woman she might have become.
On the morning of your wake, she pushed through the doors of the funeral home, air sweet with the smell of lilies, walked down the carpeted hallway, the rich, red color of Merlot, walked the length of the chapel to your open casket, and fell to her knees. There, she clasped her hands on the edge of the casket, letting her chin rest lightly on her knuckles, and she cried.
You did not look entirely yourself then—the skin of your face and your own clasped hands were pale and waxy—but you were still turned out perfectly. Boiled wool skirt suit with a double-breasted blazer, gold buttons running along the center seam. Heavy gold earrings pulling at your earlobes. A jewel-encrusted brooch over your heart.
Your granddaughter reached out for your hand, touched it lightly, and then pulled away again. It felt thin, like tissue paper and, in your shrunken, fragile form, you felt diminished.
In the years that passed after your death, your granddaughter’s greatest regret was that you were so sure of what her future would hold. That you never got to see the woman she became.
Sure, she never curled her hair. Never did her nails. Never leaned over the bathroom sink to apply foundation to her skin, brush blush across her cheeks, make her lips a perfect red bow.
But still, she’d done what you would have wanted for her.
She’d married a good man. Had her own daughter. Built a home of warmth and good food and carefully folded napkins.
For all her other faults, she’d lived with love.
And though she remained different from the woman you were—though she was still not known for her polish or her decorum, God, no—she was still, at her core, your granddaughter.