Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Portrait of a Lady

My grandmother passed away a few weeks ago.

It was one of those passings where you are "prepared." My grandmother was 94. I watched as age gradually dimmed the light of her memory until it was completely shut off. I watched her walk around her own home strongly and day by day grow weaker until she was bedridden. Through the past 10 years I keep hearing people say "I don't want to get that old." I would never have imagined my grandmother living so long, surviving so much. But she was tough. She survived the Great Depression, Wisconsin winters, and the death of her husband, my grandfather. She toughed it out as she had to move in with us, 10 years ago. I know it wasn't easy for such an independent person to move their beloved furniture, give things away, leave the home they had finally settled in after years of moving around (they were a military family -- as most people of that generation were). But we are never really prepared to let someone go. Never. Death has a bitter sting. I know that my grandma is better off now, happy, free of pain, and united with all those we have loved and lost. Heaven was made for people like her. But living with death is one of the hellish parts of living on Earth.

We had a service for my grandmother two weeks ago, and it was so very beautiful. It was everything she would have wanted. Our pastor asked the small group who had gathered at our church to share any memories they had of her. I never stood up, I only listened. And in a small way, I wondered if I had let her down by not sharing. But my intent was always to write this post instead for her. Because I always write things better after chewing on them rather than just standing up and talking. So here's what I would want my grandmother to know, and what I would want anyone who reads this to know about Meta Livesay:

I always remember her telling me that when she was young, she would tell her mother that she wished she were older. And her mother always used to tell her "Don't wish your life away. It goes by too fast." She would recall these things with exaggerations and exclamations, really emphasizing the words for me to comprehend when I was young. She would tell me this story time and time again from her recliner, her hair white with years gone by. She would always end the story with "And it did. It went by so fast."

I have spent the latter part of my life studying literature. One thing that alway fascinated me about the Modern period was that there were three poems published in that time by three different poets titled "Portrait of a Lady." And of course, there was the Henry James novel published only a couple decades before. Art has always praised great, graceful, women, and the Modern poets were searching how to classify and capture that species again. While these portraits are not like those found in classical art, there are lines that ring true to me in 2013.

Ideas, old gossip, oddments of all things,
Strange spars of knowledge and dimmed wares of price.
Great minds have sought you—lacking someone else.
Oh, you are patient, I have seen you sit
Hours, where something might have floated up.
And now you pay one. Yes, you richly pay.
Trophies fished up; some curious suggestion:
Fact that leads nowhere; and a tale or two,
That might prove useful and yet never prove
Pregnant with mandrakes, or with something else,
That never fits a corner or shows use,
Or finds its hour upon the loom of days:
The tarnished, gaudy, wonderful old work;
--Ezra Pound
My grandmother was patient. She was kind. And through the sea of dementia, memories from far awaywould surface. She loved old things, particularly jewelry -- they were her treasures. She volunteered at a thrift store in Claremont and frequently came home with the most amazing finds. Even though no one else wanted them, she knew their value. A couple years ago I blogged about the collection I took from her stash after she stopped wearing her jewelry. You can read that post here . So in honor of my grandmother, I thought I would post some pictures from my Instagram account of me wearing her jewelry. Something I am proud to continue to do and something I hope brings honor to this lady and the era she came from. 
Because my grandmother was that classic lady so many writers and artists have searched for. She was that lady who gave up her job at a phone company to raise my dad. She wore fur coats, lipstick and gloves almost daily. She taught me how to type on a typewriter and to love my family more than anything else. She volunteered and gave generously because she loved others, especially animals. She told stories, read and enjoyed home-brewed coffee and meals with dessert.
I had started to fear I was nothing like my grandmother. I work constantly and don't want to give that up for a child. I don't wear fur or cook or bake, and rarely wear lipstick or gloves. I haven't volunteered or been very selfless. While I love dessert, I am trying to do without it. But when my stepmother gave me this framed picture of my grandma in her fur coat, she told me that I looked just like her. And it was then that I realized all that made us so similar. My grandma is the reason our family knows how to love so greatly, so fully. And while I may never have my Christmas shopping done in March or the edges of my wrapping paper meeting perfectly, I possess the greatest gift possible, and that is to know what it means to be related to a real-life lady.
Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
“Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands”;        
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
“You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.”
--T.S. Eliot
In a twist that I would have never seen coming, my boyfriend's grandmother passed away on the day of my grandmother's funeral. Marty was 84 and lived in Illinois. She made jewelry, and I wrote about her here. In some of the pictures above I am actually wearing pieces she passed down to me. The world lost two great ladies. And I am so honored to be connected to both of them.
Well! and what if she should die some afternoon,
Afternoon grey and smoky, evening yellow and rose;        
Should die and leave me sitting pen in hand
With the smoke coming down above the housetops;
Doubtful, for quite a while
Not knowing what to feel or if I understand
Or whether wise or foolish, tardy or too soon…        
Would she not have the advantage, after all?
This music is successful with a “dying fall”
Now that we talk of dying—
And should I have the right to smile?
My dad's favorite memory of his mother was her saying, "Be good, be careful, have fun." I really like this adage. I think Marty would have liked it too. I wish for a great many things on a daily basis and smile away many of the things I don't want to face. This blog post is an example of something I tried to put off. I tried to evade feeling that sting from death all over again. But since I have been the one left sitting pen in hand, jewelry on fingers, memories intact, it is my duty to talk about dying, about living. It is my job and my privilege to create this portrait of two ladies -- who make me smile.
Be good. Be careful. Have fun.


  1. Beautifully written, as usual, Beth. My French aunt was an enormous influence on me, but I am not her; I think it's the same with your grandmother and you.
    And, I remember it well, when we went out to lunch the day we met, your wore white gloves, similar to a pair I have, and I remember thinking 'here's a young woman after my own heart.'

    Love, your French Aunt.

  2. Such a lovely tribute to your grandmother, Beth...I know she will be very missed...you were blessed to have her in your life! I enjoyed seeing all her lovely jewelry...she must have been a fun woman!

  3. Beth, I am so sorry for your loss. What a beautiful tribute to both of them. I enjoyed the post & pictures.

    Take care

  4. I'm sorry for your loss, Beth, but it sounds like you had a wonderful relationship with your grandmother. And, you wrote a beautiful tribute to her.

  5. so rich are the memories and the life lessons she passes along. You wrote so beautifully of her essence, Beth. I am sure she was very happy and proud of her children and grandchildren as they are her living legacy. Take solace in being able to know her... being a part of her life and she yours. xo

  6. Beth, i am so glad i saved one of your posts from Altered Couture..i wanted to see what you were up to. I am so very sad for your loss. My grandmother died on my birthday...it gets worse, my daughter was born days after my (mom's dad)grandfather died, my (father's dad) grandfather's funeral was on the day my son was born. Now, my parents are 82, and i am not looking forward to their deaths...they are doing well, it's just sad knowing. I love your blog and i am subscribing by email. :)

  7. Dearest Beth-
    I am so sorry for your loss and I understand how your heart must ache. It's interesting to think how our Grandparents have shaped our lives - I know mine did as well. I believe that your Grandmother is sitting up in heaven and rejoicing the fact that you wrote such a beautiful article about her and took the time to enjoy and wear her jewelry!
    Yes, life does go by in a blink of an eye, but it sounds as if the two of you shared some very special moments that you will always remember, whether it's now or when you're in YOUR nineties... Those blinks become a full life lived, a photo album of memories that will last forever in your heart.
    You have such a wise old soul and your writing continues to blow me away. I'm honored to know you and am blessed to be able to read your lovely blog posts. Thank you for sharing with all of us!!! XOXO Colleen