June 1, 2010

On Becoming A "Character"

'When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me," are the opening lines of a famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Out of this poem grew the Red Hat Society, which invites women over fifty to join and wear red and purple to functions.

Yesterday at our family reunion, we played Catch-Phrase, a game that has teams figure out phrases in popular culture. I kept passing because I didn't know things like who Jamie Lee Spears was, or who starred on Desperate Housewives.

There were no questions about iconic Broadway musicals or impressionist paintings or historical trivia. I like what I like, and it isn't much in popular culture past about 1980. And the older I get, the less I seem to care about what other people think or know.

We all know women whom we consider characters. Think of Scarlett's Aunt Pittypat in Gone With the Wind, an aging debutante who swooned with the least bit of male attention.

Or Katherine Hepburn, who wore slacks when women didn't do such a thing, and was famously reclusive and eccentric for most of her life.

My grandmother LeNore and my third cousin Erma both fell into the character genre. And my grandmother wore purple all of her life, long before the poem was popular.

When I was in the ninth grade, rumor spread through the lunchroom that a "women in a mink stole just brought a picnic basket full of alligators" to the office. Another child might be astonished. Me, I knew my grandparents were returning back to the Midwest from winter in the Twin Lakes Trailer Lodge in Florida. Who else could it be?

My grandmother was eccentric in the fun-crazy-I'll park my Caddy anywhere I g-damn place I please kind of way. I am wary, however when someone tells me they knew her. I keep quiet until I figured out which side of the fence they are on. Either you loved her or you hated her, but most people had a definite opinion about this larger-than-life personality whom I adored.

My third cousin Erma was eccentric in the never married-creepy-always carry an umbrella kind of way. Erma went to college for one semester, but moved home in December. Her mother instructed her to set her wind-up alarm for 3 a.m. every day so Erma could check to see if she was covered. Erma, noted in family lore for wrapping up a can of cling peaches at Christmas and presenting it to her parents, was also terrified of men.

My father met mother's family at Christmas 1954 after they were engaged. Dad sat next to Erma and casually put his arm on the back of the couch. Erma shuddered, stood up, and ask her mother to drive her home.

I have lots of my grandmother and a little of Erma in me, and as I cruise over the top of the bell curve of middle age, I ask myself: when will it happen to me? Quoth the raven.