Of course I remember July 20th, an image burned in my brain, because that was the day I looked up at the solar eclipse and got slapped in the face by my grandmother, while she shrieked “You’ll go blind!”
It was moving day. I stood on the stone steps of the new house watching the moving van being unloaded. I assume Grandma F., my father’s mother, was there to help, although we usually only saw her on holidays and she never lifted a finger to help out with anything when she came to visit. Out of the two grandmothers, it was no secret she was not my favorite one.
That bright July day, I ran in and out of the door excitedly, arranging objects in my room, unpacking my model horses and other precious possessions – but acutely aware something more momentous than the move was about to take place. The moon and sun were aligning; ancient mystic voodoo was about to occur, something weird, magical, mythic, scary. I was nine years old.
Grandma F. stood on the slate steps like the figurehead on the prow of a ship. I was never very fond of her – she was a domineering, vain woman with long, lacquered red nails, darkly dyed hair often accentuated by hair pieces that she called “wig-lets”. She used Jean Nate perfume too liberally. Her lipstick was deep red, her face heavily powdered. She was always dressed well and adorned herself with costume jewelry. Giving her the expected greeting kiss on the cheek always produced an inexplicable static shock, which further repelled me from her. She expected to be waited on while she held court. She was condescending to my mother, bossing her around and making her demands in a throaty voice much like the crowing of a rooster.
Grandma F. was the opposite of my other grandmother – Nona – who had a deep voice and thick Old World accent that fell somewhere between Count Dracula and the sound water makes going down a bathroom drain. Nona, with her blue-gray hair, who told stories of her childhood, sang songs to us in French and Italian, hugged us, made us “angel bread” from toast fried in butter and sprinkled with sugar and secretly pinned holy medals to the sides of our mattresses to protect us. Unlike Nona, Grandma F. shared nothing. Our history from her side of the family was a mystery;“I don’t bother with all that”.
On holidays she would descend upon us, eclipsing our moments, overshadowing my mother with her demands, until the blessed relief of her leaving. Afterwards, when we imitated her or complained about her, my father would only say she had a hard life and had been a very hard worker. To him, she was the original liberated woman and a survivor. He was proud of her accomplishments. She certainly knew how to take care of herself.
What I came to learn about her later was that she had been widowed at a very young age, left with three small children to raise. Her husband was carried out of the house with some sort of infection and died on Christmas Eve. So Grandma F. went out to work and struggled as a single parent back in the day, as did her three young children to help make ends meet – my father began delivering newspapers at age five. She was a disciplinarian and was not beyond taking a switch to her children if they misbehaved, an image that was further dis-enamoring. She was an excellent cook. She liked to go out on dates and expected her boyfriends to treat her well. She was careful with her money and saved, but she liked nice clothing and paid attention to her looks.
If I try to look upon her with more benevolence, I can recall examining the gold charms on her bracelet with wonder – specifically a little gold cage which contained a dollar bill folded up into the tiniest square. Somewhere packed in a box I must still have a little gold jockey charm on a tiny bracelet, which she gave me knowing I loved horses. She used to come bearing Italian bow tie cookies she had baked for the occasion, dusted with powdered sugar.
So I don’t recall exactly why she was with us mid-summer while we were moving, but there she was. She stood on the stairs wearing a big circle of a hat, casting her shadow on the operations, pointing with her claws, questioning everything, calling attention back to herself amidst our hive of activity, her moon moving across our sun.
As the moment of the eclipse drew near, the light began to change and the air slightly cooled. I heard my mother’s distant voice from somewhere within the new house say “I think the eclipse is starting“. I could feel my senses becoming alert as I lifted my eyes to the specter, awaiting magic.
Suddenly I was struck with a tremendous blow to my face, Grandma F. standing over me, having slapped me hard and raked my cheek with her red talons as she shrieked, “You’ll go blind!”
It took me a long time to appreciate that she probably/definitely saved my eyesight and that her action sprang from a moment of panic and yes, actual concern. But at the time I felt nothing but loathing for her, as my eyes welled up with tears, I lifted my hands to my smarting face and ran into the house. I can still feel those nails upon me. As a result, even today, long painted nails remind me of vanity and I find them unattractive and distasteful.
As this eclipse approaches, I have as strong an urge to look up to the sky just as I did when I was a child. I will not stare into the sun but I will reflect upon that moment again as I have whenever there has been an eclipse, and actually, almost every July 20th since the incident happened.
It has taken me a lifetime to come full circle and truly appreciate her swift action as a moment of caring, and perhaps, in her own way, of love.