When I was in high-school, I had a lot of ‘rah rah’ opinions. I would recite them as often as I could, to whomever I could capture, ignoring the obvious suffering of my prey in the name of truth-telling. In the school yard, at the dinner table, over bikkies and tea at church. But there is no doubt in my mind now, that as much as my intentions were good, a lot of my opinions were ill-formed.
One of my favourite rants was about men and their disgusting habit of dictating what ‘their’ women should wear. Objectionable! Objectionable! Women belong to no-one! You aren’t the boss of me! And so on. Well, quoth the staid old-aged lady writer (that’s me), I may have been a little hasty on that one.
This year has been a rough one. My dear Grandpa passed away. Without describing the exact rapport we shared, I will say that he was one of my very favourites on this earth, and I sorely miss him. Grandma, who is now ninety-two, watched her husband of sixty years weaken, standing by his side as he fought. But through years of cancer treatments, big frustrations and small victories she focused on keeping his spirits from falling. She made him exactly the foods he liked, listened to his worries and wore a smile.
When I was taking her for visits during his last days in hospital, Grandma retained her optimism. She told me one morning, smiling bravely, ‘I looked at the clouds today, and there was a bright lining. Just like the song.’ All I could do was squeeze her hand at that moment and sing a weak rendition of ‘hi-ho silver lining’, knowing as she did, that the chances of Grandpa’s recovery were slim.
Grandma paid special attention to the way she dressed herself every time she visited, even critiquing my outfits from time to time. ‘He likes bright colours’, she’d tell me, as she applied her lipstick. I’d hastily cover my black dress with an aqua cardigan, ensuring her satisfaction before we walked out the door.
It touched me unspeakably that she continued to dress to please her man, despite the dire circumstances, and even when she knew that he might sleep through her entire visit. She selected her blouse, slacks and scarf to match, and examined her choice carefully in the mirror each time before stepping out. She ensured her hair and makeup were done just so, applying her Innoxa loose powder to her nose to ensure it wasn’t shiny. She was determined to honour his happiness, and that meant looking just right. Defying the sadness of the situation, she maintained matching shoes and handbag.
When I was in high-school I failed to understand the distinction between what is given in good grace and what is given begrudgingly. It would not have occurred to grandma that dressing to please could have been interpreted as an exercise in subservience, albeit by my ‘rah rah’ teenage self. She wanted above all to express her love for her husband, and in the end, it was one of the few ways she could continue to honour his happiness. It was never demanded by him, but always appreciated. ‘That looks nice Vi’, he’d say. For her, it was enough thanks to see him smile.
Grandpa’s legacy was never clearer than when all the family’s women turned out in bright colours at his funeral. Grandma was wearing a new fawn-coloured woolen cloak, my sister had her hair and makeup done immaculately. I wore a bright burgundy skirt and mum was all in red. Each of us filled with sadness, wore bright colours that belied it. Not because it was demanded, but because it was all there was to give.
The loss of a lifelong partner is unimaginable to me, and I have looked in anxiously at grandma since, knowing that there is little comfort I can offer. All I can do is share cups of tea and biscuits with her and honour the lesson she and grandpa taught me.
Love takes many forms, but giving it kindly, without expectation of reward, is the greatest gift we possess. Dressing to please a partner is something my high-school self could never have understood. Without witnessing my grandma’s faithfulness to colour through her dark days, I wouldn’t have appreciated that it was her choice alone to give. It was not a matter of obedience, but of care. She was determined to make the situation as bright as she could. She was determined to see the silver lining.