Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Pioneer Woman of Springdale, Arkansas

'Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, 
not a creature was stirring... 

Except my Grandmother.

Prepping potatoes, baking cakes, 
wrapping presents, and refusing a break. 
When what to my wondering eye should appear,
but an 87-year-old woman with unyielding cheer. 

She still retrieves local pies before every Thanksgiving. She insists on cooking an enormous meal for every Christmas dinner. And for every birthday, you get her famous chocolate sheet cake: from scratch. She is, in a sense, your basic southern housewife. She cooks, she cleans, and she keeps up with everyone in town. Quite the little socialite of her time, she still embarks on monthly lunches with her girlfriends to catch up on the gossip and celebrations that each woman's family has shared since the last time they visited. She's right in the middle of everyone's lives, and she wouldn't have it any other way.

I was raised at my grandparents' house when I was a little girl. Not that my parents weren't present or loving because they were, but they both worked full time. My mom prepared instant mashed potatoes for dinner every night because she didn't have time for the real deal. After all, boxed dinners were a staple because they freed the modern woman from the kitchen. My family also hired a service to clean the house and mow the lawn because no one had the time, nor the energy, to do so. My grandmother was in her late 70's before she ever considered such a ridiculous suggestion, and she still follows the poor maid around to make sure she's cleaning to her standards. Oh, and she certainly doesn't believe in boxed dinners. She was probably 65 before she even knew what take-out was.

But as funny as her stubborn soul is, if I'm being completely honest: she's the sole reason I know how to do much of anything. I was three when I learned the correct way to dust a wooden coffee table. I stood on a chair over a pot of boiling water at age five, learning how to fix oatmeal. Real oatmeal; none of that microwave stuff. I was frying bacon in a scorching skillet at my grandmother's before my mother even let me touch an electrical socket. My granddad might have taught me how to add and spell, but my grandmother taught me how to function. She taught me how to live. She taught me how to be a woman.

And let's be clear: she was anything but a simple, submissive southern lady.

My grandmother was the original pioneer woman. While she didn't grow up on the streets, she certainly wasn't wealthy. She received no college education, and worked for minimal salary to support herself before marrying a 22-year-old WWII veteran. After becoming a family woman, she fixed their dinners from scratch and cleaned their house by herself, also working full time at the local bank. She created a suitable and comfortable life for her family as only a young woman, and raised two headstrong daughters in a polite, educated manner so they wouldn't have to endure the same hardships she had come to know. She saved every penny, relished in little, and splurged on nothing for herself. When my mother graduated pharmacy school, Grandmother took a deep breath and said, "Thank goodness. Now I can finally go buy a new pair of underwear."

Growing up, my mom had little to no suspicion that her family wasn't rich, and most of that vision was due to my grandmother's ultimate positivity and determination. "We drove everywhere!" my mom recalled her childhood travels, "We hit the road at the crack of dawn every summer." She visited more places and explored more things than most kids her age. The Day Sisters always had enough food on the table, quality education, and rarely sacrificed anything at the mall. The two fashion-forward young women were always dressed to the nines in name-brand skirts and slingback shoes, just like their mother. Every Easter Sunday, her daughters were dressed in slips, dresses, gloves, hats, shiny shoes, and lace socks for every sunrise service. She led her little ducklings to the sunrise service only to lead them home and have them strip down for breakfast (because no young lady in training can eat in her finest linens) before redressing to return to the regular church service. "My God, we visited every amusement park in the world," my mom told me once, "and Mother always wore a dress and pantyhose." If that doesn't sum it up, I don't know what else could. That's probably why I have more taste than by budget cares to afford. I suppose the admiration for Tiffany jewels and Chanel fragrance runs in the family.

Nothing about her seemed to change once I was born, either. She rocked me to sleep in her lap as a baby, read with me as a toddler, and bought me enough clothes and toys to send me well into high school. She inspired my imagination to run rampant by engaging in more symbolic play with me than my parents did at home, and nourished quite a food critic as I sampled everything that came out of her metal stovetop pot. I was never bored at Grandmother's house.

I was never hungry either. Upon entering her house, you will be offered a coke six times (she has everything, we just call it all "coke" down south), a total of three or more cookies, and the option to turn on various lights and fans around the house to fit your comfort level. If I had a dollar for every hot dog, strip of bacon, chicken nugget, or bowl of mac and cheese I ate as a child, I could own a penthouse in New York City. Thank goodness my metabolism was high. I bet she worried every day I was going to be fat.

But as I look back on my childhood at my grandmother's house, it isn't the books, nor the toys, or even the food that define the memory. It's her heart. It's what makes her a woman.

The current generation has intensely reshaped our definition of beauty. Victoria's Secret models are the angels of our time rather than daughters of Christ. Starving, waxed, air-brushed models are seen as the most beautiful women, while models who look like real women are labeled "plus sized" models. In our society, beauty is slim. Beauty is athletic. Beauty is makeup and clothes and hairstyles. Beauty is pain, we tell our daughters, It pays to be beautiful. Beauty is only skin deep. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

No. Beauty is not pain, nor a price to be paid. It is much deeper than our skin (or our makeup), and is certainly not determined by someone else.

beauty: beau•ty 
(n) the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind and pleases the intellect or moral sense

That's a far cry from what we believe beauty is today. My grandmother knows makeup, hair, and clothes, but I always found her more beautiful when she was her basic self. When she was happily hosting, entertaining, and socializing. When she was cooking fried green tomatoes and sitting on her back porch to feel the breeze. My grandmother is undoubtedly outwardly beautiful, but more than that, she is an effortlessly captivating soul. She is not striving to be thin or rich or famous. She is not striving to be anything. She is naturally delightful and aesthetically selfless, which translates to her alluring charm.

My grandmother is unquestionably the most benevolent woman I have ever met. She will put you before herself whether she's known you for fifty years or five seconds. In her house, you always have a place to sleep, a table to eat at, and a conversation to establish new camaraderie. She can tell stories like no other: from when she was first married to the time she was robbed at gunpoint at the bank. Her wit is undeniable, her heart is unparalleled, and her soul is anything but tired. She has been a spark of altruistic love and joy throughout my life, reminding me what it really is to be a woman: a pure heart, a spirited soul, with a fiery passion. She is strong when others are weak. She remains determined when others have given up. And she is kind when others are not so generous. My grandmother didn't just teach me how to work, cook, and clean; she taught me how to love. She taught me how to laugh. She taught me how to live. Without her, I could not be half of who I am today. It is because of her example that I have even the slightest idea of the woman I could be. I aspire to be more and more like her with every day that passes, because in my eyes, she has always been the real Princess. She's always been the true Queen. She has fought for those she loved and the things she believed in while exuding an unyielding elegance of sophistication and grace.

She might be 87, but she is not old. Her heart and soul are actually quite young. I can only hope I will grow to have the same wrinkles from laughter, scars from determination, and adventure-filled memories to look back on for the rest of my life. I cannot express how thankful I am for my grandmother, and all the poise and persistence she has instilled within me. She is more than a grandmother. She is more than a mother, a teacher, or even a friend. She is an effortlessly beautiful pioneer woman, and she is an exquisite gift from God.