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How My Grandma Looks

Even After a Stroke, She Looks Like Strength Itself


“How do I look?” It’s a funny question coming from a woman with severe bed head, a drooping lip, prune juice stains on her hospital gown, and all manner of tubes and wires emerging from various parts of her person.

So I figured you were joking. Good one, Grandma. Leave it to you to make fun of yourself just days after a stroke left you slumped and alone on the carpet of your living room. Now, propped up in your mechanical bed in the neurological wing, it figures you’d be the first to fearlessly acknowledge the rumpled old-lady elephant in the room and snicker at her unkempt state. I smiled and waited for your next line; what would it be? Something funny. A facetious quip to show us that your spunk sure as heck ain’t paralyzed. “Am I about ready for the Governor’s Ball?” you’d probably say. Or “pretty as a picture, right?” Or maybe “a face that only a mother could love.”

Starshine Roshell

But the quip never came. I stopped smiling. You weren’t joking. And as I sat holding your impossibly soft hand with your impeccably shaped nails, I think I realized what you really meant.

“How do I look?”

You wanted to know what we see when we look at you. You were studying our expressions for a reflection of what you appear to be now — to understand just what your children and grandchildren perceive when we lay eyes upon your 88-year-old frame, looser and less steady than it used to be. Road-worn and life-weary. Having persisted through heart attacks and knee surgeries only to collapse from a cotton-pickin’ blood clot even as you combat that pesky speck of cancer in your good-for-nothin’ bladder.

“Don’t get old,” you’ve been telling me for years. I’m trying. I’m failing. Turns out I’m lousy at staving off time. But here’s something I can do, and I’ll do it for us both because we both need to hear it: I can tell you how you look.

You look exactly like my grandmother. My hard-knocks-and-loud-laughter grandmother who — at 4′10″ of pure Dust Bowl–bred resilience — has both the lowest center of gravity and highest pain threshold of anyone I know.

I know you, Grandma. I see you in there. You’re the compassionate, can-do lady whose moonshine-making grandparents took you in and raised you up when your mama needed a hand — and who in turn took me in and raised me up when my mama needed a hand.

I recognize you — no doubt about it. You’re that woman who worked at the shipyard during the war and scared away robbers at her screen door by bluffing that she had a loaded rifle and knew how to use it. The nut who not long ago invited a street beggar into her car and took him to Denny’s for a hot meal and a couple of hours of conversation and respect (but only once because we made her promise never to invite strangers into her car again, please).

You’re the tell-it-like-it-is grandma who doles out tough love wrapped in Okie colloquialisms like pigs in a blanket: “Calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it one!” The a-cappella-voice-like-a-bell grandma who knows a song about everything, including something called huckleberry pie. The infinitely patient grandma who sewed aprons with her granddaughter on the Singer and counted pennies with her great-grandsons on the floor.

You can’t see well anymore, but believe me when I tell you that your eyes look just the same as ever: thoughtful, observant, remembering … and still twinkling with mischief when you flash that sly half smile.

So how do you look, you ask? You look strong because there’s simply nobody stronger. You look, to me, like strength itself.

You can’t fool me, Grandma. I’d know you anywhere.

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Starshine Roshell is the author of the new book Broad Assumptions.

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