Friday, March 17, 2006

The Accent of Generosity

My phone blared through the bedroom. The chimes I'd picked as my ringer filled my ears, and I scurried from my place on the bed to pick it up. The pink display on the front cover announced "Kentucky" next to a number I didn't quite recognize. I picked up the phone a second too late. "Missed Call," the Sanyo scolded. And I gave it a minute to go into voicemail.

"First message," my automated secretary began. She went ahead and detailed the time, the date, the number. And then the message came.

In her heavily-accented speech, my grandmother asked me to call her back. I smiled as she spoke; I love the way she said "Laurie. Dis is Zana..." as though I knew anyone else with a voice like hers.

Growing up, Chase and I always called our mom's mother Zana, her name, instead of one of the many names kids use for their grandparents. "Vot? You vant to call me Maw Maw?" she asked once, referencing the name we used for my dad's very southern mother. She shooed the notion away with her slender fingers. "No. I don't tink so. You call me Zana." She didn't like the idea of being old enough to be a grandmother. She didn't want it rubbed in her face every time her grandkids needed her. So Zana it was. Pronounced with a plush z, a sort of "shhh" sound. Not the hard "zzz" you'd expect. Followed by a soft a. Ahhh instead of aaaaa. In writing her name by hand, a character that looks like a little "v" floats above the first letter of her name. I never knew what it meant (I found out later it distinguished a soft z from a hard one) but I always enjoyed writing it.

Zana was always glamorous. With her big house in Louisville that she shared with her German husband, she always dressed well, wore jewelry and always wore heels - even while vacuuming and grocery shopping. Her basement was dedicated to photography, a real studio with a lab for developing and everything. The walls in the lab were covered in black and white photos - her specialty. Pieces of old photos tacked up to a corkboard, a giant mosaic of old photographs that clients didn't want. Sepia colored negatives sat on the desk, next to the special pens she used to mark the good proofs. Books and books of ideas, technique, and examples lined the shelves in the corner. Under the red light of developing, the darkroom smelled like vinegar and progress.

She dressed me up and made me her model often. I was constantly in front of her camera, taking the gentle direction she offered with English words, spiked with Serbian sharpness. We went to costume shops and outfitted me for a special calendar to give to my mom: A gown for New Years, a Kentucky Derby jockey outfit for May...An outfit for every month. Visiting her home - as we often did when my dad was away with the Army - I dressed up in her heels and her silk morning coat. She told me to always, always, wash my face before bed. To stand up straight. To eat right.

She's been everywhere. She's done so much. She moved to the states with her husband, Hanjo, a German physicist, when my mom was five. She was a ballerina before she came to the states, and as long as I can remember - and to this day - her legs have shown it. She isn't tall, but her stems are lean, muscular. There's a picture of her that I remember, in black and white, with a shock of black hair atop her much younger head. She's sitting on a boat, resting her tilted head on her hand and posing with her legs stretched out. I could see the curve of her calf muscle, her youthful body in her bathing suit. She smirks at the camera. I love that picture.

She still works out three times a week. Aerobics. Cardio. Strength. I could be wrong, but I think she wears the same size now as she did when I was growing up. She always wears her makeup. She loves wine. She loves to dance, and she loves to go to the theatre. She loves to be out. Recently, she said, the doctor told her she'd have to give up wearing heels - years of ballet in hard wooden toe-shoes and many years of heels have taken their toll on her feet. "And I said to him," she told me, smiling, "put me in a veelchair, den. Because I vill not give up my heels." My whole family laughed, and looked at me. "Now we know where you got it, Laurie," my mom said. They're right. I'm her.

Although Zana has 5 grandkids, I am the only granddaughter. She did my makeup. She took me for a ride on The Belle of Louisville, an old "paddlewheel steamboat" that cruises the Ohio river. She danced with a preadolescent me on the makeshift dancefloor in the center of the boat. We worked up a sweat together dancing to a small band. She took me shopping and helped me cultivate my love for shoes and purses.

Zana, my mother and I have the exact same nose. We all have the same skin type. Line us up and you can tell exactly what my face will look like. The only glaring difference between us three (barring hair color. Because both my mother and grandmother used to be brunettes, too.) is the eye color. My mother's eyes and my own are light blue. Zana's are brown; A brown so deep and thick that they're almost black.

I was curious, to say the least, as to why she had called. She never calls me. So I called her back immediately. When she answered, she seemed surprised to hear my voice.

She told me she'd been reading my blog, that she saw that I'd been trying to decide whether or not I wanted to go away with Billy. "Laurie," she said softly, "you have to go. You have to. You're so young. You should go now. Don't vait until you're my age..." She curled her Rs around every word, her consonants were sharp. I smiled.

"I know, Zana. I think I'm going to."

"Now," she continued, "I know you're vorried about not getting to vear make up. And heels. I know. But you're so beautiful, such a beautiful girl inside and out. You don't need makeup." Coming from Zana, the woman who was instrumental in my first foray into foundation and lip liner and blush, this was a huge compliment. "And I know about ze heels. You know, when I was traveling vit your grandfather, ve vent hiking in Germany vit dis couple - both vere doctors - and dere I was, climbing a tree in heels!" She chuckled at the memory. "And, anyway," she lowered her voice so that she was just above a whisper, "Billy doesn't have to know if you sneak some makeup into your bag." I laughed with her. "And I don't vant you to have an excuse to not go. So I am going to send you some money..."

When she told me how much, my eyes widened and I interrupted her. "Zana, you don't have to do that."

"No, no, no," she argued. "I'm going to. Because you have to go. And den you can have a little money." She paused, considered her suggestion. "But you can't spend it on makeup. You have to spend it on your trip. I just can't tell you how wonderful it's going to be." I covered my heart with my hand as my eyes welled up with tears. I was so touched. So infinitely moved that she would be so kind, so generous just so that I could experience travel out of the country. "And Billy seems like such a wonderful guy. You two vill have so much fun."

"I'm sure we will," I said, trying to keep my voice from announcing my emotion.

"Oh, Laurie. I hope you go. Have you decided yet?"

"Yeah, I think I'm going to go."

"Good den. I'll send de money tomorrow."

I thanked her as much as I could. But I didn't know how to express how moved I was by her offer. We said we loved each other and hung up.

Yesterday, in the mail, there was a card with her distinct writing on it. And inside was a card with three African women on the cover. All in high heels. On the inside, she said she hopes I have a good time, but asks me to please not swim or dive with sharks.

I giggled. Touched, still, by the gesture.

So I'm left with the quandary: How do I sufficiently say thank you to a woman who introduced me to my love for high heels, makeup and looking good, but who has now facilitated my first experience abroad? Because although her gift clearly has a monetary value, written out in the "Amount" section of her check to me, it means so much more than that.

1 comment:

nomad said...

Stumbled upon your blog and really liked this post...

I'd say taking pictures and writing about the trip as a way of showing her the great experiences you'll have.Sounds like she's lived quite a life and just wants you to do the same.