On Beauty (Discovering 8/14/09)
Beauty survives, no matter what.
My grandmother has Alzheimer’s. This evening, she didn’t recognize anyone but me, and then, five minutes after she knew me completely and totally, she was looking at me as if I were a stranger. She was studying me and she wouldn’t admit it, but she had forgotten who I was, too. She didn’t remember anything.
At one point she asked her age. My aunt, Sis, told her she was eighty-two.
“What month was I born?”
“March, honey,” Sis said.
“Yeah, I was. It was March,” Mamaw laughed. She closed her eyes and laughed like music, like a tinking piano. “They used to call me Windy Wanda, because I was born in March and I never hushed talking.”
“Yeah, they did,” Sis said. “I had plumb forgot that.”
Mamaw was lying in bed with the covers pulled up to her neck even though the pulsating heat of a late evening in August breathed against the windows. (Not long ago she would have been hoeing her garden this time of evening, even before the cool settled over the valley.) Her hair—so white it begs to be touched—was spread out all around her head. She looked like a queen.
Her eyes: small, brown. Her strong little Irish nose. The Cherokee cheekbones that belonged to her mother. Her hands: liver-spotted, long-fingered, still strong. All these things beautiful, but the real beauty was all over her, a light.
It wasn’t in her eyes or nose or cheekbones or shiny white hair. Her beauty washed out from her because she had been good to others, had worked like a dog every day of her life, because she had raised not only her own children but had taken in at least three others and treated them as her own, giving them equal amounts of money and adoration. She had once arisen at daylight, cooked a full breakfast, gathered eggs from her hens, canned thirty-two quarts of kraut in one day, loved and loved and loved. And she had been beautiful. She always will be.