by Kelly Aiello
by Kelly Aiello
Considering the stories Mamma told me of my grandmother still feel legendary in my mind, I’m still not exactly sure how much of it was true. Mamma had a tendency to embellish. Profoundly. She couldn’t end a story at normalcy if she had someone’s attention in her grasp. Gramma, Mamma had said, was a woman of female revolution who never seemed to pick up on social decorum appropriate for a woman her age. Even into her early sixties she’d sashay into a room, sweep the premises with one shrewd gaze of her amber eyes, and own everyone and everything in it, men and women. Platinum hair twisted with piles of hairspray, she’d size up prospects like fruit at the grocer’s. And not a hint of movement in her face. Impassive. Imperial. And completely crazy. Heads turned when she sauntered anywhere she went, wide, round hips swaying, and she had men gasping for the breath right from her peppermint mouth. Before she’d met Jerry, Mamma’s step-father, she’d been a single working mother – almost unheard of in her time and slightly unacceptable.
That was my grandmother. Men often frequented her house, leaving while straightening their neckties and blowing kisses her way as she’d wiggle her fingers to them from the front porch. Mamma told me one time Gramma’s nosy neighbours had seen the whole thing with a married man and rumours rippled up the street like pebbles in a pond.
“Let the Mary Kay wives talk,” Gramma had said with a wave of her hand. “Gives the old hens something to cluck over. They should thank me really.” She shrugged her shoulder. “I keep them happy. Coming home to them.”
I’d heard my grandmother had earned her fortunes by backbreaking work – on-her-back work, as Mamma had put it. I had no idea what that meant, while Mamma would laugh that short bark of a laugh she had when she really didn’t mean anything funny. In 1961, Gramma was hired at an international diamond manufacturer as the receptionist in the Jewish district on Eglinton Avenue in Toronto. Within a year, she’d been promoted to Vice President of Sales and was often seen exiting Lionel Metz’s office, tucking in her blouse or hastily reapplying her Coco Channel lipstick. He was her boss and he made play of giving her a crisp bill to slide into her pump. She could only have it after she’d walk on it all day in her shoe.
The job came with fortunes and opportunities which would serve to set her up quite comfortably for the rest of her life – precious gems of her choosing, a beautiful new Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz and international holidays to Rome, Budapest, Geneva, and Istanbul, which Gramma still called Constantinople even though it had become Istanbul well before she was even born.
And the parties, oh the parties she’d throw. I’d even attended one when I was a girl. Glittery women draped in silk and exploding with colour. Men in fine jackets with brandy snifters and music blaring from the Marantz record player as they all swirled around the vast rooms of my grandmother’s home. Ladies danced, kicking up their skirts and pressing against men. Throaty laughter as they tilted their heads back, intoxicated with bourbon and jazz. My grandmother always loved jazz. Anyone who walked in the double oak doors of her massive home – a stately farmhouse with all the latest technology dovetailed with the most lavish, expensive appointments – could have sworn they’d stepped straight into prohibition rather than the era of the King of Pop and Def Leppard.
I remember standing there, in the midst of all the exotic heat and blaring music, barely seeing above the cinched waists pressing in, reveling in it all. I remember watching one couple, off in a dim corner, the woman with her glossy dark hair coming untethered locked in a passionate embrace with an older man. She giggled as his hands slid over her charmeuse-clad bottom, squeezing it with a growl. He pressed his pelvis into her thigh with a faraway look on his face while still keeping her heated gaze.
I remember wandering through the marble hallways leading to the massive, fifteen-step staircase. I relished the click-clack my patent leather shoes made on the floor. The sound of a real lady’s shoes. I’d force my little heal down hard to hear the clack above the music and laughter.
Beyond the staircase, adjacent the parlor, I saw Mamma and Gramma seated at the sixteen-seat bocote table among billows of cigarette smoke and empty bottles of expensive French wine. I tip-toed carefully forward, not wanting them to know I was there, standing almost on my tip-toes. The excitement of witnessing adults together was like an unattended cookie jar to a little girl. What did they discuss among themselves? What do they do that they seem to enjoy so much?
I’d never seen Mamma smoke before. I was curious. I loved this secrecy, witnessing the adults at play, in their own recondite world that a six-year-old girl like me was not permitted to see. I could just hear what they were talking about, their heads tipped close to each other, red painted fingernails tipping ash from their cigarettes into the jade ashtray on the table. Smoke swirling around their heads, leaving the luxurious room in a haze. Silk damask paper covered the walls. And Mamma looked different. Somehow, she looked female. Not like a mother, not like my over-sized, always slightly sweaty Mamma. Her lips were swollen with red lipstick, eyes smoky and slightly glazed behind the rose-tinted glasses she wore. Dark green silk draped across her breasts and clung to her girth. She looked impressive with one elbow propped on the table, the other holding a cigarette away from her face nonchalantly. Effortlessly. Like she was born into this world and had abandoned it long ago for diapers and dishes. I was so accustomed to Mamma wearing cotton day dresses, aprons, and a perpetual sheen of sweat that would cling to the tiny whiskers of her upper lip.
“Darling,” I heard my grandmother drawl – dah-ling – over her shoulder to someone in the kitchen. “Be a lamb and bring us girls more wine, will ya?” I saw Jerry enter the room from the kitchen, bowtie undone and dangling across his shoulders. He leaned in and pecked my grandmother on her powdered cheek. “Sure thing, pumpkin.” I crept closer, small hands bracing along the papered wall.
A few years back, Jerry reluctantly had given Papa a job when Papa couldn’t find work. Mamma had never liked Jerry much, she’d liberally and frequently proclaim, and both my parents resented the fact that Papa had to work for him. It stemmed back to one late night, when Mamma was pregnant with me. Jerry and Papa had had it out over something or other that men have it out over. Gramma and Mamma started yelling and then everyone was yelling at everyone and then fists were flying between the men. Mamma got in the way of Jerry’s fist. It was only when Papa trained a shotgun to Jerry’s head that Gramma and Jerry took their leave.
Mamma had once told me that when she was young, Jerry had come at her with a two by four. Beat her to smithereens while Gramma turned the other way, she’d said. I’m still not really sure how true that was. Like I said, Mamma had quite the largess for embellishment.
I focused my attention back to Mamma and Gramma at the table and the smell of cigarette smoke curling into my nose.
“And that,” Gramma turned back to Mamma as Jerry left with a pat of her hand on his rear. “Is how you get a man to do what you need.” She tapped her cigarette in the tray, brought it back to her blood-red lips and pulled hard. Her eyes squinted, wrinkles breaking over her rosed cheeks. “Men are simply a means to an end, honey. Your heart never belongs to them so never give it to them. Never give them what they need – that’s the only way you’ll keep that husband of yours. Always keep them needing more.” She shrugged in a soft rustle of expensive fabric. A shriek of laughter emanated from the front parlor. Etta James was belting out of the record player about stormy weather. Gramma smiled at Mamma. “Why would they buy the cow when they can get the cream for free?”
Mamma smiled back. Glanced out the floor-length windows to the darkness beyond the brocade drapes.
“But you might want to consider shedding a few pounds though, honey. A fat woman is a little unseemly, don’t you think? You don’t want that gorgeous man of yours to trade in for something smaller.” She leaned into Mamma and pinched her belly fat. “Something tighter. Men like it tight, darling. Don’t forget that.” She pointed a diamond-encrusted finger at Mamma. “Hon-estly, with all the diets I put you on as a child, it’s a miracle you actually turned out as fat as you are!”
A hand on my shoulder roused me from my observations and I quickly spun around. I’d been caught! I looked up into the eyes of a man, youngish, dark hair and face ruddy from exertion and drinking. His jacket undone, tie abandoned to who knows where.
“Now, young miss, what do you think you’re doing here?” He said in a lowered, conspiratorial voice. He raised his hand and brushed his fingertips along my cheek. Delicately. Softly. A thrill went through my small body. I just shook my head, silently, mouth agape. “You’re a pretty one. You like Etta James?” His tongue snaked out and licked his bottom lip. I watched the lip coat with sheen. I nodded. He remained silent and for a moment I thought I was going to get in real trouble. Then he said, “Now you go on. Run upstairs. This isn’t no place for a young lady such as yourself.” He winked at me. “Go. Scoot.”
With my fancy party shoes clacking on the granite floor, I ran off, the scent of cigarettes in my nose and thoughts cream tumbling through my mind.
About the Author
My previous publications include The Mighty, The Varsity, and last year, I won 2nd place for the #MindMyArt contest with Minds Matter Magazine. I am also a previous student a the Humber Creative Writing Program as well as working towards a certificate in Creative Writing with U of T's Continuing Education Program.
I have a BA Hons from the University of Toronto, specializing in political science.
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