“I am not supposed to look like your mama. It’s your mama who is supposed to look like me …” I started but realized that my joke would be lost on a seven-year old, so I quickly corrected myself, “What do you mean, darling?”
“Mama doesn’t have so many wrinkles,” Amelia said with the cruel sincerity of a child.
I think I look pretty good for my age! — I wanted to say, feeling suddenly defensive — the subject of my ever increasing (and deepening) wrinkles has been on my mind for some time now even without my granddaughter’s reminder. In fact, just before we left our Missouri home, I looked at my passport picture — the one I considered to be my worst picture in the last nine years — and I realized that I’d love to look like that today. Yet I didn’t want to discuss the subject of aging with my granddaughter, so I said, “Your mother’s face is less wrinkly because she’s my daughter. Daughters look younger than their mothers. You look younger than yours, and I looked younger than mine. The longer we live the more wrinkles we have.”
“Your mama died,” Amelia said with the superiority of an insider.
“Yes, she did.” I said, momentarily choking from the acute pain that these three little words caused me. “Do you remember her, darling?”
“Yes. She had lo-o-o-ts of wrinkles.” Amelia said, not willing to change the subject.
Amelia is funny that way. Every time my husband and I come to London for our yearly visits, Amelia and I have long conversations about things. They started when she turned three and she began to learn about her family relations, which are more confusing than I’d would like them to be for her sake.
Like her older brother before her, Amelia first wanted to know if my American husband was her grandfather. I said that he was — I myself feel grandmotherly toward my five American step-grandchildren, and I was sure that my husband felt the same toward his London ones — but by the time we came back for another visit, she had already learned that he was not. In fact, she quickly informed me that her true dedushka (grandfather, Russian) is my first husband, while my second husband is “just Gilbert.”
This has never been an issue with her brother, since as far as he is concerned, Gilbert is as good as anybody when it comes to telling scary stories, talking about Star Trek, and discussing other things that boys like to talk about. Amelia, however, went through a stage when she felt the need to define my husband’s place in her life more precisely.
“Is Gilbert your brother?” She asked me next time. Her question made a lot of sense to me. First of all, she herself has an older brother, from whom she’s rarely separated. Also, since we come to visit together and I am her grandmother, while he is not her grandfather (nor is he my father — we cleared that up during one of our earlier visits), he must be my next of kin — a brother. So, we had several long conversations about why I am no longer married to her dedushka and why people get divorced, as a result of which, every time she sees me, she makes sure that my past likes and dislikes have not changed, and she knows exactly where I stand.
And now, having dealt with the complicated family issues, we have finally arrived at the subjects of age and mortality.
“The older people grow, the wrinklier they get,” I said, trying to sound as if this fact has never bothered me personally.
“Is that why Gilbert has more wrinkles than you do?” The little inquisitor continued.
“Well, maybe. Although he’s not that much older, is he?” I said, now feeling defensive for my husband, too. “By the way, some people believe that with the wrinkles comes wisdom.”
“He’s wrinklier, though,” Amelia said, apparently admitting my husband’s implied wisdom but still concerned with his appearance. “And your mama was, too.”
“My mama was your great grandmother, darling,” I said. “And she didn’t always look like that. You just met her when she was rather old and soon to die.”
“But you won’t do that, will you?” Amelia said.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Die,” Amelia said — her sparkly greenish eyes that seemed to have come from a painting of Hans Holbein or another Northern Renaissance painter looking intensely into mine; eyes like my mother’s when she was young.
For the second time during our conversation, I felt as if some invisible hand had squeezed my throat.
“I’ll try not to,” I said after a short pause. “For as long as you need me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Amelia said, her face lightening and showing no traces of wrinkles.
“Do you want to go to the park?” I said.
“Yes. On my bike. Can we have ice cream there?”
“Sure,” I said, happy to change the subject.
Both of my grandchildren got on their bikes and my husband and I accompanied them to a typical English park, where people walk on the left side, dogs run unleashed, and ice cream is sold in an old stately manor.
Life seemed good to all of us — those with and without the wrinkles.
©Svetlana Grobman. All Rights Reserved