Ganmommy, beauty, me

re-a-pprai-sal (n): A second look at or reassess a value of something; a new appraisal.

My Mother’s Day 2024 held cards, and a rose after worship, and a thoughtful dinner featuring NY strip steak and store-bought dessert. It held some work, too, because that’s what my PhD life is like in the wake of taking five classes at the same time (don’t try this at home!), but less work than on Saturday or Friday.

I thought about, and conversed with, my own mom. That happened invisibly, particularly since she didn’t answer, even in my own head. And that wasn’t particular to Mother’s Day, though this time it was because of Mother’s Day. I still don’t feel much different with Mom than in the season when I had two under two and worked full time/went to grad school (in sequence, not at once) — I had to plan, back then, for us to weave our voices together over the phone, but I talked to her presence all the time.

Anyway, those were ordinary parts of my ordinary Mother’s Day. The interesting part I didn’t get to tackle on Sunday, because work, but it’s this:

How do I celebrate my Ganmommy? (My mom’s mom.)

I don’t usually. But this time I realized my relationship with her had congealed when I figured out triangulation (with therapeutic help!), and how I could step out of the triangles I hated. In the original moment, my sister once said to me, “You know, Ganmommy’s afraid of you now,” and I said, “Good. If that’s what it takes-!”

She died the week before her 91st birthday, so in 2003? She and I had never spoken of the weekend I broke my triangle, though that was in October 1991; I remember when it was because I had recently met My Sweetie and tried somewhat successfully to distract her with Boyfriend!. Instead, post-breakage we had gone along as if nothing ever happened while deleting any guilt-trip gambits. Careful. No less fond but not as fluid. My Sweetie and I took a week’s Orlando vacation with the girls and stayed in her condo the June before she died. Nevertheless, my default response, when I think of her now over 30 years later, is: don’t manipulate me.

On Mother’s Day Sunday, I thought: this isn’t fair. Or even accurate.

She was not my favorite grandmother, because her preferences didn’t jive with mine. And because, when I was in her world, there were a lot more constraints than in my other worlds — even though her condo had a pool, and I was and am a fish. At her place, there were only the books I brought with me. I had to make my bed and straighten my room every morning before we could go down to that pool, also every morning. Then I would shower and dress, though in hindsight I wore pretty much the summer clothes I always wore: shorts and Tshirts, sundresses with bloomers. My Ganmommy preferred outfits over “throwing on whatever,” but I didn’t have to live in my Sunday clothes.

Then we would go shopping — maybe for groceries, though mostly for clothes. Rarely toys. Or, around the condo where she and my Gandaddy first lived, I would go visit my particular friends Miss Schrader or Miss Merrill. In the evening, we would go out to dinner at white-tablecloth restaurants — House of Beef was a favorite — where I would order a Shirley Temple and a Salisbury steak (it’s secretly a hamburger) or, later, a filet mignon. I knew the pianist at the House of Beef. I liked the Dancing Waters floor show at the other place. Both places would wrap my leftover dinner into aluminum-foil swans, and bring me a small cake with a lit sparkler on my birthday.


I’ve gotten in a habit of filing all of this as ‘shallow’: the way Ganmommy lived her life around me, the behaviors she rewarded or enforced, what I learned with and from her. As I said, this is neither fair nor accurate, though it is true that, at her memorial service, my grandmother’s friends said, “She was such a Southern lady!” as both accolade and summation. It is true that I crave a more complex eulogy.

But Ganmommy modeled a life where beauty, including at its most consumerist level, truly mattered.

She used her everyday bone china, the set with the rose and gold border, the way I use my Corelle, popping it in the dishwasher and, cleaned, back on the kitchen shelf. That the gold wore away was immaterial. They — my grandparents — ate at fine dining restaurants because they savored good food and had the means to do so routinely, and they took me because that’s where they were going. I could learn to behave beautifully to go with the surroundings: sit still, speak in dinner-table tones, find something on the menu I, too, would savor. Ganmommy had Hummel figurines and capodimonte roses in display cabinets, music boxes on the living room’s side tables, fresh flowers floating in a huge bowl or arranged gracefully in a vase. My mom told me that at one point, perhaps when my mom was in junior high school?, her mother helped out at a friend’s flower shop, making arrangements. My Ganmommy and the friend were all set for my grandmother to join the staff — her arrangements were beautiful — but my grandfather thought it reflected poorly on him to have a wife who worked for hire. She confined her eye to the home, to her outfits — she had so many shoes — to decorating and arranging the rooms they lived in.

The bed that I made every day had a “grown up doll” in fancy garb to be set, just so, in the center of the pillows under the bedspread. The doll, too, was beautiful.

As I grew into my teen years, I began to choose beauty — to opt, in whatever ordinary branching decisions presented themselves, for the pleasing, the decorative, the polished. To buy the single iris stem — European-style floral markets had just barely arrived in Pittsburgh. To drink from a china teacup over a thicker mug. To craft my clothing choices, incorporating shoes, hats, handbags… maybe mostly on Sundays, but also for school, weighing design principles and social impact before setting out for the day. Other people could lead unreflective lives, but mine would be intentional. Intentionally beautiful.

Given all this, it might seem that the home I lived in was not beautiful. That would also be inaccurate — Mom also had a fantastic eye and the skills to enact whatever designs she envisioned, though the closest she got to carpentry was furniture refinishing & reupholstering. She and my dad preferred Scandinavian modern to the more elaborate styles Ganmommy chose, however, and somehow there was a ‘set it and forget it’ quality to my mother’s design nature. Beauty was important, simplicity/orderliness even more so. My rebellion was, I suppose, in choosing gratuitousness over durability.


I’m taking RELI 482, “Beauty and Meaning,” at Northwestern this quarter. Our professor more usually focuses on histories of Hindu religion; my colleagues (all PhD students) are also part of secular academia. So we are pretty head-y, even while we, and the course design itself, keep returning to doing and embodiment. We have read stacks of writing about beauty from all sorts of traditions. And in a way, that’s a limitation of writing, that it’s writing-about and not the thing-itself. Fair enough.

We have hit the point in the term where we are to articulate our own, individual, theory of beauty: our final assignment. So Mother’s Day just happens to have intersected with my asking myself, what do I think about beauty? What is my theory? Theory says to me, writing-about, which yet again seems fair enough given our scholarly constraints while somehow still beside the point?

What I’ve tried to do today is puzzle out for myself my original relationship to beauty, in the hopes of perhaps finding a theory’s sprout. What I think I’ve found, however, is that I am first and foremost a practical theologian; I begin with practices — doing — and later figure out the deeper goings-on in the middle of the practice. That for me beauty connects through a choice, which in repetition shapes a disposition of heart-mind which leans ever more toward beauty, or Beauty. Whose leaning isn’t (interestingly enough) necessarily ethical in a socially just way, though I suppose it could be.

I have further to go with this. But I continue to think a practice of beauty is a good place to start.

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