Tuesday, November 18, 2008


My grandmother just suffered a severe stroke. She can't speak or move her left side. For those of you who know me, or who have read this blog often enough, you know how important she has been in my life.
I can't be by her side, and I can't sleep, so I am going to write down the things that mark a strong and unusual constitution; things she possessed that were admirable to me even before I knew why I should be so impressed.

My grandmother, Virginia Arnet Hill loves beignets, ancient Asian art, drinking mimosas (and flirting age-inappropriately), Mah Jong, and telling stories about her days living in the Hollywood Hills, where Clark Gable once "gave her moon-eyes" at the Brown Derby.

At seventeen, she left the pig farm in Iowa where she grew up to move to California where she attended parties in a jalopy that sounded more like Radio Flyer or some kind of rogue death machine. She worked as a stewardess on the railroad during the war and lived in the French Quarter in New Orleans. She dated more than one FBI agent, often trading boyfriends with her roommate Dot. Her favorite parties are still Mardi-Gras parties. She threw one this year for her neighbors. She wore a green mask and looked deliriously happy in pictures.
She's traveled around the world, and since I was 12 she has kept me at rapt attention with her exotic stories. She didn't leave the U.S. until she was 50, but after that found adventure everywhere: Egypt, Thailand, Australia.
She loved the unknown and just last year, at the age of 89, she visited me in Austin and Miami for art shows. My friends commented about her long after she had left, noting the magnetic personality that is her trademark. She never needed to read the book How to Win Friends and Influence People.

She took me to art museums and plays throughout my childhood (one in particular about killing nuns called Nunsense), and gave me a Chinese Calligraphy set when I was 8. I won my first drawing contest with a portrait of her. I've drawn and sculpted her more times than I can remember, and although she alerted me to the fact that these were not "flattering" depictions, she kept them anyway. She even kept a basket I made in a weaving class despite the fact that it looked like a lopsided rainbow cantaloupe.

When my father died, she helped my mother to raise my sister and I. And as she got older, she begrudgingly allowed my mother to take care of her, although never at the expense of my mother's own life.

She has the most beautiful hands, and in recent years I had to hold them to balance her. Her nails are always impeccably maintained, and when she speaks she gesticulates in the coy way that actresses in 40's films do. She loves the word, "Damn!" and often sounds like Rhett Butler, even though she is an Iowan by birth. She bought me a copy of Gone With the Wind when I was 10. That book changed my life, I think.

She wore Tina Fey glasses long before they were popular and donned a red leather jacket for most of my youth.
She never let me feel sorry for myself, urging me instead to do something productive with my time. She often quoted her husband, my grandfather, who said that "Boredom is a matter of personal choice."
She's in several book clubs, and she was the one who introduced me to books like Middlesex and The Kite Runner. She would say things like, "They're queer, but I like them."
*She meant "queer" in the older sense of the word.

Up until this week she did the crossword every day and still swam and played tennis several times a week. She loves movies with Queen Latifah. And she loves the book The Secret Life of Bees, the movie version of which, I believe, stars Queen Latifah. This will be the first movie I take her to, when I go home for Christmas.

My grandmother was never effusive, never pandered to me, never knitted me anything. On more than one occasion she critiqued my hair, weight and clothing choice (most of these were well-warranted).

But she is and always has been honestly caring. Over the course of my life she has cared for me honestly, sensitively, respectfully and unconditionally. I don't know where one finds a better example of will, intellectual ambition and loyalty.

I love you grandma and I want you to get better so that we can go see Queen Latifah try to act again.

*Although she can't speak, the hospital staff is already impressed by her sassiness and determination.


Dennis Harper said...

I'm truly sorry for your grandmother and I hope she recovers quickly and completely. It's always sad when something like this happens to someone you love but it's especially painful when it happens to someone who is so full of life.

Alison said...

I agree,
thanks Dennis.

Anonymous said...

Godspeed recovery. Possible Bringing Down The House 2:)


Up Like Toast said...

I never comment on blogs, ever. But this post was beautiful Ali. I wish you and your grandmother many more movies together...

Anonymous said...

I'm sending all of my positive energy towards Ms. Sweet Virgina to aid in her speedy recovery. She sounds wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I had checked your blog in awhile and was saddened to hear about your grandmother. I hope she's recovering. My own grandmother was amazing and one of my favorite people. Reading your comments brought tears to my eyes remembering her.
... and then your post about accidentally dressing like a Nazi brought tears to my eyes, although I was laughing. I hope you're in there through the German cold.