‘The most beautiful flower in my father’s garden’, she called herself, and then I saw the picture
My paternal grandmother looked like a cornish game hen. She was short and round with skin the color of overcooked fried chicken. Her waist-length iron-gray hair was always knotted into a bun at the top of her head. With the exception of notifying me how fat I’d become every time I saw her, my paternal grandmother never spoke about looks or beauty.
My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, spoke about looks and beauty constantly. In particular, she liked to tell me about the days of her youth when she was, as she described it, “the most beautiful flower in my father’s garden.”
Hearing this story dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times throughout my childhood painted a picture that I held onto until adulthood. My maternal grandmother, so mature and matronly in her black mourning dresses and thinning silver hair, must have been a fairytale princess in her youth — or so I thought.
Sure, I was jealous of her youthful beauty, a beauty she clearly no longer possessed. After all, I didn’t take after my maternal grandmother with her most-beautiful-flower-in-my-great-grandfather’s-garden past.
I more closely resembled my father’s side of the family with my ugly aunts, and my ugly cousins, and my greasy overcooked cornish game hen of a paternal grandmother. If I was the most beautiful flower in my father’s proverbial garden, it’s because I was the only flower.
One day, I finally saw it. My mother’s mother brought out a large bag of black and white photographs taken in the old country. They were glossy squares with scalloped edges, and they showed my family’s former life as lived in dusty fields of rows and columns and crops.
There in one of the photographs was my grandmother, standing not in a garden but in the field. She was smiling. And she was ugly.
It is so unfair to refer to her as ugly. Beauty is, after all, a construct. I don’t mean it as an insult but as a clarification. Maybe even a celebration.
My grandmother, who for years had waxed poetic about how beautiful she was in her youth, wasn’t. She was scrawny and underfed. She was dusty from the fields and gaunt from lack of food. She had bad skin and bad teeth.
Her hair was braided and twisted into two matching mounds at the sides of her head. It was the exact same hairstyle Carrie Fisher would wear in Star Wars, but the photo was taken years before Carrie Fisher was born. Decades.
I wish I had that photograph, but it's lost forever just like my grandmother. But I'll never forget the look on her face when she showed me the photo.
My grandmother tapped the picture with one gnarled finger and smiled. “Beautiful,” she said. And at that moment, she was.
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