“A skeleton key?!” the young woman says.
“In those days, such things weren’t as in vogue as they are now,” the old woman sits, blowing gently on a steaming mug. “Old things were bad things, meant to be thrown away.”
“What did it look like inside, Gram?” the young woman leans forward, resting her chin in her hands and her elbows on the table.
“Very white, very spartan. I still feel badly for that poor, lonely dining table- it sat in the middle of a nearly unfurnished room with only a single chair and barely enough room for one person and their elbows-” the old woman shoos her granddaughter’s elbows off of the table and straightens the tablecloth. The young woman blushes slightly. The old woman smiles.
The grandmother leans back, picking up her teacup and holding it close to her chest. She wears a brooch in the shape of a flower with a lone pearl at its center. Her blouse- pale pink, silk and perfect- is buttoned to her neck. Its long black collar floats gently along her frail collar bone. She wears no makeup and doesn’t need to. Her complexion, even at her advanced age, is rosy and looking forward to many more years. Her hair flies in the face of her peers, long and still thick, though silver and tied into a bun.
This woman, at least twice the age of most in this small cafe, has become its center since they first arrived. Elegant, demure and unfailingly self-depreciating- much like the pearl brooch she wears. Beautiful, but slow to notice itself and even slower to lord that beauty over another. The granddaughter reflexively sits up straight, running her hands across the front of her blouse and down her leggings, smoothing them as she does.
The granddaughter looks nothing like her mother’s mother, despite her best and continuous efforts. On a good day, the young woman will admit that she inherited her grandmother’s effortless complexion- she too, rarely wears makeup of any kind- and even, perhaps, the old woman’s excellent taste, but today is not a good day and so she tells herself that she looks nothing like the ageless beauty across from her. The young woman concentrates only on her mother’s voice ringing in her ears “You take after your father’s side of the family, Lovey. You know, ‘curvy’.”
The granddaughter traces her grandmother’s features with her eyes- the angles of her high cheekbones, her slender fingers- the granddaughter again feels that old, familiar pang of jealously. She, of course, realizes that it is absurd to be jealous of a seventy year old woman and reflexively adjusts her scarf.
“It’s a beautiful scarf, Lovey,” the old woman reaches those long, slender fingers across the table and running them across its length.
“Thank you, Gram,” the young woman blushes lightly. She lets the light scarf flutter to rest atop her peasant blouse’s gentle half moon neckline. The blouse’s pansy field print is impossibly feminine and contrasts the scarf’s deep indigo to emphasize the young woman’s bright, icy eyes.
Eyes that now drop to study the linen tablecloth.
“Where did you find it?”
“I can’t recall,” she reaches for her own teacup and sips.
“And that blouse! It absolutely-“
The young woman ceases to hear her grandmother compliment her keen fashion sense as she sees the door of the cafe open from over the old woman’s shoulder. A woman- tall, blonde and slender- sashays across the entryway, her thick hair cascading behind her with each step. She staggers her dangerously long legs over one another, emphasizing her figure’s natural advantages. Her clothing- a long, artsy frock cinched at the waist with a thin chocolate belt, paired with caramel leggings that end, after those mercilessly long legs, in gorgeous ankle length Spanish leather boots- is tasteful, much to the disappointment of the granddaughter. As the woman places her order with a gangly teenaged barista who hangs on the woman’s every word, she plays absentmindedly with a pendant that dangles from a long silver chain. She touches it to her lips and the barista and granddaughter look on in awe.
The grandmother, seeing her granddaughter stare, casts a nonchalant glance over her shoulder and, seeing the woman, looks back to her granddaughter. The grandmother suddenly sees her as a newborn, as a toddler, as a child. As a teenager and as the woman that she is bound to become, the mother she is bound to become and the grandmother she will someday be.
The grandmother traces her granddaughter’s features with her eyes- her high cheekbones and long neck, her full lips and eyelashes long enough to graze the young woman’s perfect eyebrows with each blink of those gorgeous, glacial eyes.
“Would you look at her?” the grandmother says, sighing.
The granddaughter breaks her gaze and quickly lowers her eyes to the gold lining on the lip of her teacup. She begins to blush and is unable to help it. Reflexively, she sits up straight, running her hands across the front of her blouse and down her leggings, smoothing them as she does. Her hands go to her cheekbones and her fingers trace the line of her jaw down until they meet at her chin.
“She’s quite beautiful, isn’t she?” The grandmother leans forward, resting her chin in her hands and her elbows on the table.
“She really is,” the granddaughter sighs.
“We’re not talking about the same person, Lovey,” the grandmother smiles.
“The gorgeous, well-dressed blonde woman at the counter?”
“The gorgeous, well-dressed brunette sitting across from me.”
Both women smile. One, with pride and one, in disbelief.
The granddaughter looks down at the table. She raises only her eyes and can see her grandmother- the ageless beauty- still beaming. The granddaughter composes herself, breathing deeply.
“Gram!” she shouts suddenly as she throws a hand across the table. “Elbows!” the young woman shoos her grandmother’s elbows off of the table and straightens the tablecloth. The old woman blushes slightly. Both woman smile.
“So,” the young woman says, as the tall, blonde woman leaves the cafe, drink in hand. “A skeleton key unlocked the door to your first apartment?”
Dear Reader- This short story was written as a part of my continuing (though faltering) effort to write daily on my Tumblr account. As I received several emails asking about where these stories are coming from and what they may or may not mean, I thought that it might be fun to give a bit of context for this story.
Initially, this story was meant to have a bit of my own grandmother, Carol, in it. She passed away just over two years ago now and we had many discussions over meals, coffee, etc. She was a brutally intelligent person and inciting. Though she could be quite mean, she was also capable of incomparable kindness and courtesy.
When I found a picture of an old ramshackle door with a skeleton key protruding from its lock, I immediately thought of a story that my grandmother told me all of the time. She skipped several grades in high school (again, brutally intelligent) and graduated at 16. After graduating, she moved immediately into the city of Chicago and worked for a small law firm in their offices. Rent was high and wages were low, but she refused to live anywhere but downtown so as to give herself as much of the city- good and bad- as possible. So, she was only able to afford a ten pound bag of potatoes every other week and had them (as a good Irish woman ought to) morning, noon and night.
She had, what she called, her “baked potato” days.
That is what I intended to write about- the need for everyone to have those times in their lives when things are tight and life feels all the more so because of that tightness. My grandmother believed that everyone ought to have baked potato days. Having had them myself, I can now agree with her.
But that story didn’t want to be written, i guess.
I sat in a coffee shop as I wrote and a woman walked in who was so impeccably dressed and so well put together that the entire shop could not help but notice. All eyes turned to this woman and she walked with a confidence that could indeed stop traffic.
The funny thing, of course, was that she did not adhere to any of our “normal” standards of beauty. She was dressed modestly, showing no sign of skin and furthermore, did not look skeletal or sickly. (I am uncomfortable describing any woman’s figure- I find it incredibly rude and tasteless, so please forgive my lack of adjectives in that department. Women have too many people commenting on their appearance as it is and do not need my input as well…)
She was beautiful because she believed herself to be- not because someone told her that she was. The sight of someone so comfortable in their own skin left all of the patrons of the coffee shop in awe. Too many people walk with their shoulders down, their eyes downcast. It seems to me that all of us could stand to be a bit more comfortable in our own skin.
But that’s just me…