Whenever I’m having a bad day, I like to summon up the Summer of ’66. My parents let me buy a lemon yellow bikini. I was allowed to bleach my hair, taking it out of the sad mousy-brown where it had languished for years. My best friend’s brother was required to drive us to Jones Beach whenever he and his friends went. Even though we had to sit in the back seat and weren’t allowed to sing along to radio, we were in heaven.
Why wouldn’t I think about that simple, glorious year on the day a pipe burst in my basement, I realized my mortgage payment was going to be late, and — was that a cold sore starting on my lip? You’d be thinking about that bikini, too, and humming “Yellow Submarine” all day, so don’t pretend you wouldn’t.
The Summer of ’66 wasn’t perfect, of course. A tiny pocket of discomfort came via my grandmother. She was vacationing in Rome without my grandfather, who had stayed home to run the family business. After a perfect day at the beach, I found this on the kitchen table, in one of those Per Via Aerea tissue-thin envelopes:
I thought New York City was noisy. But Rome is noisy with gestures! Last night I saw the Coliseum by moonlight. It was a full moon. Unfortunately, I did not have my lover with me. I hope someday you will see this beautiful sight with your special lover.
Love, Your Grandmother
I’m sure she meant well. But the word “lover” wasn’t anything I ever expected to slip from my grandmother’s lips. She wore gray wool skirts and full length girdles and stockings, even in the humidity of a New York City summer. I had never seen my grandparents touch each other. Sometimes she would smile at one of his silly jokes or puns, but most of the time it would be a stern admonishment in the face of his attempts at humor — “That’s enough, Will.”
Now, all of a sudden, he was her lover? I put the letter away and hoped the visual image it incurred would fade. Soon.
Then, a few lifetimes later, when I was in my early fifties, I inherited a box of my grandparents’ letters to each other. My mother, an archivist at heart, needed to make sure they would endure, I think, and I was her best candidate.
The letters were written summers when my grandmother would travel to Vermont to escape the heat of Manhattan. She was in her 20s, and my grandfather — ever the practical one — stayed behind to work. The pages are filled with young love I never got to see in person. And a longing for each other that almost made me uncomfortable to read, even 35 years after their deaths. “I’m not sleeping well,” he writes. “I need you. I keep telling myself not long until I see my Isabella again. I am counting the days.”
For all my 1966 uneasiness over my grandmother’s wording to me from Rome, now I understood. She watched me then — young and smooth and always in love — and she was remembering herself when she was, too. I wore halter tops and let my hair get streaked by the sun. She walked along an unpaved road in Vermont in the morning, probably in something gray and modest, hoping for a letter from the man she loved.
So now another decade (and a half) have come and gone. I’ve moved to the place in my family where I can no longer wince at the word “matriarch.” It sounds pretty Downton Abbeyish, but it’s the truth. I’m the oldest one now. And although I was very cool once, I can’t expect the next generations to get that part.
Now I smile at a moment like this: My grandson is three, and he and I are on a walk. I am trying to explain how we’re all related.
I say something like, “Well, when I had a baby,” and he erupts in toddler giggles. Even with his limited vocabulary, he goes on and on about how I am wrong about the baby thing. He says, “You not a mom. You a grandma!” as if maybe I’d forgotten that part.
I say, “Once I was young. Once I was your age.”
I can see from his disbelieving little face that from now on he will doubt every word out of my mouth.
I know someday he’ll be surprised. Just as I was when it was my turn.