Growing up working-class in a small Southern city, I early acquired a racist vocabulary. This was by no means encouraged by my parents, who were mortified when, at four or so, I referred to a fellow customer at Sears as a nigger. I have no memory of doing that — I was told about it years later — but I’m sure I was baffled by the punishment I received. The kids in my neighborhood used the word “nigger” as a matter of course. To them, it was an appropriate term for a person of color, and I followed suit, even after the Sears incident. Why punish someone for calling a bird a bird? And why would a bird object? So, I think, my reasoning went.

Grandma wanted a red bikini.

She said it was because she wanted to take up swimming again, but I suspect it had a bit more to do with a “sunset-of-life” crisis. And anyway, just because when the rest of us looked at her we saw a wrinkly old woman who looked like she might blow over if you forgot to cover your sneeze…Grandma was a sexy bird.

At some point.

Possibly circa the climax of the women’s suffrage movement.

I’ve seen pictures, anyway.

Before the gray. Before the Depends.

Before “the girls” made a permanent move south.
At any rate, I, for one, applaud her effort to redefine herself in the midst of her slow-moving, fiber-conscious peers. She had just finished spending part of the day at the pool with my two sisters and me, and was probably inspired by memories of her lost youth brought on by the intermingling scents of sizzling suntan oil and chlorine. What was the difference between her and us besides a few years, anyway? A red bikini at age 95? Why not?

Grandma had a fair amount of pep for one in her station of life – in spite of the fact that she had almost gone completely deaf and blind at that point and was chronically pissed off. Not that I blame her. On one of my visits, I found ants crawling around on her toothbrush.

None of this stopped her. She had a mind as sharp as a razor and the tennis balls on the back legs of her walker were worn chronically thin. I once saw her grow impatient when she was stuck behind another woman going too slow in a wheelchair coming out of the dining hall. Having just enjoyed a delicious meal of a substance suspiciously called turkey and gravy – which, by the way, had only about a 30% success rate of making it to her mouth from her knife, seemingly mistaken for her fork early on and completely beyond my ability to correct in a way that would allow her a scrap of dignity – Grandma was anxious to get back to her room.

I’m not entirely sure why she was in such a hurry to get back to her room. Aside from a dresser my grandpa made when they were first married, a bed which raised and lowered by remote control, a well-worn sofa which had been the unfortunate lead witness to Grandma’s struggle against incontinence and a couple of pictures that she could no longer see of my father and his brother when they still had brown hair, I can’t say that I understood the draw. Regardless, having hit metal upon metal – you will remember that Grandma could not see worth crap – she heaved one labored sigh before suddenly transforming before my eyes, kicking it into high gear as she whipped around the offending wheelchair, sparks flying from the holes in the tennis balls, straifing like a character straight out of Doom, until she had left the old lady in the wheelchair far behind, in the dust, alone with her memories and her starch white orthopedics.

Grandma’s big event of the day involved dinner in the dining hall with all of the other inmates, as she called them. They were a fun bunch. There was Don, who wore his pants in one of two positions: up around his chest or down around his ankles. Sitting always at the table to Grandma’s right was a little woman in a wheelchair who I like to call “Kilroy” on account of the relation of the table to her nose. Velda McPhee was the nicest woman at her table, but had the annoying habit of slowly sticking her tongue in and out of her mouth like a lizard that has been licking stamps. She was also under the impression that I am a boy. Judith Mayfair probably was nice at one point, before she began to suffer from Tourette’s. The last time I was there I heard her calling one of the workers a “No good WHORE” who eats “BM!” and apparently needed to leave her dead husband “ALONE…yougoddammiserablehussy.”

As far as I was concerned, if Grandma needed a red bikini to feel like her old (young) self in the midst of all of this joy, so be it. She’d been raised in a conservative environment all of her life and no doubt had some final oats to sew. Plus, she had already set a precedent of being somewhat racy somewhere in the 1930s by showing up at her father’s house wearing short sleeves, so she kind of had a reputation to live up to.

Grandma was a wild card, I tell you what.

Aiming to please, my mom loaded up the car and took Grandma over to Sears. (Because really…where else would they go?) Since Grandma couldn’t see very well, my mom selected for her a few choices – which I am told included at least one string variety, along with a few more solid renditions to strap in the girls, so to speak. Excitedly, Grandma shuffled off to the nearest dressing room, her walker squeaking merrily all along the way. My mom waited.

And waited.

At one point, she popped her head in the dressing room in order to offer some help. It took four tries before Grandma heard what she was being asked, but she finally snapped back that she was just fine on her own, thank you very much.

Mom waited some more. Just when she thought Grandma might have fallen asleep in there, having mistaken the dressing room for her own cell back at the assisted living center, the curtain flung wide and Grandma emerged…fully dressed and empty handed.

The subject was never broached again.

And I…well, I missed a fantastic photo opportunity.

When I was 19 I took a job at Sears, Roebuck, and Co. The company was named after Richard Sears, Alvah Roebuck, and Bad Company (the English rock supergroup). If you’ve ever wondered who Roebuck was, I can tell you (according to Wikipedia) that the name came from Alvah Roebuck, who left the company in 1895 because of poor health. He returned as a spokesperson during the Great Depression and maintained that role until his death in 1948. Anyway, nothing against Mr. Roebuck, but I find that information to be exceptionally irrelevant to this blog, and yet I felt compelled to include it because of my fascination with Wikipedia. Who says porn is the best thing on the Internet?