Lessons from Grandma

If a personal style is a story one tells to the world and to oneself, Grandma Pam’s is a picture book fairytale found on a Salvation Army bookshelf. She is dazzling, yet humble in her methods. Gaudy, while driven completely by the impulse to save. Gracefully, she walks the line of kitschy and classy. Her lifestyle and personal sense of style cannot be distinguished, and her taste cannot be contained; it shifts as she does. Though eclectic, it all makes sense in the construction of her.

It wasn’t uncommon for Grandma Pam to come home from a long Sunday morning of estate sales and flea markets, tote bag in hand. In it were boundless treasures, which she’d pour out onto her duvet for inspection and admiration. Mock prints of Picasso paintings, delicate three-pronged forks, seashell earrings, candle holders in the shape of silver cupids. “$12,” she’d say with a self-satisfied grin on her face, “that’s how much this all cost me.” She’d spend the rest of the day rearranging her shelves, moving around wood-cut carvings, calendars with floral motifs, hand-made pottery. The best things, she showed us, are found in the least likely places. 

This keen ability to uncover gems, however, took time and experience to cultivate. Holed away in the bedroom of her Christian household, during the height of Indiana winter, she was a pregnant teen in crisis. In those long days, she found her lifeline in the work of feminist writers like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer. Exercising freedom was only possible, after all, in her “room of one’s own.” Despite limitations, both economic and personal, her bedroom became the grounds for her quiet revolution. It gave her the space for intellectual indoctrination, for individual expression. It was also, of course, where she began developing her distinctive taste and style.

I often imagine her strutting the length of the Laguna Beach boardwalk after moving away from home, wearing linen shorts and a tube top, two toddlers running around at her feet. In the workplace, confronted by male bosses and denied raises, I imagine her style as a superpower, bolstering her confidence and helping her embody her space. After a long day of secretary’s paperwork followed by a double shift of bartending, I imagine her coming home, kissing her kids goodnight, and kicking off her heeled boots before tucking herself into bed.

Grandma Pam’s bedroom, now in my parent’s house, carries a nearly mythic significance, even to this day. Highly curated, walking through her doorway is like stepping into a diorama, like discovering a treasure chest inlaid with layers of gems beneath the surface. She surrounds herself with artifacts of inspiration. In due time, being around her and her things instilled in me a love for the second hand. By widening the search beyond the pristine walls of a department store, she believed in the value of something that had once belonged to someone else, both for the money saved and for the wealth gained in its stories. Seamlessly, she annexed these stories into her own narrative.

  In her sustained youthfulness, I’d watch as she would paint cheap pink lipstick on her lips. Line her eyes with blue liner. Dye her hair bright orange from a box. Her routine was a choreographed performance. She’d look to me, standing four feet tall at the hem of her dress, and lightly tap my nose with a powder puff, the residual flowery-scented dust filling the air around me.  

Grandma Pam showed me how to cater to my senses. Materials matter, hues matter, texture matters. I think of her when I see bright colors, when I see abstraction, oblong sculptures and flowers with eccentric petals. She has an affinity for misfit things, for things that grab her sight and her touch, that tug on her heartstrings. In her gaze, she’d ask “How does that make you feel?” Engaging her senses was how she conveyed feeling, and these feelings were always changing. Some days she wanted to feel powerful, others to feel comforted, other days she just wanted to feel like a lady.

Amidst my childhood oscillation between groups, squeezing myself into personas (girly, sporty, edgy) with none ever quite fully fitting, Grandma Pam taught me the importance of peacocking. Conformity was foreign to her; convention simply not in her wheelhouse. More often than not, she dressed for contexts completely different from the ones she was in. Other grandparents arrived to Sensational Seniors Day in pairs, walking two-by-two in suits and coordinated separates. Then there was Grandma Pam, adorned in a floor length purple dress, earrings like chandeliers and a flower tucked into her hair. She’d sit down for Thanksgiving dinner in a pink flowy nightgown, pick me up from school in a coat mottled with flashy patchwork. Projecting my own adolescent aversion to sticking out, it took me a long time to understand her. Looking back now, she pulled it off every time.

In recent years, she has let her fiery hair go grey. Replacing her blue eyeshadow is a pair of thick framed glasses. Her statement earrings, her heeled clogs, her pink lipsticks have long been retired, given away, handed down. Still, it is her mode of being which I cherish as a treasure most peculiar and essential. I remain an eager and faithful audience member for any performance she might give, for any story she might tell. 

Words by Haley Harris
Edited by Hannah Dains
Photographs sourced by Haley Harris

Published in Armour Magazine Issue 23: Armour & Co

One thought on “Lessons from Grandma

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