My grandma used to say “variety is the spice of life.” She said it often and with a twinkle in her eye, but I can’t for the life of me remember the context. She and I were never particularly daring as a duo, though we liked people to think we were. Maybe the words were just her trying to amuse her 50-years-younger grandkid on a Friday night. Probably. But I love the memory of the smile that accompanied them, regardless.
I think, in general, that my grandma had a fairly unhappy life. When she told me stories, they were often traumatic or sad or both. She was once hungry enough to literally eat dirt. She was kidnapped. She was shot. She had cancer. She had bad relationships with her father and her second husband, and her feelings about both of them remained unresolved even years after their deaths.
When she said “variety is the spice of life,” I’m fairly certain that the traumas she experienced and the awful things she felt (and said) were not what she was referencing. In fact, I actually have no idea what she meant. I remember loving everything she cooked, but there was never anything surprising or spicy there — not until her first husband moved in (after fifty-some years during which she thought he was dead) and started doing his own cooking, and I was long grown by then. She never went anywhere except to visit her oldest daughter in Pennsylvania and maybe her sister in Florida once or twice. Her music was always the same; she never even got rid of the solid oak console television in the living room, because she needed it to listen to her Andy Williams records. She went to the same church for as long as I can remember. She parked in the same place, sat on the same side, and said hello to the same two or three people every week for 30 years. She drank a fair bit, but it was always the same thing: 7 & 7. When the first ex moved back in, she switched to wine. Aside from one brother, one sister, and a friend she’d had since grade school (but only occasionally liked), she had no friends and no standing social engagements. She had her hair done once a week by the same stylist from the time I was born til she moved away in her 80s. Aside from some flower and vegetable gardening in the summer, I have no idea what she did with her time; she hadn’t had a job outside of the house since her kids were little. In retrospect, she always seemed to know more about cleaning and stain removal than anyone should.
Where was the variety? Where was the spice?
I think sometimes that she must’ve had a very active fantasy life. In her youth, she was movie star beautiful, and people commented on how stunning she was well into her old age. Maybe in her dreams all that beauty took her somewhere. Certainly, she had the material on which to base her imaginings. She had learned to read early, and she often told stories of walking to the library in all kinds of weather. Her living room bookshelves were the inspiration for my own, and I spent many hours of my childhood inspecting each and every title they held. I know she read, but I don’t really know when or what. In later years, I saw her do it only occasionally and never more than 30 minutes at a stretch. She spent more time with our small town’s morning paper than with any book. She painted a few things. She meditated nearly every morning, from the time I was a kid until she moved away. What did she fantasize about? I never saw her do anything daring, and I don’t think I ever saw her truly having a good time (though I’ve seen pictures and old videos that make me think there must’ve been some happy times before and soon after my birth). The only family lore on the subject says that back in the day (the 1960s and 1970s), the brothers and sisters could throw down with the best of them. At the time, my grandma would’ve been in her 40s and 50s, the oldest of all her siblings. They sat around in one another’s backyards and basements, drinking and smoking, laughing into the wee hours of morning.
I wonder if she felt like her life was on a downhill slope once she hit 60, if it even took that long. She never seemed particularly happy to be married to the man I called “grandpa,” though they’d known one another for many, many years and even my mom considered him family. She quit smoking after forty years though it always seemed to be something that brought her joy. (I wonder if she still measures her life in seven minute segments.) She didn’t go out. She played solitaire for hours. When the first husband came back, she switched to gin rummy.
Where was the variety and spice in her life? I can only think that it was gone before I ever arrived, although I think we loved one another an awful lot for most of my existence.
I worry, occasionally, about my own life, about what I’ll do with it when I reach whatever age seems deadly and past hope to me. Maybe — hopefully — I’ll never land where (I think) she is, but people used to always comment on how similar we were. I worry. I wonder if I’ll think I did all that I was supposed to do, or if I’ll spend my remaining time daydreaming, wondering like I did when I was 10 if my life had been somehow switched with someone else’s, someone more fortunate or valuable.
But I like to think that for all the books I read, for all the time I spend writing or watching television or playing old computer games….I like to think that my life is spicy and various enough. I like to think that there are people in my life who make it bigger than just me, people who I love and who love me in return who will remember with me all the ridiculous and wonderful things we did back when we could still hold our liquor. I like to think I won’t ever be sorry for any of it, and that no one will ever look at me in my old age and think that’s all there is or ever was. I like to think they’ll know — without a doubt — that I was happy in my life. There was singing and silliness and joy and love…and all the spice I could’ve ever wanted.
And no matter how boring or unhappy it might have looked to anyone else, I’d like to believe that Gran’s life was happy enough, too. I wish I could go back twenty years, sit with her at her kitchen table, and ask her, nonchalantly, over coffee.
I’d like to imagine that she’d clear her throat, close her hands around the mug, look me in the eye, and be honest.
*Inspired by The Daily Post prompt Spicy