Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Grandmother's Gloves

"So what did she give you this time?" my husband asked as our car merged onto the New Jersey Turnpike. "More stuff," I said, shuffling through the bag. There were green linen napkins, cat-food coupons held together with a paper clip, and a faded decorative box. "I wish she'd stop giving her things away."

For the past year, every trip to my grandmother's house has yielded a gift. I wrinkle my nose whenever she points to the bag she's left by the door so I won't forget it. "Grandma, why are you giving me this?" I protested when she gave me her tureen. "Who in the world am I going to make that much soup for?" was her reply. "Grandma, this is one of your favorite art books. Why don't you want it?" "I don't see very well anymore. You enjoy it."

Home, after my latest visit, I put the napkins in the top drawer of the server, and the cat coupons in the kitchen drawer, adding to the pile of others she's clipped. She usually mails them to me, but if she knows we're coming, she slips them into the bag that will most certainly be sitting at the back door.

Now what could be in this old box? I lifted off the top, concave after years of sitting under something heavy. First, the smell of mothballs; next, yellowed and cracked tissue paper. Then gloves. Gloves? On top were a pair of off-white leather driving gloves. And the deeper I dug, the more elegant they became: crocheted, satin with bows, with pearls. And at the bottom, protected in plastic, were--I discovered as I shimmied them out of their casing--above-the-elbow-opera gloves.

The month I turned 13, my grandmother took me to see three operas on three consecutive Saturday afternoons. "I could never do this with your mother," she said, sitting next to me on the bus into Manhattan. "When she was your age, we were in the Depression. It's good to be introduced to culture as a young lady."

Over the years, my grandmother and I saw many more matinee performances together. "Oh, you should see how grand the opera is on Saturday nights," she often said. "The men wear tuxedos, the women gowns." But when we went, Grandma wore her wool coat. We'd grab a bite to eat at the Metropolitan Opera House restaurant for ticket holders, then slip into our seats. "I couldn't do this with your mother," she'd whisper as the orchestra swelled. "No, I couldn't."

I came to see that there were many things my grandmother, for reasons I may never understand, did not do with my mother. Even as my grandmother's health began to fail and the sorrow of age overtook it, it was with me she cried. "I can't read the newspaper anymore...I can't walk across the room...I could never tell this to your mother. I'm scared."

Gloves. I was baffled. A serving plate she doesn't need, I understand. Candle-stick holders she hasn't used in years, sure. But why did she dig out this old box? Then I remembered. A few weeks, sitting in her den on a Sunday, reading the Times, my eyes landed on this season's opera schedule. I turned to her, sitting in what was my grandfather's chair, and watched her for a few moments, holding a magnifying glass to her large-print book, her hands trembling from age.

"Let's go to the opera," I said. Before she could protest, I told her we could arrange for a wheelchair at the curb. There's nothing really to see in an opera anyway, it's all about the music, I pressed. I joked we'd get preferential treatment, that people might think we're famous. "Especially because we'll be all dressed up. C'mon. Let's be ladies together."

"No," she replied. "We had some wonderful times. But now, you should go with your husband."

Do women still wear opera gloves? I thought as I pulled on each one, smoothing out the lace up past my elbows. Something felt scratchy against my left forearm. When I pulled off the glove and turned it inside out, I found a small tag, a price tag. My grandmother had never worn these gloves; and, I realized sadly, had probably never seen how grand the opera is on a Saturday night. When I go, I will get all dressed up and wear them.

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