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03-25-2019

James Allen Hall

Adventures in Old Lady Land 

 

1.   

My grandmother lounges comfortably on the orange couch, holding a none-too-pleased, two-year-old rendition of myself.  She’s wearing a particularly hideous dress, one that pops up in other photographs of this time.  It’s a sleeveless, high-neck number, the kind of 1970s garb that forbids cleavage but gives enthusiastic thumbs-up to the hanging gardens of arm flab.  Orange, intricate diamonds nearly collide against brown, asteroid-squares against an egg-shell background.  I am rebelling against the horror of this fabric,1 my fist curled up in a ball, near my mouth, my eyes closed.  I am red-faced, squirming in a blue baby suit with matching nightcap, which has an attached, fuzzy blue ball that rolls over my forehead.  It’s that stupid ball which pisses me off as I pose for yet another picture. 

 

Other interpretations exist.  My mother swears I was teething.  My father testifies that he waited in the wings with a bottle to feed me, and that I could become unruly when hungry.  I prefer my own versions.  There are four.

A.  They are interrupting The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and I am missing the debut of Bob Mackey’s newest creation.  If only I could write and describe my newborn fashion plight to Bob and Cher—I just know they’d rescue me.

B.  Besides being circulated from adult to adult while people eat my cake, I am upset about the conundrum that has thrown the drag queens at the Vatican into an uproar.  Pope Paul VI, who kind of resembles Cher’s mother, has been dead for just a little over two months, at the ripe old-lady age of 80.  The new pope, John Paul I, retired by way of coffin after just 34 days in office at the age 65, much to everyone’s surprise.  John 1 was succeeded by Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, who morphed into the healthy-as-a-horse John Paul 2.  On what was only my second birthday.  You’d cry too.

C.  I am doing my best to "make a scene."  I have found that I am unusually proficient at this.  My resume already includes the ability to holler at the top of my lungs for 10 hours, a feat achieved when my family moved from Brownstown, Indiana to our now-home of DeLand, Florida just a little over a year ago.  It wasn't that I was unhappy to leave Indiana.  Please.  At one year old, I’d seen the Barnett Bank, inhaled the dust from America’s finest dirt roads, visited the movie theater, participated in Sunday morning sessions of kitchen gossip.  I had done all there was to do.  With such raw ability on my side, I figured I’d be a shoe-in for 1978’s Best Actress Award.  Screw ugly Diane Keaton and her owl glasses.

 

D.  Grandma smells.  It is said of her, in hushed tones and behind her back, mainly by my mother, that she "can knock a buzzard off a shitwagon." 

 

I cannot show this picture to Grandma.  On the stage that is the photograph, her scene-making is far more studied.  Her performance is subtle, yet shocking.  Though, yes, what the audience first sees is my character in a heartbreaking adaptation of Tantrum, what arrests attention is the fact that my grandmother does not wear any underwear. 

 

 

2. 

My love of Old Lady Regalia started young, as documented by an early photograph of me in Grandma-garb.  If I had written the caption, it’d read, "Our model sports a sassy, dark blue sweater, pulled tight over this Fall’s hottest huntress-green negligee, with matching gossamer scarf and slip."  The negligee, six-year-old-me decides, is less bedwear than ball-gown.  I have on all manner of primary-colored plastic necklaces and false-gold clip-on earrings.  My cheeks shine with rouge.  My eyelids wink in an angelic pink hue, and my lips say Emergency! with color.  No one has helped me.2  It is a wonder I can hold up my head, which is adorned with the most fabulous item my grandmother ever owned:  a faux-fur, leopard-print pillbox hat, which is too big for me, so it nearly swallows my head.  Pillbox hats and leopard print are both institutions I am desperate to understand.   

 

On the back of the photograph, Grandma has scrawled:  "Our little Zsa Zsa, 1984."  Grandma obviously doesn’t know the words "miniature drag queen," or any others that might be grouped together under the marquee of Good Gay Lingo. 

 

 

3. 

I am disallowed from telling Grandma about my homosexuality.  Even if I wanted to share its toys, I can’t.  My father absolutely forbids it.  In the colossal argument we had in 1998 when I said I wanted to tell Grandma, he screamed at  me, "Why would you want to do that to an Old Lady?"  I didn’t miss a beat when I yelled back, "For kicks!" 

 

4. 

Grandma lives in Homestead, Florida.  She rents out the empty bedrooms in her home, and one of these renters becomes what she calls her "fourth grandson — he’s so much like you and Dustin," she says to me.  We notice that Grandson # 4 is never like CJ, our older brother whose girlfriends Grandma always dislikes.  Number 4 is "handsome" and, the clincher, "so sensitive!"  Ray Gonzales works construction and treats my grandmother like his own.  He even calls her "Grandma Hall."  She gives examples:  "'Now Grandma Hall, he’ll say, 'don’t you lift that box.  You let me do it.'"3  She always laughs an exuberant old-lady-doted-upon-by-a-cute-hardbodied-young’n laugh and nudges my arm while extolling his virtues.  I have the distinct feeling she’s setting me up.   

 

She continues her surreptitious matchmaking for about a year.  Once, when she drove from Homestead to Daytona Beach (a good day’s drive), she called and asked me to let Ray know that she was okay.4 I deepened my voice for the occasion.  He sounded sufficiently impressed.  And very, very gay.  Another time, she invited me to a basketball game:  "Ray will drive, and afterwards we’ll get some ice cream."  I declined.  I’ve had few dates, and they went wretchedly wrong well enough without my Grandmother orchestrating the adventure.5

   

A few months after that, my mother stopped by Grandma’s house on her way back up from the Keys.  Ray was shirtless in the backyard with an equally shirtless friend, working on his truck.  My mother stood a safe distance away from Grandma and as they spoke, the conversation turned to Grandson # 4.  "You know Marsha," Grandma said, not lowering her voice, "I think Ray’s gay."  She said it flatly, without any hint of epiphany, without making my mother into confidante.  Grandma, who is only occasionally capable of whimsy, said, "I think Ray’s gay" and followed it up with, "Before you leave I want to show you my new gladiolas." 

 

I know a few things from this incident.  I know my grandmother uses without shame the term "gay."  And, what's more intriguing, I know Grandma thinks she knows what kind of guys I’m into.  Apparently, I like slightly older, fey-mannered, Latino construction workers who shave their legs and chests.6 I also know, by the fact that my eighty-two year-old grandmother is intent on matching her grandson to her gay renter, that my love life has effectively flatlined. 

5. 

Old ladies outnumber old gentlemen by about five and a half million in America.7 That leaves about one-and-a-half grandmas for ever grandpa in the United States.  I corroborate this statistic with a picture of Grandma surrounded by five old guys who each hold an outstretched bowling ball as if in offering, each wearing an electric blue jacket with the name "Betty's Guy's" in gold thread over the chest.  Grandma's full name is Ruth-Betty, but she once told me, "Betty sounds more modern."  Suffice it to say, either Grandma is the most popular woman at the Homestead Bowling Lanes, or she's the only woman who'll bowl two times every week, year-round.

However, once you factor into the equation that men over the age of 65 make up 85 percent of elderly suicides, a different picture gains prominence.8  This is the picture Grandma recently sent me, a cut out from The Miami Herald.  This is the picture of an event held at Homestead's Senior Center, a picture consisting of only women, standing around in some recreational park's open field.  There's not a representative of Betty's Guys to be seen.  This is the Senior Center's annual picnic, and no one has an opposite-gendered date.  Grandma stands in the foreground and has marked herself by putting XXX on the hem of her shorts, uncomfortably near her crotch, so that we, her grandsons, might find her. 

 

 

6. 

In 1999, my grandmother becomes embroiled in some considerable lesbian intrigue.  It starts because of her friendship with Esther2.  Esther2 is a loud-mouthed, big-nosed broad, whom Grandma befriends at the Senior Center Bridge Clan.9  She lives in a retirement community, where she makes lots of friends because, she says, "I'll talk to anyone, I don't care."      

 

Our first introduction to Esther2 comes Christmas Day 1999.   Throughout the day, Esther evinces an absent-mindedness that compares only to my dead Grandfather’s.  She leaves her owl-glasses on tables, on seats, and behind the Listerine underneath the bathroom sink.  In the space of that first day, she tells the same story of driving to Vermont three times.  Each time her voice tinges with excitement; the memory is new, even if the language isn’t.  I adore Esther, her translucent white beehive, and especially her spectacular outbursts of incredible volume.  When Grandma guesses that Esther doesn’t like stuffing (because she passed that dish without even looking at it), she yells out, "I! Didn’t! Say! That!  I like mashed potatoes Just Fine!"

But I really fall for Esther during her story of the woman who has keyed Grandma’s car:  "She lives in the next building over; we have a parking lot in common.   

Well, we made chit-chat one day out there near our cars.  I was coming home from Bridge, and she was just back from the market.  She seemed nice.  We got to talking about how lonely this place can get.  She wished she could find someone to go to church with.  But she was too shy.  I said, 'I’ll go with you, I don’t mind.'  I’ll talk to anyone, I don’t care.  Don’t interrupt.

"Sunday, we go to church.  Lovely service, lots of hymns.  Afterwards I start talking to some of these people and introduce her.  I’ll talk to anyone.  But she didn’t want to talk.  She just stood there in the corner.  Don’t interrupt!  Afterwards, we go to Denny's for brunch.  I always have the American Slam.  And she breaks down crying.  'I wish I could be like you, Esther,' she says, 'I’ll never make friends.'  I felt so bad for her, we became friends.  But she’s . . . needy.  That’s it, that's the story."

I’ve been trying to ascertain what kind of church they went to.  And Esther has been stalling.  Now that she’s finished, I ask outright.  Esther’s face flushes.  She begins twirling her long necklace around one finger.  "Well, it was a . . . gay church.  I’ll talk to  

anyone, I don’t care, I was just trying to help her find friends."  Esther2’s face turns solid- 

as-stone.  She stutters up the cathedral-sized steps of "gay," but ultimately triumphs.  She  

has spunk.  After all, she’s attended a queer church.

  

Esther’s friendship with Grandma sparks The Lesbian Neighbor’s jealousy.  At first, The Lesbian Neighbor puts notes that read "You leave her alone" under the wiper on Grandma’s car.  Now, she has etched "bitch" onto the hood with a key.  "My Grandmother, The Other Woman," I say out loud.  Grandma smirks back and says, "Who knew?"  

7. 

Grandma sits on my bed, looking out a large window.  The two windows face west and crowd the small room with heat.  Sweat makes its way down my back, making me even more uncomfortable to be standing next to Grandma as she sobs into my mom’s shoulder.

When I was a kid, I used to stand on the chairs at Grandma’s table and yell, "Dee Dee died!"  I don’t know why I found it so much fun to announce that my grandmother’s mother was dead, except that it made Grandma run from the room in tears.  Power leaked from her as she left the room. 

 

Now, however, I don’t want anything to do with this brittle ascension of pain.  My mother sits with her arm around my Grandma is wooden.  I stand behind them, in what feels like an annex.  I am just a visitor to Old Lady Land, mere witness to Actual Grief, and the carpet I stand on feels detached before the matriarch.  My grandfather has been dead for six hours.  My brother and I were at school when my mother pulled us out.  We drove down to Homestead to collect her.  There, beside the house they lived in, a white sheet billowed over Grandpa’s body.  I could see the hammer that died in his hands the instant before he fell to the ground.10

My grandmother says she heard him say "shit" really loud, "Like he was about to complain something was left out, and then he just fell."  Grandma tucks a used Kleenex into the wrist-band of her watch, and uses a clean one to blow her nose.  I have a deep anxiety about her sitting on my bed, because, and I don’t mean to be indelicate, she smells.  Grandma has never been the most hygienic.  She substitutes a dip in the neighbor’s over-chlorinated pool for showers.  Her teeth are different colors.  We have to wipe down the phone with antiseptic to remove the odor she leaves there with her breath.  And I have just seen Aliens with Sigourney Weaver.  I imagine Grandma’s stench eats through my comforter much like the aliens’ blood corroded human skin.  My mother looks hard at me, and I put an arm around my crying Grandma.  I feel the heat in her bare arms.  I see the moist handkerchief in her hand.  I see my grandmother’s mouth open, wordless.  I know I have stolen the words from my Grandma and I want to give them back.  She raises her head, takes a big breath, and shouts:  "We hadn’t had sex in eight years!" 

11. 

Grandma makes people take lots of photographs of her, and sometimes she'll send  

me some, now that we don’t see each other very often.  The unfortunate part of this arrangement is that they are given in lieu of cash or t-shirts from her travels or even that great Grandma-standby, the ten-pack of tube socks.   For Yule 2001, several 5-by-7 reproductions of the same image arrive: Grandma on a 4x4 off-road vehicle.  Behind her, a man that looks stunningly like, but is not, my grandfather winks into the camera.11 Grandma accompanied a friend to New Jersey just before September 11, and when all air travel was frozen, they stayed at the friend’s relative’s house.  Grandpa Lookalike is about to give my smiling grandmother a tour of the acreage.  Grandma has made sure that the event is memorialized, because she takes great pleasure in the fact that she remains active at 84.  I do too.  Her "schedule" pinned up on my refrigerator details two Bowling Teams (despite arthritis), three days of volunteering at the Senior Center, and a bridge clan she won’t miss for the world.

In another photograph, she wears fading blue shorts, a blue-and-white sleeveless shirt, and a beaded necklace that descends to her waistline.  Her pocket-book seems fashioned out of wicker and rests delicately in the cranny made by her elbow, bent just shy of a right angle.  Her left hand rests on a trash can.  There is no indication about what exactly is thrilling about garbage.  Grandma is a recycling fanatic, but she neither gestures at the receptacle nor seems to notice that it is a trash-can she has her hand upon.

She is art-for-art’s sake.

For my birthday last year, my grandmother gave me pictures of herself dressed as a Cavewoman.  Sexy Cave Grandma wears a pleated brown skirt and a cheetah-print blouse.  A headband, cut by the same cheetah-cloth and knotted above her right ear guarantees the outfit’s spot-lit place in The Grandma Getups Hall of Fame.  She is less Geriatric Prostitute than 80s Aerobic Instructor, and there’s something about the pleats that really work for her.   

 

Bitch. 

12. 

One summer, when I am ten, my parents send my brothers and me to my grandparents in Homestead.  We are there to pick lychees.  Grandma's backyard is an orchard of these exotic trees, which bear a reddish-purple fruit.  Mostly, lychees are used  

in Asian cuisine, sometimes in fried rice dishes or served in heavy syrup as dessert.  My brothers and I spend days on rickety ladders secured to the tops of rusty vans, reaching into hornet-ridden branches, picking bucketfuls of dull red fruit.  We refer to this period as "Our Summer of Hell."  Each day, Grandma marches us into the orchard.

At dinnertime, though, my older brother hides deep inside that thicket; it protects him from what awaits him at the supper table.  Most nights we dine on limpid spaghetti, baked in a watered-down Ragu sauce and served alongside something Grandpa calls monkey-burgers, which are lumps of baked meat that I eat with lots of ketchup.  There's always plenty of stale white bread and a tub of margarine.  One night, instead of the bitter fruit for dessert, Grandma makes pudding.  A look of dread passes between Dustin and me.  Grandpa is diabetic.  The pudding is sugarless.

Luckily, Grandma has to go to the store.  She doles out the Sugarless Chocolate Punishment into wooden bowls, one for each of us.  She eats hers standing, then says, "Hurry, Dustin, so we can get to Publix."  She scrapes the spoon against the bottom of the bowl, puts her dish down, and walks away.  It’s then, even before she has left the dining room, that her shorts come off.

Grandpa calls after her, "Are you in a hurry?"  Grandma does not get the joke.  What’s worse:  she turns around.

"What?"

Grandpa says, more urgently, "Is it too hot in here?"  He stares at her naked crotch, then at us, then back at her.

"Johnny, you’re so crazy.  Take your medicine!  Come on Dusty, eat your 

pudding!"  Dustin devours his pudding, washing it down with the generic-label strawberry soda she only lets us drink with dinner.

I am only done with my monkey burgers.  When the door shuts, I grab the bowl and shovel the brown, lumpy paste back into its source.  I am so grateful for this reprieve that I do not remember that Grandpa is at the table too.  I suddenly feel his heavy glare upon me.  I turn to him, and his head is cocked to one side, his mouth slightly open.  His eyes sparkle blue judgment.  He hands me his untouched bowl.  I can already taste the pudding-penance in my throat.  But before I can even begin to spoon it up, he hands me the source-bowl and gestures for me to empty his too.

"Tastes like shit, doesn’t it?"  He winks.12

13. 

"Grandma, Jamie wants to know what 'douche' means," Dustin says over a game of rummy one of those summer evenings.  We are eight and nine years old.  My face takes on the icy quality of sherbet.  Suddenly the word I've been repeating in my head for days has been tossed into my face, along with Grandma's suspicious look.

Dustin is telling the truth.  I would very much like to know what "douche" means, 

ever since we saw a late-night commercial for something called "O.B. in Disguise."  I've been walking around Grandma's house singing the O.B. jingle, so yes, Dustin isn't lying.  But neither is his question, asked in that ultra-innocent dulcet voice of his, devoid of mischief. 

Grandma almost spills her coffee and locks eyes on me.  Me.  Not Dustin, the boy  

who said "douche" at the same table at which we eat food, with forks and napkins and one  

dependably half-naked old woman.  Dustin sends a smile beaming down the river to where  

I sit, locked in the crosshairs of Grandma's stunned reprobation.

She clears her throat.

She finishes her coffee, sets the cup on the saucer.  She acts as if no one has said anything even remotely related to vaginas or the fact that they might require the use of specialized tools.

Then she says, "It's a soap women use Down There so it doesn't burn."  She looks at me.  Then, suddenly, she smiles, as if she can see—sensitive fashion savant who steals her pillbox hats, devoted diarist of her every photographed public appearance, man who will never need this information in his natural born gay life—what the future will make of me. 

14. 

Bereft of the metaphoric powers granted the young and smooth, Old Lady Flesh points at futurity and the atrophy inherent in transformation.  Old Ladies do not signal lust except in comic situations.  They are not allowed to board the rides in the Land of Desire.13

During what is now a famous speech, the late French Feminist Monique Wittig was asked by an audience member if she had a vagina.  She emphatically responded, "No."  Sex organs—dubbed "reproductive organs" in my college biology textbook—have been constituted not as mediums of women's pleasure, but as centers for oppression.  Because the vagina does not exist outside of procreation, Old Ladies are vagina-free.14  Their sexual identity lasts until the onset of menopause, a phenomenon which seems, if my Grandpa is any indication of the elderly heterosexual male population, aptly named.

I remember Grandma once answering her door while still buttoning her shirt.  As someone who has been shocked awake by my grandmother's naked torso, I empathized with the person who was about to be confronted by Old Lady Bosom.  Grandma is not a mentally slow woman.  She may not have the best of hearing these days, but she's not absent-minded.  I can only reckon that Grandma has internalized the fact that her body no longer functions in terms that anyone cares to notice, and so her body overthrows shame.  She opened the door, and the Jehovah's Witness on her stoop coughed twice before he found the breath to offer her the latest issue of The Watchtower.

I understand why the realization that she hadn't had sex in eight years came the day that Grandpa died.  The exile Grandma had feared for so long was happening:  she'd never make love with her husband again; perhaps she'd never be intimate with anyone ever again.  Perhaps now no one would want her.  My Grandma, maybe, wasn't any woman at all. 

15. 

Grandma is a hunky football player whose eye-black grease shines in wide swaths beneath her laughing eyes.  She wears someone's frayed Dolphins jersey and her shoulder-pads rise to earlobes she's adorned with clip-on earrings.  She tucks the football between breast and armpit.  Grandma is what I could never be:  All-American transvestite jock.

This is Grandma's 2003 Yuletide photograph, and she sends three of them, along 

with gifts, to me, Dustin, and Brandon.15  The packages are wrapped in newspaper and none of them can possibly be socks or a can of tennis balls.  Brandon has never received a Grandma-gift and does not understand why we are giddy.  I unwrap a weather-beaten cardboard box so threadbare it reveals its contents.  I pull out a dirty plastic Manger complete with dirty plastic Baby Jesus and a Virgin Mary whose wires show underneath her faded blue plastic dress.  These light-up lawn arrangements, Grandma has written on a note inside, once belonged to her neighbor, now deceased.  She also notes that Mary's wiring may need reworking before I am able "to turn her on."

  

Dustin opens his package and starts laughing so quickly that Brandon and I wonder what pilfered remnant of a dead lady's estate he's received.  He turns it around to show an enlarged magazine cover, laminated and cheaply framed.  Nineteen-Year-Old Dustin smiles at us in a tuxedo jacket, his red silk bowtie almost sparkling.  Embracing him from behind is an equally tuxedoed man.  The man's blonde coiffure is as impeccably groomed as Dustin's jet-black hair.  He rests his head on Dustin's shoulder, his cheek grazes Dustin's.  All they'd need is a bouquet and an 80's cover-band and the caption could easily read "Just Married."  And if one had any doubts as to these two hunky models' sexuality, the cover states that this particular publication is "South Florida's Gay Community Newspaper."16  This was a publicity photo for the first annual Gay Youth Prom, an event Dustin and his photogenic companion, Dale Ayres, engineered for Dade and Broward Counties' queer 18-25 year olds.  Grandma has rummaged through our storage in Florida for her upcoming garage sale to benefit Betty's Guys.  Clearly, this photograph documents a valuable event in Dustin's emotional life, and her gift is recognition made without judgment.

A week later, when I call to thank her for the presents, Grandma answers out of breath.  She explains that she's been in her greenhouse "playing in the dirt."17  I can see her arthritic hands wrist-deep in a mound of mulch, weeding out unwanted debris.  After thanking her for her thoughtful gifts, I tell my 86-year-old grandmother that Grandsons # 2 and # 3 are gay.

 

Grandma says, "Uh huh" and pauses.  Her silence stretches longer than I'd hoped, and I can hear her switch the phone to the other ear.  I'm not even sure she has heard me until she finally sighs and says, "Well, so what?"

I always thought I'd have to dispel for Grandma the negative but enduring notions  

of "the gay lifestyle"—exotic drugs made from animal tranquilizers, weeknight orgies with leathermen, the requisite drag queen career.  But it's me who is guilty of stereotyping.  I've envisioned my Grandma as some version of Unlovable before she could do the same to me.  The "damage control" I've had to do with other relatives and friends is unnecessary.  There is no ruin between us.

Still, I am amazed by her cavalier attitude.  She says into my silence, "I had a long inkling."  We both chuckle at this, relieved.  Then Grandma says, "When I was a girl, there were no Black people in my neighborhood."  I'm not sure how to respond, so I don't.  Grandma often utters odd declaratives.  Sometimes they join longer paragraphs, but usually they float assertively in their own air, a period in search of its ellipsis.  This childhood recollection finds its companions, and Grandma continues.  "That was my generation's trouble.  I think being gay is your generation's."  She bridges us by making the same racial-model argument common to GLBT activists working to gain protected status for American  

sexual minorities.  We are queer heroes of social justice, she implies, knowing that I remember her volunteer work at the DeLand welfare office when I was a child.  She concludes, "I don't see anything wrong with being gay."

We reach the end of our talk.  Grandma never says "I love you" on the phone, and the times I've said it to her, she responded with a politely grunted "Uh huh" as the phone fell on its hook.  I decide to risk the sentimentality.  Grandma does not let me down.  She grunts her vague acknowledgment as the phone begins its descent.

   

But then the phone rises back up.  Without asking if I'm still there, she says, "I love you too, Jamie."  Her voice is frail but finds firm ground.  She says it again, more slowly: "I love you too."  Then she hangs up.

She returns to planting flowers in green pots, covering them with handfuls of dirt.  In a month or two, her impatiens will blossom, and she'll hand them out as Easter gifts to her friends at the Senior Center.  I wonder how they'll feel, receiving my grandmother's annuals on a holiday that is ubiquitously celebrated by chocolate confections.  I wonder if they understand Grandma as more than their bowling or bridge partner, more than the President of the Florida Lychee Grower's Association, more than a widow whose free time is spent playing in dirt.  I wonder if they see her as I do:  a landscape alive with color, resisting any cartographer's quick sketches.

-from I Liked You Before I Knew You So Well, Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2017.

Endnotes

1 Years later, I encounter the dress without my grandmother, at a seaside diner in Jensen Beach, Florida.  Since then, I cannot look at Grandma’s clothes without thinking "tablecloth."

2 I embody an argument for the genetic origins of drag.

3 Grandma's voice sounds a lot like Edith Bunker has taken a bong hit of helium. 

4 My parents owned a courier service with a nation-wide 800 number, and Grandma is "frugal."  So, her maneuver here is less Matchmaker and more Pennysaver.

5 Now that I think of it, maybe if Grandma had escorted my date with E.T., he probably wouldn’t have felt so free to say, "I want to put it in your bellybutton" when I asked him what he wanted to do after dinner.

6 Pretty accurate so far.

7 According to the 2010 U.S. Census, in which Grandma forgot to participate and which counts a total of 40,267,984 Americans over the age of 65; women comprise 22,905,024 (http://factfinder.census.gov).

8  Rates are highest in Montana (http://suicidology.org).

9 Esther1died of lung cancer the year before Grandma met Esther2.  Esther1 possessed a foul mouth and a quick wit.  If there's an old lady besides Grandma I'd like to be, it's Esther1.

10 In 1993, I was the only junior in Mrs. Adas' freshman Health Class.  I completed CPR certification a week before Grandpa died of a heart attack.  For months, I felt guilty, convinced I could have saved his life.

11 When Dustin, my sense of humor's identical twin, sees the picture, he mocks indignation:  "Hey!  Who's that guy giving Grandma some back-door action?"

12 We never speak of this again.  Evil Naked Grandma has been thwarted.

13 Young-old coupling is always laughable in our culture.  Besides the slew of films like Harold and Maude, consider one Snickers commercial, in which a college-aged man helps an old woman cross a street then asks if she's free Saturday night.  The announcer states the moral:  "'Impaired judgment:  another unfortunate side effect of hunger."  Old Ladies only exist on the Sexual Menu to incite laughter.

14 There is no such thing as "vagina envy" in Freud or Lacan, both of whom argue that the lack of penis shapes female subjectivity.  Males are not determined by their lack of vagina.  Not until high school, at least.

15 Grandma met Brandon the previous summer, when my father fell into a coma.   After spending the day at the hospital, Grandma and Brandon watched the Little League World Series at night.  Their friendly banter restored us to the life where people still played games and no one's father was going to die.  Brandon called Grandma "my favorite Hall."  When I said, "Besides me," he repeated: "My favorite Hall."

16The Weekly News was founded in August of 1977 by volunteers working against the campaign former beauty queen Anita Bryant was waging to repeal the first pro-gay human rights ordinance passed in Dade County (she won that fight).  This is Dustin's second cover.  His first was for TWN's Mother's Day issue; on that cover, my mother and he compose an epitome of the gay-friendly American family.  TWN ceased publication in 2006. 

17 Runner-up for Eyebrow-Lifting Grandma Entendre.  The reigning champion comes from the conversation in which Grandma says that after waking up she spends an hour or so "fooling around with myself in the bed." 

Prompt: This week, POW is having some fun and going a bit astray with a lyric essay rather than a poem.

 

James Allen Hall is a poet, and many poets practice the art of lyric essaying, described by Deborah Tall as an accretion of "fragments, taking shape mosaically - its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. The stories it tells may be no more than metaphors. Or, storyless, it may spiral in on itself, circling the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme. The lyric essay stalks its subject like quarry but is never content to merely explain or confess. It elucidates through the dance of its own delving."

 

Learn more about the lyric essay and how various practitioners of the form define it here, then write a messy prose poem or lyric essay inspired by someone in your family that works similarly to Hall's "Adventures in Old Lady Land." Let it jump around in time, subject, and space, but try to keep it focused on a theme or general idea you express in the title, Maybe you'll end up with a rpose poem. maybe you'll end up with a lyric essay. Maybe you'll end up with a bunch of...stuff that can later be turned into individual poems. The idea is to have fun working in a different yet related genre and to see where that takes you. Enjoy!

BIO: JAMES ALLEN HALL'S first book of poems, Now You're the Enemy, won awards from the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His collection of personal lyric essays, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, was selected for Cleveland State University Press's Essay Collection Award by Chris Kraus and then won the Devil's Kitchen Prose Nonfiction award in 2018. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation of the Arts, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. His work has appeared recently in Copper Nickel, New England Review, A Public Space, and is forthcoming in Ploughshares and Fourth Genre. He directs the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College, where he teaches courses in creative writing and literature.