Oyster-Colored Satin

Kay Sexton

My grandmother got married in oyster-colored satin. The man she married—my grandfather—was considerably older, and when she walked down the aisle in her non-white dress, these two facts became the twin scandals of the neighborhood . When it emerged that he also had an illegitimate child by a woman who'd taken him to court and been awarded a weekly payment from his pay packet—well, my grandmother might as well have arrived at church in scarlet.

I believed this story for many years. In fact, it wasn't until my grandmother, now in her nineties, had to be placed in a residential home that I began to reconsider the components of her life.

She'd always been a difficult woman: manipulative would be an understatement—in fact "absolute bitch" hardly covers the territory she staked out for herself. She played her three daughters against each other throughout their childhoods, and when they married, she meddled in the lives of her sons-in-laws too. Following my birth and that of my brother and of my younger male cousin, she insinuated to each of us the idea that we were better than the others or—at random intervals—miserable little maggots. It may surprise you to know that we adored her for this: like any small frightened animal, we learned to ingratiate ourselves because the rewards of being in her good book were great. Not least, she would exile the other children to the chilly darkness of her disregard, which gave the chosen one an insufferable boost.

She also was racist, in the unapologetic way common to people born between the wars. She insisted that being British was the highest quality anyone could possess and never got it through her head that you didn't have to be white to be British.

Now she's a confused old woman—small, lonely, frightened, and often belligerent. She hasn't lost her gift for lies, and she still tells some nasty little tales. They're nothing like the huge unashamed whoppers she produced in her prime, although still springing from the same source, whatever that is.

And that's why I have returned to the first things I ever knew about my grandmother: those three iconic statements that seem to have set the course of her life. The dress that declared she wasn't a virgin, the older man, and the child he fathered before he married her.

What was she really saying? She was young—in her early twenties—and this was a time when social conformity was important. It must have taken great courage, or disdain, to confront her community with the statement implicit in that "fallen woman" wedding gown. Perhaps she relished the notoriety.

Did she know about the other woman and her child? I wonder if she loved my grandfather enough to think she could overcome this social handicap. The truth is she couldn't—my mother recalls "that woman" pushing her pram up and down the road outside their house, shaming my grandfather into paying his weekly stipend.

Did you spot the contradiction? My mother, the middle daughter, remembers the "other child" as a baby in a pram, which means the illegitimate child must have followed my grandfather's wedding, not preceded it. Or there was more than one child.

When I dig into my family's history, I find such contradictions: was my grandmother a bitch or a woman who suffered? Did she meddle or was her trust abused, leading her to doubt all men, especially all married men? Did she set one grandchild against another for fun, or because deep down she feared every child could suffer the shocking discovery that they weren't as important as they'd thought? Had she done it because whole hidden families could exist of which her grandchildren weren't a part?

I'll never know. She is too old to make sense, my mother and aunts are too scarred by her behavior to talk freely, and I am too scared to make a real examination of the past. Her less attractive traits appall me, especially when I find narrow-mindedness in my own head, or catch myself playing one friend against another; I dread turning into her, but I celebrate her too.

I've come to think of the woman in the oyster-colored dress as something other than a scandal—I've learned to admire her courage, her bitchery, and her willingness to slap the face of society. I wish I'd known her then, or that she could be young now. She'd be capable of so much more than meddling and bitchery today, when women are allowed to do anything they can master. She strutted her stuff on a narrow stage—no Hollywood actress could play a better bitch-queen—and there's something rather wonderful in that.

BIO: KAY SEXTON is an Associate Editor for Night Train journal. Her current focus is Green Thought in an Urban Shade a collaboration with the painter Fion Gunn to explore and celebrate the parks and urban spaces of Beijing, Dublin, London and Paris in words and images. Her Web site gives details of her current and forthcoming publications and she blogs at writingneuroses.blogspot.com. Contact Kay at: kay@charybdis.freeserve.co.uk

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