She was a terrible cook, but nobody could peel shrimp, crack open a crab or a lobster, a mussel or a clam, or disassemble a German pork knuckle as adroitly as my grandmother could and to her liking. No one else could make friends with servers and maitre’ds and managers alike despite being with the most difficult customer many of them had ever known. She knew his appetites better almost, than she knew her own, and it was at the table that we learned how little we knew how to communicate with him – the least we could do was follow her lead. But it was too obvious, to both ourselves as well as to the rest of the world, that the family was at a loss on how to appease my grandfather should grandma step out for a moment.
But these moments were rare – for twenty years she was unfailingly by his side, always there to cater to his vanity, and on the morning of his one-hundredth birthday, she was there as well.
God knows what he dreamed during the night, but at four am his eyes shot open with an all-consuming hate for his aged complexion. Perhaps it was the thought of appearing before four hundred guests under bright ballroom lights, but being an innately vain man, he decided to take extra precautions. He shuffled resolutely into the bathroom and turned on the lights. A few feet away, my grandmother stirred in bed. Having spent the last twenty-years sharing his biological clock (one that wakes often at odd hours of the night to use the bathroom or read the paper-or both), she simply turned the other way and pulled the blanket up to her chin. My grandfather ran his fingers along the shelves, silently reading the minute labels until he found what he was looking for. He began his work.
The balcony, where my grandpa usually stood doing his morning exercises was empty. The bathroom door was closed, a strange phenomenon, for in his old age, the fear of an unheard fall led him to bathe with an open door. She was worried – aside from the hundred ticking clocks of my grandfather’s collection, it was oddly silent. No running water, no brushing of teeth or wringing of frayed undershirts. She went to the door and knocked. Nothing. She knocked again but not before hearing the distinctive click of a compact being closed.
“Can I open the door?” She asked.
“What are you doing in there?”
When my grandfather failed to respond she held her breath and turned the knob, bracing herself for what she was not sure, but certainly not to find her husband, a distinguished gentleman to all who knew him, with his face done up like a retired geisha who had failed to remove the makeup from her last night at the teahouse. He turned slowly, a crazy, hunched wax man, and had he the humor to give her a devilish grin she might have died of fright. Instead he said nothing, nodding subtly as though using up an entire bottle of foundation on one’s one-hundredth birthday was de rigueur, and went back to work.
My grandmother rubbed her eyes, not sure if she was dreaming. Why the mask? Why the rosy cheeks? Did he intend to celebrate his one-hundredth year as a lunatic? A transvestite? But the man had laid out his suit and shoes the night before, pairing a red-silk vest with a red-silk handkerchief and now, he apparently wanted his cheeks to match. Between gnarled fingers he held, gingerly, the blush compact in one hand and the brush in the other. Round and round he went on his left cheek, seeing only the perfection of perfection- he was merely enhancing what he always had. He was a handsome actor preparing for his greatest role ever.
Grandma, now fully awake, stepped in.
“You look…” she considered his one hundred year old ego, then thinking about the four hundred guests and her seat next to him, she considered her own, “You look ridiculous.”
I was getting my own beauty rest two floors above, but I imagine a small tussle took place in the master bath that morning as wife tried to wrestle away blush compact from husband.
But he said nothing. Chuckling softly at his handiwork, he handed the compact to her.
An hour later grandma had exhausted an entire box of Kleenex and half a bottle of makeup remover. Her husband’s skin glistened once again in its natural beauty and his cheeks glowed with the faintest pink, from having been rubbed with tissues.
“See,” my grandmother told him, tossing the final Kleenex into the wastebasket with its makeup-laden siblings, “You don’t need any of that makeup – you are handsome enough as is.”
He looked in the mirror and agreed, touching his face and enjoying the softness. Then he looked at her, his patient, adoring wife who had always known best. He looked at her tired face, the dark circles under her eyes, her fuzzy hair – she looked that way because of him, because of all the energy and love she spent on him. He loved her for that.
Still, it was his birthday and she would be sitting next to him.
“We haven’t much time,” he said, handing her the compact, “you’d better get started.”