The undercover prodigy...
October 1 2009, 8:40 PM
My grandmother, who I deemed Mimi as soon as I could speak, was, well, a bit of a ditz. She was like an over-grown child in many ways. She got excited about butterflies and plums falling from trees. Every time she left the house (a rare occurrence), it was like a new world. She always managed to be intrigued by something new. Even as a child, there were basic things I understood that she failed to. For example, she looked at one of those collapsable trailers and asked how people could fit in it. The thought of it changing size failed her.
Another example of that was when I was in second grade. She found out that I was a nerd with few friends. She sought to remedy that by putting a stick in my lunchbox in lieu of actual food. This stick, she wrote in a note, was a magic wand that I could use to impress the kids in my class by doing magic tricks. Her plan backfired. I became known as the kid with the "retarded grandma."
I wished for a grandmother like the ones in the movies: quaint little old ladies with blue hair who always offered cookies warm from the oven. Not one who would constantly try to feed me freezer burned steaks. I wanted a grandmother who would knit me cute little things for holidays, not one who smoked so many Winstons that all my gifts consisted of free Winston merchandise. Come on, a seven year old in a Winston windbreaker with matching coffee cup!
Because of all of this, I assumed that Mimi was a simpleton. I was constantly having to explain things to her and I was just a little kid. In contrast, my great grandmother, Nannie, was sharp as a razor in her eighties. While Mimi's head was in the clouds, Nannie's feet were planted firmly on the ground. Practical is the word that comes to mind when I think of her. She had boatloads of common sense, while her daughter seemed to have none.
One day, Nannie mentioned that Mimi had been Valedictorian of her high school and had the highest GPA in her college (she dropped out to get married). I sarcastically asked what school she went to. Nannie's eyes narrowed the way they always did before she got agitated. She replied that Mimi was her daughter and my grandmother and that I was never to condescend to her ever again.
I felt invalidated that my perception of my grandmother had been questioned but, more importantly, intrigued. Was it true? Was Mimi playing dumb all along? Was she a genius masquerading at as over-grown child? I had to know.
I investigated her bookshelves. Most titles were random, from romance to cookbooks to instructional guides on bird watching. I watched her closely. She continued to make silly remarks, not understand the gameshows I watched after school and chain smoke. It occurred to me that she was the accountant for Nannie's dress shop. I decided to test her by asking math problems. She knew the answers instantly. I came up with the toughest ones my young mind could think of and she still instantly knew them. I had found her talent. I immediately went to my mother and teachers and asked for the hardest math problems they could teach me, often involving many steps and a calculator. It still did not matter. She instantly knew the answer to any math problem I could think of without using so much as a pencil and paper.
I had to reevaluate my whole perception of intelligence. There was my mother who was versatile in her learning and fast at picking up on anything. There was Nannie, who had amazing instincts with business. There was my aunt, who was incredibly creative and an amazing writer. All of these people carried themselves with wit and cleverness. Then there was Mimi, so brilliant at mathematics but so incapable of understanding basic things. Maybe it was that she did not like basic things. She liked light and magic. She liked being in a constant state of childlike wonder. It made her happy and sheltered her from the harsh reality of adulthood. I couldn't quite grasp it until years to come. Truth and knowing things for certain has always been so important to me that I just could not get someone who wanted to be blissfully ignorant.
I wish I had treated her like I understood. I was not always the nicest grandchild but she always treated me as if I were the most special amazing person alive. That was the thing about Mimi: she always saw the beauty in people and life. She always genuinely wished all of her loved ones well in the truest way possible. She loved anyone we loved because we were so great to her anyone we liked had to be amazing.
I hate that I wished for another grandmother so many times. I was so busy trying to fit into "normal" that I was unaccepting. Mimi's quirks were beautiful. The way she talked in such a faint voice and sung in a deep alto. Her enthusiasm for doing anything and everything. Her willingness to see new things and party so hard in her seventies that she made my twenties look tame. Her absolutely terrible presents. The way she always posed for a picture with her arms slightly bent at her sides like a mannequin. The way she hit on young waiters until her dying day. The collapsible red sun hat she always wore... Why did I want a boring old normal grandmother when I had Mimi?
I hope she knew how much I loved her when she passed away a few years ago. I hope she knew that I would never change a single thing about her.