1979 – certainly not a minor blip on the official log of world history. The Ayatollah Khomeini finally took power and blanketed Iran with his extremist wrath. Several unsuspecting Pennsylvanians residing near Three Mile Island nearly met with a radio-active demise, Patty Hurst got sprung from the joint and Skylab literally fell out of the sky. Susan B. Anthony was acknowledged with a bizarre octagonal coin that would hold out as the most useless piece of currency until the Sacagawea gold dollar surfaced in 2000 and the Bee Gees found success at last with their testosterone-laden soprano sound. Around the world, lives were changing and as an eight-year-old in Albia, Iowa, I was not left out, for it was during that landmark year that my maternal grandmother bestowed upon me the secrets of the universe, but more importantly she taught me how to smoke.
Allow me to clarify, she taught me how to look glamorous while holding a long pink cigarette and puffing on the gold filter just like she did. My grandma was a glamour puffer. She found the seven-inch, gold-tipped tobacco wands in a specialty catalogue and had them mailed directly to her home. Because she was a glamour puffer, she didn’t possess that bothersome nicotine addiction and thus she was never forced to stoop so low as to buy off-the-shelf fags. With a gold-tipped cigarette in one hand and a strand of rosary beads in the other, she offered me my first lesson.
“Margaret, you must remember, the cigarette is an accessory and should be selected and held in the same esteem as a handbag or strand of pearls.”
Smoking, as with all things surrounding my grandmother did, was an event. It was a moment of decadence to be savored and extended. Being the oldest granddaughter, I was exposed to these levels of self-indulgence to a degree never experienced by the other five granddaughters who followed. By the time they each reached the mature age of eight, we were nearing the end of the 1980’s. Smoking was now known to be deadly and not an appropriate pastime for third graders. Additionally, our grandmother had matured a bit and was striving toward a more traditional, grandmotherly role. She was in her fifties by then and finally at the appropriate age for becoming a grandma.
Yet each day I am thankful that in 1979, influenced by the likes of Gloria Steinem, Danielle Steele and Helen Gurley Brown, she declined to behave like a grandmother who spent her days baking cookies, and instead behaved like a free spirit who mixed highballs. Had she been a traditional grandmother, I might not understand the importance of marabou collars on satin robes or high heels on bedroom slippers. I’ve heard mutterings about women who’ve fallen victim to flannel robes and crocheted booties and my heart weeps for them. Where were their grandmothers? If I had not seen the Thornbirds or Valley of the Dolls until I was of a legal age, would I too have fallen victim to flannel? I shudder to think of the delayed development I might have faced had I not read The Carpetbaggers until well into middle school. Without her, I might have never embraced Betty Ford, pre-rehab, as my personal hero, or been driven to collect the entire discography of Engelbert Humperdinck, fat Elvis and Tom Jones. Or the complete cannon of Jackie Collins.
I believe during that amazing period of my life that she knew that her role as a traditional grandmother could not be eluded forever. She needed to pass on her sex kitten wisdom to a worthy recipient before it was too late. The recipient had to be someone who would embrace and absorb her teachings, eventually leading a life as extravagant as she had. In 1979, I was the best option; the fact that I was eight was merely a minor obstacle. Combine this sense of urgency with the fear of Skylab falling on her home in the middle of Iowa, and she was under the gun. So, against a background of brothel-like furnishings, Engelbert Humperdinck and rhinestone-studded glasses, my grandmother taught me everything I needed to know about life, from glamour puffing to making my butt jiggle while dancing to “What’s New Pussycat.” Thanks to her, these lessons have also made me the toast of every gay bar from Des Moines to Dublin.
It’s true that wisdom is lost on the young. I had fun with my grandma, but I didn’t fully understand her genius until after I turned thirty and she’d been dead for over ten years. Not only did the knowledge she passed on to me help form my personality, but it also forged a strong foundation for a variety of future job paths. Because of the knowledge she bestowed to me through her lesson in mixology, and her crash-course on the fundamentals of male thinking, I enjoyed a highly lucrative career in bartending following graduate school. By taking the time to explain the inner workings of push-up bras and lingerie, offering visuals from her own personal Fredericks of Hollywood catalogue, I had a rather long and successful career in costume design and possess the potential to advance into a career with Victoria’s Secret at a moments notice. And while I’ve yet to have been afforded the occasion to exercise them, I also know that I hold the fundamental skills for a career as a go-go dancer should the need arise.
My grandma and I had a synchronicity not shared with any of her four daughters, including my mom. It wasn’t that she spoiled or coddled me; she wasn’t that kind of woman. She was a tough broad, not a cookies-and-hugs kind of gal. What we had was more like a mutual respect. I respected her for the tough, gorgeous and flamboyant woman she was, and she respected me for the tough, gorgeous and flamboyant woman she hoped to turn me into. Maybe our harmony was simply because I was her namesake. More than likely, we were so attuned because we both had the taste of a floozy. Whatever the reason, we were two floozies living in southern Iowa and as I sat puffin’ on my pink cigarette and sipping Pepsi from a martini glass, I didn’t believe it could get any better.
Due to a string of young pregnancies in the family, my grandmother, like her mother before her, was an exceptionally young grandmother. She was in her mid-thirties when my sixteen year-old mother offered the painful news of impending motherhood. Understandably, this premature foray into grandmotherhood led her to immediately and violently refuse any terms like Granny, Grams, or Nana. She was too young for that, but by the time I came along three years later, and realizing that a grand-maternal label was inevitable, she offered two choices: Grandma Pete or Dink: Grandma Pete, a simple amalgamation of her last name and Dink a nickname bestowed on her by a former high school beau that somehow stuck. When it was time for me to choose, I went with Dink. Dink made it seem like we were girlfriends, not family. Dink was the name of a person you could smoke with, while Grandma was the name of the person who caught you smoking and beat your ass.
By the time I’d turned eight in 1979, my parents were entering their mid-twenties and with two of us in school and the last nearly out of diapers, they began taking some time for themselves. For me, this was a dream come true. As my parents enjoyed overnight get-a-ways in exotic locals like Des Moines and Omaha, my brothers and I were farmed out for various get-a-ways of our own, though thankfully in separate locations. My older brother usually managed to secure a more independent lodging at a friend’s house. My younger brother, being only two, went to our other, more experienced, grandmother. This meant I would be awarded the top prize; I got to stay with Dink. Grandpa was a cattle buyer and his work kept him traveling at least four days each week. This meant that Dink was usually home alone, which is exactly why she welcomed our interludes.
These overnight rendezvous, that was when the magic happened. Dink and I had a ritual when I stayed over filled with all things luxurious, from bubble baths and real butter on my popcorn to Engelbert Humperdinck and satin sheets. Following the six o’clock news, I headed to what I liked to call “the Black Pool.” While Grandpa loved and adored Dink beyond words, he suffered from a lifelong struggle with fidelity. Each time Grandpa got caught in a drastic lapse in judgment, jewels or remodeling soon followed. I’d seen two bathrooms, a kitchen and a sunroom, and I was only eight years old. Thanks to another of my grandfather’s numerous indiscretions, Dink had remodeled the main bathroom and included a five-foot wide, circular tub in jet black.
The Black Pool was the most impressive of all Dink’s remodeling ventures. The tub was situated on a raised platform covered in brown faux fur and surrounded by four bronze showerheads. It was highlighted with numerous mirrors, silver and bronze wallpaper and mood lighting; after all, it was 1979. Dink had a flare for interior decoration. She’d crafted her home design around a combination of Versailles and Graceland.
Taking a bath in the Black Pool was the ultimate experience for an eight-year-old. I discovered that if you soaped up the bottom of the tub with standard Gold Dial and used a strong push from the mirrored wall, your butt could become a flabby bobsled on which to propel yourself from left to right with only minimal splashes onto the fur platform. While I was sliding myself into oblivion, Dink made the popcorn, dancing through the kitchen to the sounds of Engelbert Humperdinck on 8-track. “And I’ll sing you to sleep, after the lovin’ with that far away look, in your eyes.” She’d sing with a lounge-lizard-inspired cadence as she prepared the red enamel pan on the state-of-the-art electric stove. No air-popping and no Jiffy-pop, it had to be the real deal – pan popped in peanut oil drizzled with real butter, none of that margarine, and sprinkled with parmesan cheese from the green can. Dink’s secret recipe.
When the corn was popped and my butt was pruney, I dried myself off and donned a pair of Dink’s silky pajamas. Mom always packed a pair of my own in my Miss Piggy overnight bag, but they just didn’t have the glamour that Dink’s had. Luckily, Dink was only five feet tall and I was chubby, so the fit wasn’t too far off. If I was feeling particularly sassy, I’d put on the matching robe with the marabou collar and cuffs. Dink was always sassy, putting on her marabou robe as soon as the popcorn was ready. Dink Safety Lesson #1: Glamorous lingerie and kitchen appliances should never be combined. Thanks to Dink’s abnormally small feet, we both topped off our boudoir looks with high-heeled slippers. I was a four-foot, eight-year-old sex kitten and I knew it, even though I didn’t know what sex was.
With popcorn popped and lingerie safely adorned, Dink would pour herself a glass of Lancer’s red wine and me Dr. Pepper in a wine glass. With popcorn and drinks in place, it was time to make our grand entrance into the TV room. She’d turn up the stereo, Tom Jones would croon, “She’s a Lady” and we’d strut down the red carpet and wave to the paparazzi. Dink would become Elizabeth Taylor, an obvious choice since she looked quite a bit like her with the exception of violet eyes. I liked to go classic; I was always Mae West.
At nine o’clock, the drama began. Jock and Miss Ellie were relatively new to the television line up, but their tale of oil excess struck a cord with Dink. She was addicted to Dallas within its first few episodes and I followed suit. From the first panning shot of Southfork Ranch to the deliberate staccato notes that ended the opening theme song, we were transfixed. At every commercial break we would compare Sue Ellen, JR, Bobby and Pam to certain members of our family. We agreed that Ray, the hired hand, was the hottest man on television, but I did have a soft spot for Starsky, as well. We also agreed that JR’s shooting at the end of the ’79-’80 season was the most deserving attempted assassination of all time.
As Dallas ended and we awaited the news, Dink bestowed tidbits of important information to me. She taught me lessons detrimental to my salvation. It was during these times with Dink that she told me, “Margaret, Jesus doesn’t care if you watch trashy television, as long as you make up for it in some other way.” In her case, saving a quatrain of the rosary during each commercial break made up for it. Sister Nora didn’t agree with Dink’s philosophy, but I still think Dink understood religion better than Sister Nora ever would, so I was going with Dink on that one. Aside from religious advice, she also explained why I should marry a man who travels and how sleeping on satin pillowcases helped hair to remain coifed between visits to the salon. Most importantly though, it was during one of these post-Dallas trainings that she told me what really happened at an Engelbert Humperdinck concert.
Dink was a big proponent of having lots of friends. “Magoo, if you’ve got nothing else in life, you gotta have your girlfriends. Otherwise you’re drinking alone. It’s ok to drink a bottle of wine a day as long as you share it with a friend, otherwise you’re a boozer.” One year, Dink and her girlfriends traveled to Des Moines to see Engelbert Humperdinck live. “Magoo, if you think he’s a handsome devil on the 8-track cover, you should see him live!” Dink reveled as she told me the story of her friend Geri, a rather masculine woman who usually wore white polyester, stood about five feet tall and weighed in at somewhere near 300 pounds. It seemed that Geri, upon becoming entranced with Engelbert’s melodious voice during an encore performance of “Quando, Quando Quando” freed her udder-like breasts and threw her bra on stage. “Don’t you see, Magoo, a foreign man with an accent can hypnotize a woman, even a woman like Geri.”
I’m sure Dink was attempting to issue a warning about the dangers of foreign men with accents, but unfortunately the story was lost on my eight-year-old self. I couldn’t get my mind past the image of the giant white EEE-cup suffocating the beautiful and unsuspecting Mr. Humperdinck: the curly black hair, the sparkling white teeth, that foxy face painfully smacked by an enormous white polyester boob! The warning didn’t pay off in any case: though I’m still waiting for him to sing “Quando, Quando, Quando,” I ended up marrying a foreign man with an accent, so turns out Dink knew what she was talking about.
When the evening was complete, we would strut our way back down the red carpet: Mae West and Elizabeth Taylor off to bed. Dink’s bedroom was as elaborate as the rest of her life. Complete with French doors, Rococo-inspired furniture and dramatic hanging lights. It was a room of sheer decadence, and decorated perfectly to Dink’s taste: Early Brothel with a hint of Graceland.
The bed was a King-Plus, meaning it was a king-size bed with an extra two feet. For a woman of Dink’s stature this was a bit excessive. She alleged the size of the bed was necessary due to the extremity of Grandpa’s height, 6’2.” The red velvet bedspread, pillows, and drapes, each enhanced with gold ball fringe, brought out the maximum potential in the gold and white furniture. As would be expected, beneath the red velvet bedspread lay satin sheets. Though she preferred red, Dink had here exchanged red for a mocha color since Grandpa felt the red of the sheets were preventing him from a solid night’s sleep and provoking strange dreams. Dink felt it was the Johnny Walker.
Getting into bed itself was a feat as a four-foot chubby kid in silky pajamas. Once you were under the sheets, it was paramount to make your way into the center of the mattress. It was the only way to secure your safety. If you didn’t clear the edge by at least two feet, you ran the risk of catching momentum with the combination of silky pajama on silky sheet and one false rollover could throw you into the sea of white-shag carpet beneath. This was a lesson I had learned the hard way. I was an edge-hugger at home and tried to employ the same habits at Dink’s. Somewhere around 3:00 a.m., an exciting nocturnal film was rolling in my head. I must have flailed to avoid falling from a dream-cliff, only to awake and find myself falling in reality. My face hit the white-shag while my butt remained on higher ground. As I yelped in terror, I felt a hand secure my chunky little foot in an effort to pull me back to safety. Dink was attempting to save me, but her laughter combined with her own silky pajamas as well as my advanced weight created a recipe for disaster! I ended up with shag-burn and we both developed a fear of satin momentum.
Once a safe position was secured mid-bed, it was time for some light reading. Dink was a firm believer in the power of idols. Her chosen idol was the BVM, Blessed Virgin Mary. Each night, and a few times a day if things were going badly, Dink whipped out her blue Naugahyde-covered prayer book and prayed the novena. I tried to read along once, but the words were a bit difficult to follow and the pictures of Jesus hanging on the cross gave me bad dreams. I preferred something else, so Dink gave me my own copy of The Thornbirds. While I didn’t understand the majority of the terms at the time, the knowledge came in handy later. Dink was too vain for glasses, except when it came to the novena. She had a pair of glasses in every room and a pair to match every outfit. Being only eight, I didn’t need glasses, but I assumed they were a necessary part of being fabulous. I found an old pair of sunglasses, busted out the lenses and wore my own “reading glasses” as I worked my way through the various chapters of The Thornbirds.
There was only one thing that bothered me about sleeping over at Dink’s house. It wasn’t the bedtime, or the forced reading time or even the risk of death by satin. It was that creepy picture on the wall directly across from the king-plus bed, a 1940’s portrait in shades of brown and gray. The subject was a fat man in a large white cowboy hat, a suit and one of those cowboy string-ties. The fat man was leaning against a fence and he looked rather self-important. He probably wouldn’t have been nearly as startling if I hadn’t seen something similar on a Scooby-Doo episode a few months earlier. In the Scooby painting, the cowboy’s eyes were cut out to allow the bad guy a view. I was certain the same was true of this fat man in the cowboy hat.
Formerly, the painting had hung in the living room. I found it much less intimidating out there among the red velvet furnishings and paneled walls. The cowboy was actually my great-grandfather H.C., and the painting was some sort of heirloom. Its original living room location was to serve as a reminder to the family of its patriarch. However, somewhere between the argument that resulted in the sunroom and the one that landed her the Black Pool, Dink decided it was time for the matriarch to take center-stage. She resurrected a two-foot by three-foot portrait of herself from 1962 wearing a white mink stole and looking very Liz Taylor. She reframed it in mahogany and moved H.C. to the recesses of the bedroom while taking his spot on the wall for herself. She’d intended to hide him upstairs, but found his temporary holding place agreeable, as this allowed him to be visible enough to illustrate his demotion.
Dink Lesson number 15: always be the first person to wake. Dink usually got up around 5:00 a.m. She didn’t get up to prepare for work or even to send children off to school. She rose early to say the novena and enjoy an hour of coffee sipping, paper reading and morning market reports. It wasn’t that she enjoyed listening to the market reports, but Grandpa had started mornings this way for the past twenty-five years. She had developed a fondness for the monotonous twang of Lee Klein’s voice reciting the price per pound of corn-fed beef cattle. It kept her company when Grandpa was on the road.
During my slumber parties with Dink, I, too, rose at 5:00 and began my day with coffee. Black. According to Dink, diluting coffee with any dairy or non-dairy substance was a sign of weakness. “Black and hot, that’s the only way it should be, Magoo.” Sugar was not an option either as it promoted tooth decay and hyperactivity. She did warn that drinking coffee as a child would stunt one’s growth. While there is no scientific proof to substantiate this claim, she was a mere 5’0”, and at only 5’4” myself, I am the shortest of all Dink’s granddaughters. Dink was a veritable font of superstitious wisdom. In addition to the warning that caffeine could leave one vertically challenged, she also warned that an unexplained itchy nose meant you would soon kiss a fool and a young girl who whistled would end up alone. “A whistling girl and a crowing hen always come to some bad end.” Somewhere around twenty-seven, I stopped whistling, fearing I was too late.
As Lee Klein caught us up on the markets, we worked our way through small bowls of Grapenuts and skim milk and artificial sweetener, as well as multiple cups of black coffee. Seated comfortably in gigantic, walnut chairs with leather cushions that complimented the huge walnut table – the result of a 1977 indiscretion – we watched the sun rise. We would spend well over an hour weeding through the Des Moines Register, her reading the news, me reading over the comics again and again.
Nine o’clock was painful. My mom would soon arrive and it would be time to return to my unfabulous life on the farm. Reluctantly shedding the silky pajamas, I made the transformation from eight-year-old sex kitten back to eight-year-old middle sister. I completed my last Mae West lap around the dining room as my mom came through the door. Reality was a painful thing, even then.
As I slung my Miss Piggy knapsack onto my shoulder, I winked at Dink, knowing I’d be back sooner than planned. I wasn’t scheduled for another sleepover for two weeks, but Dallas had ended with a cliff-hanger and it was inhumane to expect Dink to watch alone. Between tucking my fabulous glasses back in the nightstand and hiding my copy of The Thornbirds, Dink and I had made a plan. Friday morning she would call my parents in an orchestrated state of fear deserving of an Oscar. Claiming to have heard a bat rustling upstairs, she would ask to “borrow” me to keep her company. Knowing my mother always worried about her staying alone, Dink reassured me there would be no problem securing our Dallas rendezvous. As my mom readjusted my pigtails on our way out the door, I snuck one last peek at the 5’0” powerhouse that was my grandmother and thought to myself, “Damn, what a woman.”