Do you want to see my Grandma’s lingerie?
How a blanket changed the way I view my grandmother
“Do you want to see my Grandma’s lingerie?” That’s a question I’ve actually asked people. And yes, I realize it makes me sound like a big perv. But seriously, my Grandma’s lingerie is super cool. We’ll get to that.
But first, I should tell you I’m in in an undisclosed location. It’s not some Dick Cheney in a bunker thing. I’m doing an illegal drug called Ayahuasca so I can’t tell you where it’s going down because I don’t want to screw it up for the guy who makes it happen. Also, it’s not a drug, it’s medicine. Anti-depressants are drugs. But in our culture, we call our drugs “medicine” and we call our medicine “drugs” because, y’know, follow the money.
Anyway. When I walk in, I ask the gal who is the shaman’s assistant for a blanket because your body temperature fluctuates when you’re on this stuff and last time I did it I couldn’t even figure out how clothes work so I figure a blanket is a good idea. She brings me one. It is covered with a print that repeats over and over again “I love my Grandma.”
Ugh, I don’t want a blanket with a message; I want a blanket that keeps me warm. But I don’t want to be a diva and refuse the Grandma blanket. Positive vibes and all that. So I put it on the other side of my bag. That way, I don’t have to see it.
OK, if I’m being honest, my “ugh” reaction is probably due to the fact that I didn’t have a particularly loving relationship with my Grandma. Eve Stillman was her name and she was, um, rather crusty. OK, to tell the truth, I always viewed her as a bit of a bitch.
That’s a harsh assessment, I realize, but I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Anyone who knew her would tell you she was a bit much to take. She used to constantly boss people around. She was pushy and loud. The way she treated waiters always embarrassed me. When I was in elementary school, she told me I needed to go to Harvard. It was just a really aggressive vibe. Her own daughter, my Mom, didn’t talk to her for years because it was too much for her to handle.
She had it out for my Dad too. I remember answering the phone once and it was my Grandma on the other end. She asked me if my parents were home and I said no and then she spent 10 minutes telling me what a lazy, no-good bum my father was. When she finished her rant, I said, “Okay. Bye.” I was 12 at the time.
That’s how I dealt with her throughout my life. I avoided her. She seemed unpleasant to me and she made my parents uptight and even as a kid I knew her energy wasn’t the kind I wanted to be around. That extended into my adult life. I never really talked much with her. I didn’t visit her often. I associated her with negativity and I backed away from her in the same way my parents had.
Back to the undisclosed location: I’m starting to feel the effects. I’m woozy and introspective and things are beautiful and intense and I feel like I’m in some sort of bubbling cauldron that is equal parts jungle and coral reef and the belly of a volcano where the lava is boiling but instead of lava it is the cosmic stream of the universe and I am realizing what a small part of the planet we are and how our egos lie to us and how capitalism has fooled us into believing the wrong things. It seems incredibly clear that Mother Earth will win in the end and she just wants to see how we put up a fight.
And as I start to feel overwhelmed, I lie down. I feel safe. In a cocoon of love and clarity. And I think of my Grandma. I realize I need to forgive her. And I say this aloud to myself, in a whisper: “I forgive you, Grandma.” And as I say those words, vomit rises up from my intestines and I lunge for the bucket near me (each of us get one since vomiting is a common reaction) and I evacuate. I don’t just evacuate the vomit, I evacuate this idea of resenting my Grandma. This thing I’ve been carrying around that I didn’t even realize I’d been carrying around.
Everyone’s always scared off by the vomit. “You vomit during it? Oh, I don’t want to do it then.” But, as far as I can tell, the vomit is a purging. It is your body’s way of letting go. You are evicting an idea or a feeling or past trauma. You need to let go of the past to create your future. You are erasing the blackboard so you can write a new message on it.
It’s strange that you need to remember and confront an idea in order to let go of it. But avoiding something isn’t actually dealing with it. And you’ve got to deal with it. It feels like the point of the vomit is to shine a light on what you need to remember — and what you need to remember is what you need to forget. Vomit is Ayahuasca’s highlighter.
Now let’s get back to the lingerie. See, my Grandma, Eve Stillman, had her own line of lingerie: Eve Stillman Lingerie. She started it in the 1950’s and kept it going for decades after that. This wasn’t Victoria’s Secret stuff, this was Evening Wear. Gowns with hand-embroidered lace and intricate designs and fancy silk. The kind of stuff you seegals on Mad Men wear during bedtime scenes. Gorgeous stuff. People still buy and sell it on eBay and Etsy today.
More details from an essay written by someone who’s Grandma was a seamstress at Eve Stillman Lingerie: “The lingerie was sold at upscale stores, such as Bloomingdales and Henri Bendel, places my grandmother could never afford. The lingerie was popular with many Hollywood stars, including Joan Crawford, Debbie Reynolds, Ida Lupino and Barbara Stanwyck. My grandmother hand-sewed the lingerie for Grace Kelly’s trousseau, which she took with her to Monaco when she married its prince.”
What she made was pretty but the story behind it was probably more impressive. My grandma was a woman running her own company at a time when that must have taken some balls. She took over her husband’s failing garment business and turned it around. She was a real entrepreneur. What the hell was that like back then? How much do you need to act like a bitch to be a woman who owns her own business during that era? I never thought about that as a kid.
And through this business, she provided for her family. She may not have been very emotionally giving, but she helped out my parents financially. That house I grew up in? She bought it. She paid for most of my college tuition. When I wanted to spend my junior year studying abroad, she paid for that too. Without her help, I wonder where I’d be. I thanked her but never in the deep, personal way she deserved. I owe her a lot.
But all my life, I’ve focused mostly on the negative aspects of her. I thought less about the good stuff and more about that childhood feeling of not liking the way I felt around her or the way my parents felt about her. The iciness. And if I’m being honest, since she passed in 2003, I really haven’t thought about her much at all.
But now she is on my mind. And I think about her creativity and the beautiful designs she made and how often the impulse to make something beautiful comes from a poisonous place. How she must have had demons. The negative forces that made her act mean to people and be so bossy were quite possibly the same wellspring that birthed those gorgeous gowns. Something drove her to build something and own something and bring beauty into the world. She put up a fight.
As a child, I never thought about what caused her to be the way she was. What was the hurt she had felt? What was her marriage like? What was her childhood like? Someone doesn’t just act like a bitch out of nowhere. Something happens to you that makes you behave that way. I never even asked about any of that. I just labelled her and stayed away. But now, for the first time, I began to ask those questions.
And I think about myself and how often I’ve prioritized the things I make over my relationships. How I’ve made my art (comedy or music or writing) and poured my soul into creating while simultaneously neglecting people in my life. I’ve often prioritized what I make over how I treat people. And I think about how truly dedicating yourself to creating something often leaves you isolated from others. I realize how I am like my Grandmother. I think about the way creativity and passion and neglect and interpersonal difficulties are all tangled up. How we are all compensating for something in our own ways. And so I forgive her. Perhaps I am also forgiving myself.
And then I think about how Eve’s power cascaded across our family and the impact it had, particularly on my mother. The pain they shared. How my Mom had to manage dealing with this strong, impossible woman. How both of them had to deal with the death of Marcia, my Mom’s sister and a brilliant actress who died in her twenties in a freak maybe-accident-maybe-not (schizophrenia, window). The grief of losing a daughter and a sister before her time.
I recall how my Mom wrestled with her mother and integrated her into her life and our lives and made us our version of a family. And I think how often women do that difficult task of taking something that is tough and painful and turning it into nurturing and healing and family. It all reminds me of a line in Moss Hart’s “Act One” that’s always stuck with me: “A family is a dictatorship ruled over by its sickest member.”
All this races through my brain as my sickness subsides. I put the bucket down. And then I remember the blanket. The blanket! I move my bag aside. And there it is. The “I love my Grandma” blanket. And I wrap it around myself. I cover myself. And I say aloud, “I love my Grandma.” And I repeat that over and over. And I thank her.
The next day, I call my sister and relay this story to her. She had always been closer to Eve than I was. They connected over fashion and travel and a love of New York City (my sister got it at a young age, it took me longer). I asked her if she knew more about Eve’s past and what drove her to be the way she was.
My sister told me things I had never known. She told me about Eve’s father and how he would beat her mother. How Eve hated him and never said a good thing about him. And also how much she loved her mother. How Eve brought her dying mother into their home and provided for her the same way she provided for her children and grandchildren and how she was very proud of that. And she told me how Eve grew up penniless. How when she grew up, her parents couldn’t afford clothing so Eve’s mother, a seamstress, would sew all their clothes.
After reading the first draft of this, my sister responded with an email: “While Eve could be difficult she could also be very sweet (she set up dozens of couples who went on to marry) and amazingly charismatic. I don’t think your summation of her is thorough. She set up people from every aspect of her life. Folks who worked for her on Madison Ave., Mom and Dad, buyers from the Dept stores, people she met while doing personal appearances at Neimans and Saks, country club folks.”
And I recall the story of how my Grandma set up my parents. She met my father, a journalist writing a story about her business. When the interview was done, she said, “You should meet my daughter. She’s learning how to type and she’s seeing a therapist.” And that was good enough for my dad. Three months later they were engaged. Without my Grandma, my parents never would have met.
All this because of a blanket. Or maybe it was lingering in the depths of my psyche for a while.
And it also makes me think about the power of lingerie. Garments hidden under the surface. Things we cover up. Secrets we share with someone special and hide from the rest of the world. How the things we can’t see often provoke us more than what’s on the surface.
Do you want to see my Grandma’s lingerie? Take a look.