Last week I wrote about the inspiring entrepreneurial spirit of Austin, Texas. Small business is a subject near and dear to me. I grew up in a family-owned and operated clothing store named Leonard’s in Central New York.
Closing the business after 35 years was like a stake through the heart of my family. When I moved to Austin, I was overwhelmed by the locals’ support of mom and pop businesses. Would Leonard’s have had the same fate if it resided in Austin instead of the economically depressed Central New York?
I don’t think about Leonard’s often because the memory of its passing is too painful to dwell on. However, a former employee and friend, Gabrielle, died recently, and it stirred a wave of nostalgia.
I linger on the silkiness of my Grandma’s voice.
The faux aristocrat.
As though every time the phone rings, she’s expecting it to be the President.
I wait a beat.
Trying to make sure that what I’m about to say doesn’t explode out into a puddle of words and tears.
That ain’t gonna happen.
“Mom told me about Gabrielle. I’m so sorry, Grandma.” It all blurts out in one push of air.
My Grandma begins to talk and her voice cracks on the next word and that word only.
That’s all my Grandma will allow herself to cry.
Once. For a millisecond.
She immediately regains her stoicism.
“It wasn’t even the cancer that killed her. She had an infection, Lauren.“
“I know, Mom told me.“
We both are silent. A thousand little images of our past playing like a Lifetime movie montage through our heads.
“Her funeral is on Tuesday. Her daughter is having an open casket. Gabrielle didn’t want an open casket! I always remember her saying in the store, “Nan, when I die, I don’t want an open casket. She cared about her appearance, you know?“
I try to picture Gabrielle lying there, and I realize that my image of her was from 20 years ago. I had never seen the white-haired woman with the oxygen mask and placid skin. Gabrielle will always stay pristinely wrapped in my seven-year-old heart.
I try hard, but honestly can’t remember the last time I saw her.
It may have been the day we closed the store forever.
I get off the phone with my Grandma and can’t move.
They’re all gone, I think. Gabrielle, Monique, Isabel, Mamie. All these women who made up my childhood are dead. All these women who we saw every day and who worked for my Grandma for 35 years are just gone. Disappeared.
And the only people left of Leonard’s are my Grandmother, my Mother and me.
This reminds me so much of my grandmother…she owned a beauty shop all of my childhood and well into my adulthood. She sold it shortly after she had open heart surgery. I spent summers there, first playing under the hairdressers’ stations (that’s what she called them…none of this highfalutin’ stylist stuff at her little shop in Lubbock) and then answering phones and sweeping up hair as I got older. The ladies that worked there became my extended family. When I graduated high school & college they gave me a collective gift, likewise when I got married & had a baby. When my granddaddy passed, the shop closed and all of the hairdressers and most of the patrons who have been getting their wash & set there for years attended his funeral. He was just as much a part of the shop as she was. Every time we go to Lubbock we have to go to the shop & see them, even though my grandmother hasn’t owned the shop in a few years. There’s a particular brand of hairspray, Vita-E, that instantly takes me to her shop as soon as I smell it. Our grandmothers didn’t need Betty Friedan and her Feminine Mystique to tell them to go out and take what was theirs. They were out there doing it because it was what they had to do.
Hey Tara! Thanks for telling that story. I could picture your Grandma’s shop perfectly. Nostalgia and the senses are very powerful, no?