A Sketch Of My Maternal Grandmother…Benna June Smith Germann
People always described my grandmother as “gracious”. “Such a gracious lady,” they say. “So gracious.” She lived to make others feel at ease. Benna June was born in West Virginia to a comfortable family of horse breeders. When they lost everything in the Great Depression, the family lived in an abandoned schoolhouse for a time. Later, the family moved to Washington, DC to secure jobs with the government. Slowly, the majority of the family left the West Virginia lifestyle for the cosmopolitan D.C. life during the booming post-war time.
My grandmother was five foot ten, and always wore high heels. When I think of her, the first thing that comes to mind is the sound of high heels clicking through a DC metro station. Willow thin, she worked as a runway model. My mother reminds me that my grandmother was photographed by the famous photographer, Richard Avedon. To me, she looked a little bit like Nicole Kidman. She was the top of her high school class, but was forced to drop out of college when her father passed away. She married my grandfather and had two children. She suffered years of horrific, unspeakable, abuse with my grandfather, an economist and veteran who took the family from a tiny apartment in Maryland to luxurious wealth. Profoundly deaf as an adult, perhaps caused by the abuse, she wore hearing aids and read lips, always hiding her lack of hearing. She wrote down jokes to memorize to tell if there was a lapse in the conversation. She wouldn’t want other people to be made uncomfortable because she couldn’t hear. She often made herself uncomfortable, or didn’t take care of her own needs, to give more to others. She reminded me a bit of a Geisha, or Marilyn Monroe. All three have a persona that they constantly worked to refine.
Of course, my perception of her was through the eyes of a child. She passed after a long illness when I was 17. She was fancy. She wore capes and hats and lipstick. Her whole highrise condo smelled of “Beautiful” perfume. My mother-in-law once gave me “Beautiful” perfume, not knowing, and I burst into tears.
She smoked and drank scotch on the rocks. I remember her cooking once. Steak. The rest of the time, when I was visiting, we ate in restaurants. She had a hollow book where she kept jewelry hidden, and she wore her ruby brooch pinned to the inside of her bra so it wouldn’t be stolen. She had beautiful long hands with long fingernails that she used so expressively that it was rare that she went unnoticed. All men were in love with her, and most women. During her last days, she had a boyfriend in the care home, but no one was allowed to say his name out loud because “people in these places talk.”
As you can imagine, I was totally confused by the popular image of a “Grandma”…in a rocking chair, baking, old fashioned and dowdy. My Grandma was nothing at all like that.
As fancy as she was, she also retained her West Virginia heritage. She knew about horses, and poverty, and simple pleasures. She new about dirt, and she knew about broken hearts. Although she had a persona, she would not be fake about real life matters. She wanted to know what was REALLY going on with you, but she would hide everything going on with herself. She was very modern in her views. She LOVED Jesus, but not Christianity. She would say,”Jesus’s message is TO LOVE!” She always read “The Daily Word”, from the Unity church, a very progressive sect. She hated racism, ignorance, homophobia, and was very strong in her belief in the power of positive thinking. She didn’t want to say,”NO!” to her dog, so she trained him by saying,”ah,ah,ah!”
She had a chinese neighbor who she shared her newspaper with. She would read the paper every day, then put it back exactly perfectly, and give it to her neighbor. Her neighbor would give her chinese dumplings in return.
She was depressed. Her marriage and her divorce eviscerated her in an era when there was a complete societal denial of such kinds of abuse. No therapy. No medication. No support group. No understanding. In that era, people would literally say things like, “You must have imagined that.” My mother was frequently the adult, and my grandmother frequently took the role of the child. My mother would call her every day, and listen to the shattered anguish, powerless.
My childhood was full of images of my mother on the old yellow telephone, saying,”What did you do today, Mom?”
“What are your plans today, Mom? You really should go out.”
“Have you spoken to your friends this week, Mom? Invite them to lunch.”
She listened and listened, year after year, until my grandmother passed. Although my mother sanctified her mom, it was very hard to be her daughter. My mother physically pulled her out of the marriage, at the very end. She never saved herself, or her children. That was the very worst thing she ever did.
As a grandmother, she was superb! She took me on the Metro to the National Gallery of Art when I was ten. There was an espresso bar there, just as there is today, and she said,”Oh! I’ve never had espresso! Have you? Let’s try it!” We got two little, tiny cups of the most bitter, most dark coffee. We sipped, feeling elegant beyond words, taking espresso in the National Gallery of Art…No big deal, lalala. Then she said,”This is terrible! Let’s get icecream!” I thought she was an angel, the type who bought a ten year old espresso, and then threw it out for icecream! What could be a more perfect human? Her whole life was about making other people feel at ease. She always wanted to take me someplace amazing, buy me something amazing, introduce me to someone amazing! When I visited, she said,”I do not want you to make your bed while you are here. When you are here, it is also my vacation. I don’t want to make my bed on my vacation. If you make your bed, it will make ME feel like I have to make MY bed, so let’s just not!”
Now that I am an adult, I see a lot of things that we have in common. We both have hearts that just won’t stop FEELING TOO MUCH. We view the world with our hearts first, even though we have fine minds. We both love to walk, and we both just LIVE for new adventures, fancy places, and interesting people. We cannot stand ignorance, and are bored out of our minds by people who refuse to try things. We both are depressed. Not sometimes suffer from depression. We constantly live there, and sometimes look over the garden wall. We love the country AND the city. We have an understanding of all classes. We love to sleep. We are both full of compassion, but don’t see a conflict in eating a steak, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a scotch.
She was a gracious lady, and I miss her.