Posted by on January 7, 2017

A Woman by Any Other Name

Written by Terry Bar

Illustrations by Colleen Cahill

Photo by Alvin Barr

January 2, 2016

My grandmother was an Inez. Inez Naomi Williams by birth. She was the youngest of nine children, born in 1896 of Russian-Polish stock, though she always claimed that her family came from England, a claim we discovered to be false after my father died and we found my grandmother’s birth certificate in his safety deposit box at the bank. Perhaps her parents passed through England on the way from Poland-Russia to America. It’s possible, just like the rumor-story that one of her siblings nearly suffered a premature burial. In reality, with my grandmother, it was impossible to know the truth or fiction of any tale: who, or what she was, really.

When I remember her at her best, I see my grandmother as a robust, canasta-playing, dice-rolling siren. A “bosomy” woman, as “Seinfeld’s” George Costanza once referred to his own grandmother in the presence of his mother. Actually, George’s mother reminds me of my Inez: the dyed red hair, the loud, commanding voice. The nagging and hypochondriac whining. My Inez forced my Dad and me to flip her double-sized mattress every fourth Sunday, in her red brick apartment on the edge of Mountain Brook, Alabama. We dreaded those days. She wasn’t an enormous woman, though, or even fat, except in the chest area and in her arms. When she held those arms out to me, their width became my image of the Gulf of Mexico: vast and broad and limitless. Her embrace could engulf me, as I know now her demands did to my father’s psyche.

Today, we’d clinically define her as an abundantly neurotic personality suffering from extreme narcissism, though really, it was her three children who did the suffering. Still, I know she loved me, and I also believe that I felt her warmth and love more naturally and willingly than did anyone else in the family.

So at first, when she told me about all of her boyfriends, I thought it was fun: my grandmother was popular! They’d call her all the time and take her out on dates to local cafes and nightclubs like Birmingham’s legendary Boom Boom Room. But if I were spending the day with her on an evening when she had a date and my father were late arriving to pick me up, her warmth would dissipate like the lowering blue flame on a gas stove. I never met any of her boyfriends, for they arrived only after I left. I don’t recall any of their names either–though “Jack” does ring a bell–but over the first ten years of my life, they were plentiful and never-ending. When they entered her apartment, however, I do know that the first thing they had to pass was the portrait photo of my grandfather facing them from the living room table. Unsmiling and severe, but then maybe he had good reason.

The boyfriends I remember best were the call-in radio hosts from such faraway cities as Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Boston. Men she’d listen to throughout the night from the short-wave radio sitting beside her bed on her night table. She’d show me the autographed photos they sent her: “To Inez, love you baby!” Signed, Jerry _____. “Thanks for listening, Inez! You’re a doll!” Howard ________. So proud she was of them as if she were their only fan, their only love: “That Jerry is so sexy, a real dreamboat,” she’d sigh. I’d look at the photos but figured I just didn’t get what she saw.

To me, they resembled men like Robert Q. Lewis and Gene Rayburn. Nothing special, but then, I wasn’t a 70-year old Jewish woman. Years later, she raved about Rush Limbaugh too. However, she never got a photo from him, and I don’t know whether to be highly amused, embarrassed, or just plain old creeped out, thinking of a world where 90-year old grandmothers find right-wing blowhards sexy.

In her last year of life, Inez was confined to a nursing home. Once, our family dentist, a man near seventy, came to check out her abscessed tooth. As he stared into her mouth, she gazed into his eyes: “You’re so handsome!” I guess she didn’t notice his misshapen, yellow, cigarette-stained teeth.

A Woman By Any Other Name by Terry Barr & Colleen Cahill

I recount all of this for two reasons. One, my grandmother Inez, though widowed since 1955, remained a vibrant, yearning woman. She undoubtedly had extra-marital affairs starting from the time my father was a little boy in the early 1930’s. In front of my mother and my Inez, he confessed to waking up one night and seeing a strange man in underwear standing in their hallway. To which confession Inez called him a liar though she freely admitted later, on a tape she made of her life story, that after she was married other men came to see her all the time. They even took her dancing at speak-easies and honky-tonks across the Shelby County line. I listened to this tape only after she died. I realized then that I hardly knew this woman and what she really was.

And two. Until the time I was twelve, I thought the name Inez and my grandmother were synonymous. I knew no one else named Inez, and even today, if I hear the name or if by chance I actually encounter another Inez, it’s my grandmother’s image that first imposes or superimposes itself onto that name or person.

But another image runs a close second.

I’m eleven years old and spending the day with my friend Freddy who lives in the farmlands to the west of Bessemer, an area that will always define “rural” in my mind. Freddy’s Daddy has taken us with him to check on the renters who live just up the hill from them on a road with no centerline and barely enough asphalt to get by. The renters’ house is one of those tarpaper-sided shacks set high on the hill with a roof that almost yells “Don’t blow too hard,” even in this central Alabama climate. Smoke streams from the pipe at the top, and there’s a free-standing unpainted structure a little higher and to the right of the house.

I’m standing there on this bleak January morning in the white trench coat my parents bought me for Christmas, homage to my love of contemporary spy shows like “The Man From UNCLE.” A girl my age wanders out from the house, her flannel shirt serving as a coat. Maybe she notices us, or maybe not. She walks to the back of the house, out of my sight, and mounts the lone horse waiting just for her. The horse is black and the girl is blonde and I wonder who she is and where she goes to school and if she’s noticed me at all.

Freddy’s Dad continues talking to an elderly woman standing on the front steps. He wants to know about a complaint someone’s made about a fence somewhere, but the old woman knows nothing about it. And about then, a man comes from the other side of the house toward us. He’s wearing a dark blue denim jacket covering a flannel shirt with a black t-shirt underneath. His jeans are old and faded, but not as old or faded as his shoes, which, I notice, are saddle-oxfords: two-toned brown and gold. I have a newer pair just like them at home. But even then, what I notice most about this man is his neck. Red and chapped, it has those weathered creases like he’s never out of the sun or in from the field. Or maybe it’s just a smoker’s complexion, for in the ten minutes we’re there, he chain-smokes three Chesterfields. His hair is slick-backed and stringy, hanging to just below his collar. He must wear Brylcream or Wildroot, though years later I’ll believe that it was probably just pomade.

I can’t take my eyes off him as he and Freddy’s Dad discuss the fence.

“Don’t worry,” he says, “I’ll tell ‘em I did it.”

And one of his old shoes presses the ground for emphasis. I don’t know what he’s done or what blame he’s accepting, but whatever it is, Freddy’s Dad just nods.

The man catches me looking at him then, and he smiles at me. In his face and voice, there is some sort of humor, some sort of lightness. A winking knowingness. I’m not exactly afraid of him either, but I am thinking, even at age twelve, that I’m missing something here. That something’s just a bit off in this scene, just as if, later in life, I hear an alternate version of a song I know well and the timing, the sound quality, or the changed verse rings false. Like Joan Baez turning the real lyrics to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into a version where Robert E. Lee is a riverboat. Or The Kinks’ “Lola.” Yeah, Lola. “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls…”

The girl on the horse appears again, and I watch her and then the man again, and I’m wondering how long we’re going to stay here because I don’t know what to do, where to look, and Freddy is just standing there unconcerned, listening to his Dad. And the wind blows hard in this southern country, and I’m thinking that I’d sure hate to be left here alone.

“Well, OK,” his Dad says. “You just take care of it.”

“Sure I will,” the man says, and he chuckles a bit.

And then, just at the moment when I think I know what I don’t know, he winks. At me.

“OK, see you later Inez,” Fred’s Dad says as they shake hands.

I kept looking out of the back window as we drove down the hill that day. At a girl riding her horse on terrain that would have tripped me just walking. At a woman who stood watching us the whole way, and who at the very last moment raised a denimed-arm in some sort of farewell or recognition. From a place I’d never seen before, a locality I’d never forget.