Grandma Esther

Ida Schenck

No one wants to listen to an old woman these days. Especially not in America. Especially not one with smile lines and frown lines and a floral hijab to cover my hair. These days it’s all about you young girls with elastic skin and too-little clothes. Let me tell you, though: we old women rule the world.

I was never young. From the day I was born, I was an old woman in a baby’s body. I used to sit in class and smirk at my teachers because they thought they knew so much, but I was old and wise and knew more than them. I failed their tests, but I didn’t care; they would have failed mine. When I walked home from school, the neighborhood cats followed behind me, joining me one by one until they became a whole crowd of yowling and purring feline disciples.

My family moved to America from Iran when I was 10. When we arrived at the airport, the first thing I saw was a magazine rack full of glossy pictures of nearly-naked women with fake tanned skin and skinny arms above their heads. The images you’ve grown up with. I pulled my hijab tighter around myself for comfort. In Iran, we were required to wear the hijab, but here, we got funny looks for not wanting to show every part of our skin.

Middle school annoyed me. All the other girls were learning how to put on makeup and wear the right clothes, betting all their chips on the game of beauty. I hated the way all of them sucked up to the boys and were rewarded for it with social capital and respect, terrified of what it would be like to live without those things. I wasn’t trying to be cute or pretty and therefore might as well not have existed. Instead, I was moving more and more into my old womanhood. I would sit in front of the mirror at night and wish I had age spots and wrinkles. I know that sounds weird to you. Youth is so glorified, but I knew if I was old, none of the boys would look at me funny, or notice my changing body. So, I copied the clothes I saw old women wear. T-shirts, jean shorts reaching to their knees, shawls, and orthotic tennis shoes. I wanted to get a cane, but my parents drew the line at that.

Sometimes when I was extra annoyed, I would raise my hand in class and give long speeches in Farsi about kids these days, and how boys aren’t worth the trouble. The teacher didn’t know what to do, and all the kids just sat there wide-eyed. I think they all thought I was a little crazy, or maybe just slow. It was funny watching them puzzle over it, smirking on the inside and watching the whole scene unfold. I know, I can see you cringing in secondhand embarrassment. And I will acknowledge, middle school was hard. There were punishments for not being normal, and I felt them in every odd look. I wasn’t really embarrassed for myself; I was more embarrassed for them. The worst thing to me was that my new neighborhood in America had dogs instead of cats like my neighborhood in Iran. Me and dogs don’t mix.

High school was better. That’s when I met my best friend, Grandma Allison. I was skulking around the park near my house, trying to avoid my grades and the horrible new puppy that my family had acquired. It was her eightieth birthday party, and there were tables set out on the grass and everyone was eating store-bought sheet cake off of paper plates. Grandma Allison sat in a folding lawn chair wearing sunglasses, a shawl, and a bunch of necklaces. Best of all, a cat sat in her lap. I walked right up and told her that I was an old lady too even if she couldn’t tell.

She laughed and said, “Alright, pull up a lawn chair.” I told her all about the boys at school, the ones everyone in middle school had been training for. Loud and popular. Heads blown up by the constant attention they didn’t even realize they got. You probably know them too. I would sit and watch these boys in the cafeteria. All the girls moved differently around them, their attention always pulled as if by some magnetic force even when they were pretending it wasn’t. They acted more natural when the boys weren’t present.

Grandma Allison nodded wisely. “Boys ain’t shit, yet we’ve all been convinced they own the keys to the universe.” I nodded.

She was an herbal healer and had learned from her mother. She had no children, and therefore no one to teach.

I was starting to realize that, though I knew I was old and should be living off of retirement money, no one else did. I figured that if I had to choose a career, this might as well be it, so Grandma Allison offered to teach me.

I went to her house every day after school. The more time away from my family’s slobbering, yapping puppy, the better. Some days she would teach me herbalism, and others we got so wrapped up in our conversations we completely forgot. I told her all about Iran, and she told me about growing up during segregation in the United States. Some days, she would have friends over. At first they were skeptical of me, grumbling behind my back about young girls, but Grandma Allison shut them up quick.

“It’s not her fault she’s young,” she would say. “Besides, there’s nothing wrong with teenage girls, they’ve just been tricked.” Years later, when Grandma Allison was too old to continue her practice, I took over. All of her patients knew me already, and were happy to be treated by me. When she died, I took over completely. She taught me the rules to old womanhood well, and I happily awaited the changes in my body. The wrinkles, the age spots, the sagging skin.

Now I’m old for real, and I need an apprentice. Will you join me?