My grandmother was my fashion icon. As a single mother raising six children in Queens, her hats always matched her gloves, which matched her shoes. Her kids were always the best dressed on the block and consistently sported camelhair coats and knee socks. Seriously, my dad and his brothers look like British royalty in their childhood photos.
My grandmother would refer to my female cousins and me as the “Glamour Girls,” and would always have an extra sequined clutch or beret to hand out once she figured out online shopping. Sipping her gin martini — which had the tendency to make her “toes tingle” — after Christmas Eve mass each year, she would divulge her thoughts on the outfits of the church crowd.
Because of my grandmother, I dress up to travel. I dress up for doctor’s appointments. Heck, if it weren’t for the Michigan weather and my lack of a “normal” sleep schedule, I would dress up for class, too. One of the most important lessons she taught me was how the effort in your appearance can convey how much effort you are willing to put in to other parts of your life. She hammered that lesson into my dad, too — his nickname around the bleachers at mine and my siblings’ sporting events was “Blazer Man.”
When my parents would go out of town, my grandmother would come stay with my siblings and me. I can’t count the number of times she chided me for throwing my clothes on my bedroom floor or wearing a wrinkled school uniform. I’ve never seen anyone so appalled as when she discovered my mother donated our ironing board to a local charity.
My grandmother was also a creative problem solver. On one of her babysitting stints, we came home from one of my siblings’ sporting events to realize we had locked ourselves out. Being a quick-thinking 10-year-old, I grabbed the nearest rock and presented it to my grandmother. Without hesitation she took it from me and smashed in our back window to reach in and unlock the door. The incident has become slightly embellished in its repeated retelling within my family, and has now become the, “Katie, get me a brick,” break-in of 2003.
My grandmother died the spring of my sophomore year. My family knew it was coming. She had been living and firing on all cylinders in her apartment in D.C., but at 96, had finally started to slow down. By Easter of that year, she had moved to an assisted living facility.
My grandmother’s funeral was during final exams, and my parents told me to stay in Michigan. I regret that decision to this day. Though I dressed to the nines and headed to St. Mary’s in Ann Arbor that day, I never felt the closure a funeral ceremony where you’re surrounded by family seems to give.
One of my last and favorite memories of my grandmother is sitting in her apartment during Fall Break earlier that year, drinking coffee and discussing our favorite topic: clothes. Specifically, we talked about the perfection of navy blue. It has the slimming effect of black without the drabness. It goes with almost anything and adds that put-together feel. It can be worn at just about any time of the year.
Since then, to me, navy blue has been my grandmother’s color and holds a dominant place in my closet. It has come to represent her mantra of looking polished every time you step out the door — one I have failed at frequently in my senior year — and putting your glittery-shoed foot forward.
Navy blue has been a constant reminder of my relationship with my grandmother, one I thought could never be replicated. This year, however, I have added a new, slightly contrasting color to my closet, which has come to represent a woman who has had a similar impact on my life.
Ann and her husband George run their own cleaning business. Every Monday and Wednesday night, they come in and clean the Student Publications Building on 420 Maynard Street, or the address of my second home, The Michigan Daily.
I met Ann shortly after my grandmother died, when I was working on the summer staff of the Daily. The newspaper’s weekly production was on Wednesday nights, and that summer I had developed the bad habit of procrastinating by socializing with anyone willing to chat. Ann calmly put up with my blabbering about whatever had happened in my life that week, and pretty soon, would come in with some great life advice for the crisis of the month.
Once the school year started, Ann began to ask me if I was keeping up with my homework and going to class as I gradually started spending more hours in the Daily office. She has threatened to call my mom on more than one occasion if my grades were in trouble of slipping.
Ann makes sure I’m never walking alone at night, and that I’m being safe when I drive to Detroit. She hugs me when I’m upset and tells me when I’m freaking out too much over little things. When the stress is male-related, she never hesitates to reiterate the well-known fact among women that men are generally stupid.
My favorite topic of discussion with Ann, however, is fashion. Ann is the first person to tell me if I’m showing people up in my outfit or look like I just rolled out of bed. She tells me about the fabulous blue jacket she bought over the weekend, and shows me pictures of her sundresses when we feel like complaining about the arctic weather.
Last winter, Ann showed me pictures of her well-dressed son, who had just passed away from cancer, and the beautiful outfit she wore to his funeral. Every time we look at those pictures, she smiles. Ann is one of the strongest women I have ever met.
The best days are when my hot pink sneakers match Ann’s hot pink shirt. Those days always spark the discussion of how great hot pink is. It’s a bold statement; it’s approachable. It adds some flavor to an outfit and it’s visible from far away.
When Ann came in a few Mondays ago, she said she had something for me. She went out to her car and came back with a hot pink T-shirt, just like the one that matched my sneakers. Now I had the complete outfit, hot pink from head to toe.
Looking at Ann’s gift some days later, I thought about my grandmother. I thought about how she would tell me about going to the different shops in New York City to make sure her hats and her gloves matched. I thought about her all-white outfit — complete with white patent leather Go-go boots — she wore to open presents with my cousins on Christmas morning. I thought about her vivaciousness, her flair, her strength.
I didn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral, and I still regret it. However, I no longer have the feeling that I’m missing something, that the closure I was meant to feel by being with my family at the ceremony will never come. I’ve learned to see my grandmother in other people and in other colors. And for that, I am forever grateful to Ann.