I can still see the dog-eared paperback clear as day on the guest bedroom nightstand in my childhood home in Memphis: a mystery novel by Dorothy Gillman titled The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, my great-grandmother Gracie’s reading selection on that visit. On the book jacket a woman is riding a mule side-saddle across a desert landscape.
All the way across Tennessee from Knoxville Gracie would have arrived in Memphis not by mule but by Greyhound, and my father would have driven across town to fetch her at the bus depot. Meanwhile I’d have been watching time tick away by the second, agonizingly, on a classroom clock, geared up with the anticipation and excitement of being swept up into her arms when I came home from school.
How old had I been for that particular visit? Hard to say, but young enough still to be enchanted by All Things Gracie: the ash tray and the opened packet of Viceroy cigarettes on the same nightstand (nobody in our house smoked, but like most American homes in the ’60s and ’70s, ours had ash trays scattered about because that was what one did in those days, all of them empty and squeaky clean except during Gracie’s visits, or maybe when one of my mama’s ballet dancer colleagues came by and felt inclined to light up); the double Old-Fashioned tumbler with the sticky residue of a bourbon nightcap now motionless in its bottom; a container for soaking dentures (more wondrous still when the dentures were in it); and the net and clips she used to preserve her carefully coiffed hair—she always brought her own satiny pillowcase for this purpose, the other essential element in Granny Grace’s complicated toilette, and another item of supreme curiosity to me.
Our guest bedroom was more elegant than most suburban bedrooms, I believe it’s fair to say, owing to the attractive Art Deco-era furniture in it—the bed was unremarkable, but the nightstands, chest of drawers, and coffee table pushed against the wall opposite the bed were matched, and finished in a pretty honey color, all of it inherited when my ‘Bob Mama’—Gracie’s daughter—died suddenly at 48. My own mama had gone to great lengths to impart an air of formality to the uncluttered room, adding heavy drapes to the two long windows, and a coordinating quilted bedspread; the carpeting, like much of the rest of our house, was brand new, in a sculped gold pile that would have been fashionable at the time.
I had exactly no reason to go into that room, except when someone was visiting. On Gracie’s visits, when all the grownups were downstairs, I could steal a moment or two to examine her things—slide open the closet door and inspect her clothing hanging there, her travel outfit with a brooch still pinned to a lapel or blouse, her ‘fancy’ nighties she’d never have worn at home, maybe a bathrobe; her suitcase would have been placed on the coffee table and left open, beckoning me to finger her satiny clothing; and over on the nightstand, I would have plucked the cigarette packet from the nightstand and breathed in the unmistakable perfume of unspent tobacco cigarettes, might have examined the empty bourbon glass, and certainly would have picked up the paperback and thumbed through it (Was this THE Mrs. Pollifax? How or to whom was she unexpected? Did she materialize in the desert like this, and thus surprise someone at her destination? The book’s title and cover photo absolutely fired my young imagination.). I might also have noted the slip of paper tucked inside it to mark Granny’s place; maybe she’d have scrawled the Greyhound bus’s departure time on it in her familiar hand, just now starting to show the halting penmanship that comes with age.
And now, for whatever reason, these memories have bubbled up from deep inside my brain’s twisted landscape and in turn have inspired me to pick up a copy of The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, the modern way, as a digital download. I’ve had my nose in it for a little while now; I believe you could fairly call it ‘fluff’ (apologies to Ms. Gillman), but thoroughly engaging nonetheless, and for its early publication date (1966), surprisingly relevant in the here and now—a sign of solid writing, maybe. Somehow, though, the simple and singularly pleasant exercise of reading this book has served to connect me in another way to my great grandmother, as baking her biscuits does every Saturday morning—not just to the memories of her visits and the way she somehow created chaos (baked beans on the kitchen ceiling) and order (all my school clothing neatly starched and pressed) at the same moment, but also simply in the imagining of her blue eyes, which would soon fail her, gamboling across the same words, and then in guessing her reactions to them.
At a moment when we’re all yearning for connections, this particular one is welcome—if unexpected—indeed.