When your sixty-year old Lebanese grandmother tells you she’s taking you to a bar, you go. It doesn’t matter that you are a fourteen-year-old teenager with a dress rehearsal for the school production of Anything Goes. You wave goodbye to your friends, don’t question where your grandmother found the cherry red convertible or if your mother knows you don’t need a ride home, and you head to the bar.
“I’d had my first hangover by the time I was your age,” my grandmother informed me as she rolled past a stop sign. “It’s time for you to not be so… coddled.”
My grandmother, in layman’s terms, was a GMILF. She was hot. Imagine a Middle Eastern Audrey Hepburn with traces of Marlene Dietrich (her namesake) and that was my grandmother. By the time my grandmother reached middle age, she had had three separate careers: seamstress, opera singer, and restaurant owner. When I once suggested to her that “mother” (to my mom and my uncle) was also a career, she snorted.
“Those kids practically raised themselves,” she said. “Though I made sure your mother knew how to snag a husband.” She turned to me as she parked the car outside a cocktail lounge renowned for its senior citizen clientele. “I’m now going to mentor you.”
Considering the state of my parents’ marriage, I wasn’t sure how great a mentor Citu (our mispronunciation of the Lebanese word for Grandma) really was.
Nonetheless, I followed my grandmother’s lead, as I always would. My grandmother was a star, and I was stuck in her gravitational pull. It didn’t occur to me until my grandmother kicked open the door that sometimes stars become black holes.
“Marlene!” three elderly men cheered her in chorus. I turned to my grandmother, mouth agape. We were in Montrose, California. Citu was from St. Louis, Missouri, and had been in town for only three days. How did this place already know her name?
Regally passing by her admirers, Citu nodded at the bar. “Take a seat.” Before grabbing a bar stool herself, she blew kisses at the men. One leaped up and caught it while his compatriots pretended to faint.
The lighting was dim, either to hide the age lines of the clientele or the dirt on the tabletops, or both. “Two gin and tonics,” Citu demanded. The bartender– who looked like Paul Bunyan reincarnate – didn’t even blink. He just turned to make us drinks.
This is not a story about how I found a bar that would serve underage minors. I will note, however, for those curious, that this bar has since closed and been turned into a gluten-free bakery. A fact that I am sure still pisses Paul Bunyan off mightily.
Paul Bunyan brought us our drinks. I stared down at my glass, unsure. Was this a test to see if I drank?
“So, like this.” My grandmother took off one of her many gold rings and stuck her pinky in my drink.
This I hadn’t expected.
“When a lady goes to a bar,” my grandmother informed me, glancing around and lowering her voice, “it’s for two reasons: to drink, or to pick up a man.”
I could think of other reasons but I kept my mouth shut.
“If you’re looking for a good time,” Citu continued, “you stick your pinky in your glass and twirl it counter-clockwise. Got it? Counter-clockwise.”
“What does it mean if you stir it clockwise?”
“It means you’re an idiot who sticks her finger in her glass for no reason.”
I nodded. “Got it.” I picked up my drink. Citu immediately grabbed it out of my hand and slugged it down.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked. “You’re fourteen. Jesus.”
I sat there while my grandmother finished both of our drinks. Paul Bunyon eventually brought me stale pretzels, but they lacked salt and that was like offering someone donuts without glaze: pointless.
Arcane bar signals aside, my grandmother had passed down to my mother – and attempted to pass on to me – some rather ridiculous dating principles. There was the usual: never accept a date for the weekend if asked past Wednesday. Nobody will buy the cow if the cow gives away the milk for free. Always keep them wanting more. Men want what they can’t have. Marry rich. These are to be expected– most of my girlfriends have received this same advice from their mothers, and their mother’s mothers.
But my grandmother – and my mother, subsequently—was a fan of mind games. She collected them like your younger brother collected Pokémon cards: avidly, and without regard to the feelings of others.
“I always had a man on the side,” Citu told me one Christmas after I unwrapped one of her gifts, another copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. “That way my husbands never got too comfortable. You don’t want to be taken for granted.”
I replied that I was pretty sure there were other ways to prevent that that didn’t involve cheating.
My grandmother rolled her eyes and told me not to be so dramatic.
My mother, meanwhile, had her own bad advice. She was only trying to help, but as is often the case, her help actually hurt. Recently empowered by one of the many self-help books out there for women, my mother informed me that I had to show my beloved boyfriend that I was ‘the boss.’ Boyfriend was known for not liking the taste or smell of mint. My mother immediately suggested that I demand it in all my drinks and even light mint candles. “So he knows he can’t control you,” she said. “That way you won’t appear weak.”
“No, but I’ll certainly look like a bitch.” That was a sure fire way to get dumped if I had ever heard of one.
The ability to ignore my mother and grandmother’s advice has been a hard-won one. During high school and even college I did listen to my mother. After all, she was older and wiser than me. Citu was even older! They must know best.
So for years, I dated nice boys who let me boss them around. Boys I did not respect. I played the mind games, and in return started to date men who played the games right back. Soon I was deeply unhappy, anorexic, and in therapy. It took many years before I met someone with whom I could be truly genuine–though admittedly, it wasn’t so comfortable from the start. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but my therapist and I were disagreeing on how I should react to my current boyfriend’s behavior. “But my mother says I should do the opposite,” I said.
“And your mother’s advice obviously ended up with her finding complete happiness,” my therapist shot back before taking a sip of her tea.
I gaped. It took until that moment, and countless bad relationships, for me to realize that I didn’t want my mother or my grandmother’s lives. Both had been married multiple times. Both were considered outright “difficult” by most, no matter how much we loved them.
“That’s the Bsharah women,” my mom would joke. “Passionate!”
“Emily’s the sweetest of the bunch,” my grandmother would always tell my friends. “She lacks our ruthlessness, but the kid has a lot of spunk.”
I’d take spunk over ruthlessness any day.
Realization doesn’t mean a complete and immediate recovery. It took years for me to disinherit the bad relationship ideals I had inherited from my relatives. What made it harder was that sometimes they were right. I shouldn’t drop everything for a boy. If I don’t eat cheese, I shouldn’t start eating it just because a guy I like thinks vegans are “weird.” I should, of course, be myself.
The problem was my grandmother and mother were trying to turn me into someone other than myself: one of them.
Learning to trust my own instincts has been, next to conquering my fear of heights, one of my most difficult challenges. When something makes me uncomfortable or unhappy in my relationship, I have to ignore the reactive, screaming Bsharah woman in me — and she screams loud. This hysteric would play a passive-aggressive mind games to get her way. Instead, I stop, I breathe, and I think. While my feelings are of course valid, I want to make sure my reaction is equally so. Usually, this ends up with me talking and working out said issues instead of keeping them all bottled up or turning them into something bigger than they need be. I’m happy to report that since I’ve ignored my grandmother and mother’s well-meant advice, I’ve been in a happy and healthy relationship. One that they now feel the need to brag about to their friends.
As she’s grown older, my grandmother has lost a great deal of her bravado. She no longer goes to bars to pick up men. Instead, she whistles from the passenger seat of my car. Yet with the advancing of age came an empathy for the opposite sex she once lacked.
“You really love this boy,” Citu said just the other day when I called her for a check-in. It took about five minutes to get her attention– QVC was on. My grandmother used to mock those shows, and now she’s a regular viewer (and shopper).
I answered in the affirmative.
“Don’t fuck up,” she said, after a beat. I could hear the muffled sounds of television hosts ooohing and awwing over a “multi-gemstone charm bracelet, perfect for any occasion!”
“I’m not playing games,” I snapped, then readied myself for a fight.
“Good,” she said instead. “If you really love each other, then there’s no need.”
I was so surprised I almost dropped the phone. Sensing a prime moment for shock, my grandmother added: “Just as long as he’s good in the sack. If he’s not, I suggest you dump him. There’s no use wasting your prime love-making years.” She then proceeded to complain about her most recent boyfriend, a Purple Heart recipient who couldn’t “get it up” but refused to do anything about it. “So we’re stuck just holding hands,” she moaned. Then she hung up because her favorite soap was on.
There are so many things I did not want to inherit from my grandmother– her bad hearing, her short temper, her mastery of manipulation — that I’d forgotten her many positive traits which I could only hope to acquire: a lust for life, an ability to take two seemingly incompatible ingredients and somehow invent something delicious out of them, and, ultimately, a never-ending love for her family. My grandmother gave me advice — however misguided — because she loved me and wanted the best for me.
* * *
A little over a year ago, I took Citu to a “hip” Los Angeles lounge. I knew she’d get a kick out of insulting the bourgeois hipsters. She had even more fun mocking the price of an elderflower martini with a cinnamon twist. It didn’t help that when she asked the bartender for a “gin and tonic” he asked her what was in it.
As Citu reprimanded the bartender, I made eyes at a young fella sitting across the room. He walked over, complimented my grandmother’s “sick blouse,” and then proceeded to get my number.
“Look at that,” I chided after he walked away, “I didn’t have to put my finger in my drink at all.”
“He’ll still wait three days to call,” Citu replied. “He plays the game.” She made a face. “You don’t want to date a man you meet in a sleazy bar, anyway.”
She was right: he took five days to call; and I certainly did not, in the end, wish to date him.
Grandmothers (and mothers) don’t always know best. But sometimes they really do just know.
More in Voices: Ladder to the Moon – A Story of Starting Over
Photo: 1950s Unlimited via Flickr