Great-Grandma's Dictionary

My great-grandmother died before I was born, and it never occurred to me as a child she might be someone of note.  But Mom knew she mattered, so a few years before I became a woman, and long before two small girls called me mother, she introduced her to me by telling me a simple story.

I can’t remember if the story took place in the nineteen twenties or the nineteen thirties, but regardless, one thing was fact; Great Grandma was stuck with a drunk husband, and she wasn’t happy about it. I don’t know if he hit Great Grandma, but I assumed as much because my young mind associated alcohol with bad behavior.  I imagined him in sloppy clothes caked thick with dirt smelling of perspiration.  He would have a red-orange face covered in slimy sweat.  He would stumble into the house and find something to criticize that would be Great Grandma’s fault, of course. The chastising would be punctuated with a burning slap across her left cheek. I have no idea if that is what he was like or if any of that happened, but it’s what crossed my mind when Mom told me Great Grandma was married to an alcoholic.  

She had two children, a boy who I never met and a girl who would later become my grandma. I assumed their safety motivated her to get out of the marriage. Mom explained that getting a divorce, especially a womangetting a divorce, was hard to do in those days. It baffled me that something could be harder for a woman than a man. I didn’t understand inequality, so I brushed it off by blaming what I liked to call “The Olden Days.”  It was a long time ago, and I figured my future as a woman would be different because I lived in a modern, more informed, world.  

Divorce meant going to court.  Mom said the night before the trial, Great Grandma woke with an urgent feeling to memorize the dictionary definition of love. She obeyed, and for all I knew, never thought to ask why. As a child hearing this, I thought how tired she must have been.  Sleep was precious to me, and nothing short of Christmas morning made it worth missing. I did not know a mother’s instinct that wakes her at the slightest sound or unsettled feeling. I did not know a woman’s intuition always steers her true.  I wondered how Great Grandma could do such a thing without any logical explanation. But now that I’m a grown woman and a mother, I not only understand how she could do it, but how she could do it without asking why

Mom went on to tell me about the next day in court, and I could sense her excitement about what was to come. Her volume grew vibrant, rising steady like a sunrise. I imagined a large courtroom with high ceilings and walls made of mahogany paneling. The thick, paned windows would overlook the small town below. The rows of mahogany pews had waves of intricate scrollwork rolling their way over the feet and arms. It was the kind of place where the floor would be covered in large squares of cold charcoal-colored stone.  

I envisioned a regal judge set high in his seat, presiding with an ominous air afforded only by the privileged and educated few. Nebraska’s sticky humidity would waft through the windows, settling on the lawyers’ desks, warping their tidy piles of paper. I don’t know if anything I imagined about that courtroom looked anything like the actual space, but given the seriousness in Mom’s voice when she told me the first part of the story and the growing excitement coming with the second, that’s the dramatic picture I painted.  

Great Grandma took the stand. Mom never described what she looked like, so my mind ran free, making her a petite woman dwarfed by the majestic court room. I dressed her in a snug cloche hat like those I saw women in my history books wearing during The Great Depression. The hat pressed her honey gold curls against her cheeks, concealing the small beads of sweat at her temple. Her light cotton dress was breezy enough to keep her cool from the scorching heat, while the plain stitching and simple, rectangular cut presented a sober appearance. I imagined her walking from the defense’s desk to the witness stand, ivory gloves and white box purse in her hands. Step by step, the tap of her small high-heeled shoes would echo through the silent courtroom. Upon sitting down, I imagined she smoothed her dress, set her purse and gloves on her lap, and when she decided it was time, looked straight into the prosecutor’s eyes, ready for battle.

I was certain the prosecuting attorney was a great big and tall man in a dark woolen pinstripe suit. Everything about him was melon-like—his head, cheeks, eyes, and stomach all had a disturbingly perfect roundness to them. Thin, shiny strings of hair were combed over his glistening bald head. In my mind, that’s what an intimidating man looked like, but I was naïve and yet to learn scary men come in all shapes and sizes wearing all types of clothes. The tiny wisp of a woman I created all but disappeared next to his frame, and from the looks of what I saw in my mind’s eye, the odds towered against her. 

Mom said Great Grandma was good at answering the man’s questions. I don’t know how long the questioning went on. Maybe it was only a few minutes. Maybe it took all day. However it unfolded, the attorney was frustrated. Based on how loud and emphatic Mom became at this part of the story, I thought him to have a thunderous, booming voice. He yelled at my great grandmother, “What’s love anyway?!?!”

I imagined the large man leaning his round body into the witness box, his voluminous breath like a gust of wind shoving her hat backward and making her curls tremble. Proud of himself, he would step back from the witness box, take his handkerchief out of his pocket and dab the dribbles of sweat forming on his triumphant brow. Then, he would smirk. That’s what mean boys did. They smirked when they thought girls were foolish. I imagined Great Grandma might feel frightened but know not show it because experience taught her to stay calm around cranky men. With sublime coolness like a cold winter day, she would do what Mom loved most about the story. She recited, word for word, the dictionary definition of love.

I was stunned. The fire in the prosecutor’s face would have grown from embers to flames as her first words grew into a complete recitation. Mom threw her arms in the air and with a loud voice reenacted what she believed to be his behavior. “I give up! You can have the divorce!”  My imagination went dark, stalled in amazement. During its pause, I realized the little woman had toppled the round giant, and I not only understood Mom’s need to tell me the story, I understood why she did with such vigor.  

As Mom cooled, my imagination started up again. The courtroom windows rattled during his livid surrender, the melting stacks of papers fluttered in his wake. He was a force to be reckoned with even in his demise, but I doubted a woman like my Great Grandma would pay him any mind. She would stand up, put on her gloves, and walk across the stone floor and out the door. It was probably late in the day, and she needed to get home and cook dinner for her children.

-Cheney Luttich

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Cheney Luttich’s writing is rooted in storytelling, both hers and those of others. She is currently working on a book about her experience as an adolescents in a cult. She is also working on a project interviewing survivors of sexual assault who are now parents and use their experience(s) to shape how they parent and work to break the cycle of abuse for the next generation. She teaches writing at a local college, enjoys being a volunteer coach for her daughter’s volleyball team and is always up for a road trip to a local historical site.