(Apologies for the long description. I love my grandmother to pieces, so I have to do her story justice!)
I love going through old family photos so much! This is my grandmother when she was about my age and performing in the circus. She's 78 now, and no joke, she pretty much looks the same except her hair is shorter and blonde now. I'm hoping that's good news for me, aging-wise, unless it skipped a generation, in which case, thanks a lot, genetics.
There's a fun story behind this picture: when I was in elementary school, I found a box of old photos in my grandmother's room and started to go through them. A few minutes later, I came across this one. At first, I thought it may have been my mother because it looks eerily like my mom, but then I realized that the picture just looked too old to have been a photo of Mom. So I called my grandmother into the room and asked her if the woman in the picture was her.
She looked really surprised and quietly told me that it was. I didn't understand why she'd suddenly lowered her voice. I told her that the picture was so cool and that I loved the costume and wanted to know what she'd used it for. She told me that she used to be a balance and trapeze artist in a traveling circus!
I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever heard, but she was sort of embarrassed. In those days, being in the circus was not
something to be proud of. Her family was from the South, and dirt poor. There were seven of them living in a very small trailer. Her father initially worked as a house painter, but when the Depression hit, he realized he needed to do more to support his family--and so did his wife and children. So they joined the circus. They were all extraordinarily athletic, and the circus provided stable employment. During the Depression and War years, people needed an escape, so they were always willing to spend a few cents on a show. Circus performers may have been dogged by a negative stigma, but the circus was literally the reason my grandmother's family survived the Depression years.
They traveled all over the country with several different companies, including Barnum and Bailey. They were actually with the circus in Chicago during the Port Chicago disaster ([link]
). Talking about it still scares my grandmother--she was only 10 at the time, and said she thought the Nazis had finally invaded and were bombing the city. When the explosion started, her mother told her to keep running for cover, even if she saw one of her family members get killed. They couldn't find their father, and so they assumed he had been killed by the explosion. He'd ran for cover earlier, so he was fine--they all survived--but it just goes to show you what a frightening world my grandmother was born into.
My grandmother "did the traps," as she says, starting at around seven years old. I'm not talking swinging back and forth on a rope---I'm talking about hardcore, flying through the air, Cirque du Soleil stuff. She had a pet chimpanzee, rode elephants, and raced horses around the arena like this [link]
When she was older, she moved out on her own, married, and left the circus behind, but she's never stopped being a daredevil. My mom told me that growing up, my grandmother had the energy of a five-year-old. She would skate with them all day, take them hiking and practically run up the mountain, and do all sorts of wacky gymnastic things in the backyard. When I was really little and she was in her 60s, she would attach a wagon to the back of her bicycle and ride us around the neighborhood for hours. Once, when she was in her early seventies, I came home and she was doing this on the living room floor: [link]
. She just looked up at me and went, "Oh, hi!"
She lives in a gated community with a pool, and my sister and I still love to spend the night at her house and go swimming with her. And I'm dead serious--the woman has GUNS. She is ripped. She'll do all these pull-ups in the pool and she just keeps GOING. It's hysterical, because here's this tiny little lady from Texas with perfect June Cleaver hair and a flowery little bathing suit and a fluffy little bichon frise, and she's got biceps like the Terminator.
She had to have a knee replacement several years back and her back gives her problems, probably from all the fancy flips and things she did in the circus, so she's had to slow down a bit. And it. Drives. Her. Nuts. She cannot stand it. If she could, she would still be doing aerial flips all over the place.
Also, she loves horror films. The gorier, the better. Her favorite movie of all time is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, followed by The Exorcist. She'll call me at, like, nine o' clock and night and go, "Channel 45. Turn it on. Quick!"
So I turn it to channel 45 and there's some guy drenched in blood and getting his tongue ripped out by a mutant hillbilly in a gas station.
And my grandma's just in her glory going, "Oooh, that is so gross!"
She kept nagging us to go see Twilight because she LOVES vampires. I told her that I really didn't think she was going to like it, but she was convinced it was a horror film so I went with her. She complained the entire way home.
"Well, that was stupidville! What kind of a vampire was that? There was no blood! You can't have a vampire without blood! And I didn't like the werewolves. They just looked like dogs. They're not supposed to look like dogs--they're WEREWOLVES."
Once when we were younger we came over to her house for Christmas dinner, she tried to get us to watch The Shining.
My mom went, "Mom! No! That will scare them! Why would you want to watch The Shining on Christmas?!"
My grandmother got all hot under the collar and replied, "It's not THAT bad! It's just about a guy who tries to kill his family with an axe!"
Last month, I took her to see Phantom in Las Vegas. She'd seen the Lon Chaney version but thought it was stupid because "he looks like a monkey" and there wasn't enough blood. So we get into the theater, which is BEAUTIFUL, and I'm flailing around and super excited, and she's not quite sure what to expect. She was enjoying it enough, but you know what really got her into it? It wasn't the music. It wasn't the set design or the costumes. It wasn't even the plot line.
It was when Erik started killing people.
She LOVED it. She LOVED the scene where Buquet gets strangled. She LOVED it when Erik started shooting fireballs out of his cane in the graveyard scene, and she LOVED when he dropped the chandelier. I'll bet if they ever made a graphic musical about Erik's time in Persia as an assassin, my grandmother would buy front row tickets every night.
Once, I sat down with her and told her all about the Leroux novel and Susan Kay's novel, and you know what piqued her interest the most? The punjab lasso. I told her about how Erik tied it into a noose and used it to break his victims' necks and she went, "Ooh! I had one like that for roping cattle! We should go to a Western supply store and buy a rope so we can practice throwing it like the Phantom."
Minus the killing, she added.
Long story short, I have the best Texan trapeze artist, blood-and-guts-loving grandmother ever. She's incredibly fun and loving and kind and hilarious, and I love her more than I can possibly say.