Pretty Chameleons

By Rose Ann Sinay

When my mother was eight months pregnant, my father flew to Japan which was to be our new military assignment. My mother and I had to wait until the baby was born before we could join him. I figured I would miss about two weeks of the coming school year. I was happy about that until I realized I would be the new girl, stared at and judged . . .  again. I sighed. I was nine years old and already felt the weight of constant change. I felt like a chameleon, always trying to fit in.

We rented one side of an old apartment house in Waco, Texas. It was sparsely furnished, but serviceable for the three months we were to stay. School was out for the summer, but no kids swarmed the neighborhood. Just old people who spent their days manicuring their tiny postage stamp yards. If our neighbors weren’t spreading fertilizer around their prize roses, they were watching – waiting for me to put one foot on their perfect lawns. Vengefully, I speared my sneakered toe into their straight, green edging when they weren’t looking.

“That will teach the old farts,” a voice said from the window on the other side of our apartment house. “Come on in. I have a glass of milk, and some cookies right out of the oven.

”Mom had told me not to bother the other house tenant. She was old and probably needed her sleep. Mrs. Grammerly was short in stature with white curly hair and wire rimmed glasses. From the back, she looked like the perfect grandmother. But when she turned around, I had to look away. She had an ugly red/purple birthmark that covered a quarter of her face.

“Don’t stare,” Mom said. “It’s not polite.” But I couldn’t help it and tried to disappear whenever she was around.

There was no avoiding the cookies and milk – or her – especially after she’d witnessed my crime. I walked to her side of the house. How was I going to keep my eyes off of her port wine stain, as mom called it.

“Door’s open,” she yelled before I had a chance to knock. I met her in the hall that smelled of baked treats, and stared at the floor. She wore bright white sneakers with laces tied in soft loopy bows. My gaze inched up to her blue dress covered with an equally white apron.

“You must be Rose. My name is Edith Grammerly. You can call me Gram.”

Just look at her eyes, I told myself. But I couldn’t; I immediately honed in on her birthmark. Startled, I laughed out loud. She had outlined the edges of her scar, shaping them into a mouse with a big red nose.

She pointed to her cheek. “I hated it as a child. Now I like to think of it more as an accessory.” She saw my blank look. “Like a hat or a necklace. Something fun.”

Fun? I moved in to take a closer look. I had to admit it didn’t seem as scary. I ate her fig cookies and drank the milk. Figs covered the kitchen table and the counter. I decided I hated figs with their gummy, seedy consistency, but I liked Mrs. Grammerly – Gram.

For the next two months, I ran over to Gram’s first thing in the morning. Some mornings, her stain was covered with a four-leaf clover, a rabbit with big white teeth, or colorful flowers using eye liner, eye shadow and lipstick. Some days her mark was not decorated. I found I didn’t mind the “not” days at all. I collected figs from the trees in the back yard, and she cooked the peeled fruit in pots with lots of sugar. We made fig cookies, fig preserves and fig bread that she gave away (thankfully) to the Salvation Army.

My sister arrived earlier than expected, Gram moved into our side of the house to take care of me. After Mom and the baby came home from the hospital, our neighbor continued to come over every day to help. Some days she wore a painted baby bib or rose-colored booties on her face. I wasn’t sure if it was for our comfort or hers.

We were counting down the days when Dad would return to take us to our new home overseas. Mom was excited, but nervous. She bought a new dress and makeup, but instead of being happy, she sat at the table and cried. Her face was streaked with the wrong color foundation and blush. She said she didn’t look the same as before Dad left. Why…he wouldn’t recognize her, she sobbed.

I ran across the hall to get Gram. She gathered up a few supplies and laid them on our counter. They cleaned Mom’s face with cold cream applied a few strokes of a light tint and pressed powder. Mrs. Grammerly added her pink lipstick – the same one that had created pretty pictures on the old woman’s birthmark – to Mom’s lips and cheeks. Green eye shadow (that had colored Gram’s four leaf clover) was brushed on squinted eyelids. Mom looked in the mirror and smiled.

The day we left our apartment, our dear neighbor appeared with a bag of fig goodies for our trip. Her face was clean; her red skin glowed. It was a “not” day.

“I was afraid my makeup would run,” she explained, her eyes filling with tears. That day she was completely herself, exposed and a little unsure.

“I like you this way the best,” I whispered kissing her cheek. Her slightly raised mark was as soft as the rest of her skin.

I still think of her all these years later. Gram taught me about makeup long before powder or lipstick ever touched my face. It wasn’t just about adding color, covering spots, or evening skin tone. It was about character and chameleons.

About this writer

  • Rose Ann Sinay

    Rose Ann Sinay

    Rose Ann Sinay is a freelance writer newly relocated to Connecticut. She continues to write about moments worth remembering, graciously provided by family and friends.

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9 Responses to “Pretty Chameleons”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Your story is so touching. Gram was a special lady, and I am certain she taught you how to use figs, but more about life and beauty .

  2. Erika Hoffman says:

    A good story and a new way to learn that age old message ” You can’t judge a book by its cover.” You were a kind child to overcome any repulsion and accept the older woman’s friendship. Some kids aren’t as wise or gracious as you were.

  3. Mary Russell says:

    Such a tender story. It makes me realize what an impact our seemingly benign gestures and words have. I am sure Gram had plenty of heartache and the strength that resulted. Great story, Ro.

  4. Tammy Rohlf says:

    Gram had a wonderful way to make a child see there is more than what is on the outside. Love your stories!

  5. deb ilardi says:

    Your stories always draw us in and remind us of the softer, gentle ways. This one reminds me of lessons learned in childhood not fully realized until later in life. What’s next: Japan?

  6. Loved the story, Rose Ann. You really captured Gram. There are all kinds of beauty in this world and we need to understand that Miss America is not the only one pretty woman. Real beauty comes from inside as Gram proved so well.

  7. dennis sinar says:

    I love the chameleon image – aren’t we all chameleon’s in some way. Gram can teach us all that adaptation can be healthy and self fulfilling.

    Great job Rose!

  8. Pam Martin says:

    Beautiful and sweet story about not judging people because of looks and what a fun lady you let us know about. She sounds like a lovely lady and not afraid to flaunt her port wine stain. What a gracious young girl you were to look past the stain and get to know the wonderful person she was. I lived the story my friend.

  9. Mary Ann says:

    I love Gram. She helped you become the beauty you are, inside and out. Thank you for sharing.

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