My grandmother didn't smile very often. And when she did, you remembered what it was you said, took note of the time and place, hoping to replicate that feeling of making someone who didn't smile very often, smile.
When I was ten, my mom took my grandmother and I to see the musical Oklahoma at the Ingersol Dinner Theatre in Des Moines, Iowa. From the title alone, one is made aware that when rolls and meatloaf are served by the Second Act, you're a long way from Broadway. Even at ten I knew singing on haystacks with pitchforks and red bandanas was a little hoaky. But there was something magical about walking into a matinee on a Saturday afternoon, leaving the glaring sun and busy world to escape into songs about wind and true love.
I remember very little about the show. I remember the ingenue in blonde braids and square dancing choreography. I remember ordering a Shirley Temple and staring at the lunch menu, aware that under normal circumstances, we would never spend $10.50 for a hamburger and fries. I remember the red lighting when the haystack was set afire, and love songs that seemed to drone on forever. I remember I wore a dress. I remember fantasizing about being on stage, dancing and singing to an adoring crowd, and most importantly, taking my bow. I remember the theatre smelled like cigarettes, sawdust and cafeteria food. I remember the red carpet and round feaux wooden tables. I remember that my food wasn't worth $10.50 and I remember feeling guilty that my mother spent so much money on lunch.
I remember looking over at my grandmother and the expression on her face. I remember leaving the play behind to watch her. She had the look of someone caught off guard at a surprise party, a look of someone who had left their life and their troubles behind. It was an expression of wonder. I had never seen my grandma as a person, until this point. She swept floors and cooked. She took us to church and to the creek. She gathered bedsheets from the laundry-line outside the farmhouse, holding pins in her mouth. She watered plants and dusted, shook rugs and scrubbed, sewed and fussed. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a sister. But this was the first time I saw her as just a person, caught up in a story, delighting in song. She had the biggest smile on her face. And I knew there was power in theatre. Even in a silly little show like Oklahoma.