Thursday, January 23, 2014


May 15, 2005 was the kind of day so bright and full of humid electricity that it cast a surreal, glowing sheen to everything in sight, the way a sunny day looks in an old Technicolor film: sharp, saturated colors, vivid and otherworldly.

A deep blue sky with clouds that hang heavily overhead like crumbled balls of notebook paper slowly expanding, accordion style, across the sky. The sun beams down, hot and intense. Black caps and gowns become wearable solar panels, the inner lining nearly branding you from the inside. Many were sunburned through the fabric. The rolling mountains around Asheville, North Carolina, puffy like giant broccoli florets, cradled the campus of UNC-Asheville on that graduation morning, as attendees shifted in the seats of their metal folding chairs in an effort not to brand their legs. Paper graduation programs were pleated and reshaped into fans. Breezes played hard to get, drifting in and out across the quad. Stomachs rumbled.

Gretchen watched proudly as her god-daughter Diana, ripe and blonde as a peach, accepted her college diploma. It had been nearly forty years since her own college graduation. Her head turned with the others as Diana’s boyfriend Brad, a handsome fellow on the soccer team, shouted “I Love You!” at the top of his lungs. The crowd rejoiced. Gretchen tipped down the edge of her enormous sunglasses to regard him. She would introduce herself later at lunch, she decided. It was her self-appointed duty to screen the men in the lives of Allison and her girls. She had met Duncan’s beau and had gotten on well with him. And this young man seemed perfect for Diana. He was certainly passionate about her at the moment. Gretchen fanned herself and adjusted the belt that hung around her cinched waist. She was content that the linen, bohemian chic drape that she had paired with her silent film ingĂ©nue kitten heels was cool and comfortable.

As Diana took her seat among the fellow graduates, Gretchen pushed back a wild dollop of red-gray hair, like a bird of paradise rustling its feathers, and smiled, bangles jingling. Lunch would come soon, then cigarettes and coffee on Allison’s porch down the mountain. Gretchen fanned herself, deliberately pleating the paper over the name of the graduation speaker. On the porch of her cabin in Banner Elk, the temperature never got above 75, even in July. Such comforts were necessary. And did she not deserve them?

After the ceremony, Gretchen traveled with the others for lunch at a restaurant located down the hill from campus. She had quickly claimed the front seat next to Mike, Allison’s second (and most tolerable) husband, avoiding another ride in the backseat squished between young Michael, 15, and Ben, 55, Michael’s godfather and close family friend, who sat tall, grey bearded, and smelled of Tom’s of Maine natural deodorant. Allison’s prior efforts to set them up still baffled everyone, even a year later.

At last, they arrived.

The shabby, canary yellow structure looked like a glorified roller skate diner, but the grungy sign out front read “Boston Pizza.” Rumor had it during the drive up that it was a favorite among locals and college students. It certainly looked it. For this celebratory lunch however, Diana had chosen it based on sentimentality and accommodation to the size of their party. Unlike most restaurants in town that afternoon, it would not be very crowded, didn’t require reservations, and was the site of numerous meals when family came to visit her at school. “Mama’s notorious for finding one place she likes and then that’s the only place she’ll go,” Diana explained affectionately. Gretchen couldn’t agree more.

A hostess led the party into a private room situated in an alcove. A long table was set up below a sign that read “No Smoking.” Gretchen took a seat next to Mike and Ben. On the other side of the table sat young Michael, Jan and Tom, Brad’s parents. They were friendly but were very quiet and looked to be conservative. Allison would be arriving later with Diana and Brad, once they were finished taking pictures with friends and professors.

The waiter arrived, a young, good looking college student, tall and thin with dark spiky hair. He took drink orders and Gretchen struck up conversation with him, her flirtation radiating through the restaurant. She commented on his All American, boyish charms.

“I bet you’re not used to seeing an older woman wearing something as flattering as this,” she purred.

Diana, Brad and Allison were running late, so the mixed group spent time getting to know one another and sharing their impressions of the graduation ceremony. Brad’s exclamation to Diana was a big topic, and Jan was tickled by her son having also unexpectedly hugged the school Chancellor upon receiving his diploma. Gretchen, on the contrary, focused on her distaste for the graduation speaker—an academic—whose speech she felt was a tacky and shameless attempt to promote her new book. Diana, Brad and Allison had still not arrived by the time the food orders were placed. Whenever the waiter came by to refill the drinks, Gretchen continued to flirt with him, throwing him come-hither looks and talking to him intimately. He was remained good natured about the attention. When the food arrived, pizzas and subs were the popular choices. Gretchen, however, ordered a turkey sandwich from the back of the menu.

When the food arrived, she realized it had come with yellow mustard as a condiment. She wrinkled her nose. This was no way to eat a sandwich. “Young man, young man,” she said in her refined accent, touching the waiter’s arm as dropped off more napkins. “This is only common yellow mustard. Do you have any special sauce you can bring me?’” The inquiry was sincere, yet loaded with sexual innuendo. The waiter blushed and rattled off a list of possible choices—mayonnaise, brown mustard, barbecue sauce. He returned moments later with a container of special sauce, which looked like 1000 island dressing. As he turned to leave, Gretchen returned from having smoked a cigarette outside. “Thank you, dear boy,” she said, and posed in the doorway, arm against the frame, hip jutted out, like something out of a 30’s movie. “I just have to get this taste out of my mouth,” she continued, innuendo oozing from the statement. “Enjoy your meal,” the young waiter stammered as he stepped around her. Gretchen turned theatrically towards the table with an air of pomposity and satisfaction. Everyone else was nearly finished with their meals.

As the meal progressed, Gretchen finished her sandwich. Mike and Ben did most of the talking, providing the conversation with outgoing oomph that countered the meek but earnest inquiries of Brad’s parents. Gretchen checked her watch—a vintage Tiffany time piece that she hand wound each morning—and rapped her fingers on the plastic, red checkered tablecloth.

A lull in the conversation took over. Gretchen surveyed the room and the members of her party. She gazed up at the authoritative “No Smoking” sign dangling overhead and cut her eyes towards the strapping young waiter who approached the table with refill pitchers of soda and tea.

Gretchen scooted her chair back. She grabbed her pack of Carlton’s (regular, low tar), her purple lighter, and rose to her feet. With great flair, she turned to her audience, young waiter included.

‘I’m just going to step outside and air out my pussy…and smoke a cigarette.’

Without batting an eye, she turned and walked off.

What on earth would possess a sixty year old woman to say such a thing in polite, mixed company, much less in public?

 "That’s just Gretchen” is often the provided answer.

Performances of this caliber are not uncommon to those who know her, but she had never taken the vulgarity and spectacle this far. As a result, ever since my sister’s college graduation, members of my family who witnessed the performance, and I, who did not, have tried with great humor to piece together what could have driven Gretchen to say such a thing in the middle of the afternoon, in public, to a mixed group of friends and strangers.
Everyone who was there confirmed what she had said and how she had said it. What they confirmed further was that no one mentioned it until the next day, after she had left for her cabin in Banner Elk. When she had returned from attending to her business outside, no one brought up what she had said. Rather, they moved on as if it hadn’t happened. People’s impressions of the event remain divided.

The only explanation offered up for this comment since has been “Oh that’s just so Gretchen.”

But what does that really mean? How could their past experiences with her possibly lead to this comment being accepted as just another instance of Gretchen being Gretchen?

The story has become legendary at this point, added to the vault of Gretchen lore that our family has collected over the years. When I first heard about this incident, I found it hard to believe and yet I could completely believe it. After all, Gretchen’s theatrics were nothing new.

The instance reminded me of the last time I had seen Gretchen, the previous summer, when my sister and I had coincidentally both come home the same weekend she came for a visit. After treating ourselves to pineapple milkshakes at the Palmetto Diner, Gretchen, Mama, Diana and I stopped by Freddie’s, the local jewelry store. Freddie was from New York and spoke with a milky, mumbled accent that reminded me of Brando’s in On the Waterfront. I jokingly called him “The Contendah” in private. Sipping our milkshakes, styrofoam cups sweating down our hands, we wandered into the store. Freddie stood behind the counter, his magnifying visor perched on his forehead. Mama introduced Gretchen to Freddie and they immediately took to one another—he for her obvious appreciation of fine jewelry, she for his stellar efforts to flirt with her and recognize her as a glamorous woman. Diana and I wandered away from the counter and began surveying the estate jewelry collections and speculating over the used engagement rings. We overheard Gretchen and Freddie gushing over one another. After a while, Mama remarked that we needed to head home.

As we left, Gretchen turned to Freddie.

“My, this has certainly been fun, Frederick,” she purred. “The next time we have this much fun, there should be vodka involved.”

Then, with the gusto of an off-duty drag queen, she turned and led us out of the shop, the door bell chiming to our dramatic exit.

This performance, like so many before and after, was “just so Gretchen,” at least, my definition of it.

“She’s always showing off,” Mike insists. “She’s an actress by nature, and likes to think of herself as constantly on stage. That’s why she poses.”

Mike also believes that her high maintenance standards are as common as her theatrics. But the flipside of her theatricality lurks a part of her that she is trying to hide, yet occasionally reveals itself.

“Take her relationship with fast food,” he offers. “The summer before Diana’s graduation, we were driving back from our beach trip to Pawleys Island. As expected, she was a royal pain in the ass, and during the drive home, she said, ‘Now Mike, since you travel for work all the time, I‘m going to let you pick where we have lunch today, since you know these places better than I.’

“So I said, ‘Fine, there’s a great exit on the other side of Columbia.’ I take the exit, and all of the restaurants are sitting right there in front of us. Before I can make a suggestion, Gretchen leans in and says, ‘Now we don’t want to go over there to Burger King because I don’t like their French fries, and I don’t want to go to Hardee’s because, well, I just don’t want to, so we should go to McDonalds. They have a senior discount, and I like their fries much better.’ And I’m thinking, ‘and she doesn’t know shit about fast food? Hmm, sounds funny.’ Sure enough, when she gets to the counter--bam!—she orders like she’d been working at a drive-thru window all her life. She acts as though fast food restaurants are beneath her to eat there, and yet, she knows everything about them.”

Ben concurs with this conflict in her nature between what she says and what she does. During one of her holiday visits, Gretchen stayed in the guest bedroom of Ben’s place around the corner. Like her, he lives alone in a renovated, eclectic cabin. It was the first time they had met.

As he recalls, “When we arrived, I remember her saying, ‘Ben, I really appreciate that you have your own room for me to stay in. Allison often doesn’t.’ So I said, ‘Well, Allison happens to have four children, and I just so happen to have a guest room. ‘Yes,’ she swooned, ‘and it’s just for me, and I’m so appreciative of that. It’s also so comforting to stay with someone who’s used to being surrounded by fine things.’ Then she floated into the guest bedroom. The next morning, she said to me, ‘Ben, I just hate to tell you this, but your comforter is far too heavy for a lady.’”

“Oh, but the coffeecake was the last straw,” he recalls. “I got a coffeecake for her. I always do when guests come. She says to me, ‘Ben, I’m sorry you went to the trouble to get me a coffeecake, because I never eat coffeecake. She stayed for three days and three nights. On the fourth morning, as I was waving goodbye to her, in the back of the mind I thought, ‘Mmm, I’m gonna get to treat myself to that whole Entenmanns coffee cake.’

I went back inside and found that not one crumb was left.”

Mama, who has known Gretchen for over twenty years, thinks that Gretchen has a certain way that she is, and that she has a way she wants everyone to think she is, and in actuality they’re not really that close to each other.

Playacting and Self Contradictions are not the only things Gretchen projects. There is an indelible haughtiness and superiority to her every action.

“I always thought she was very aloof, self-centered and very egotistical,” Mike confesses. “From the first day I started dating your Mama, I got that impression. Of course, over the years I’ve learned that she is also a very giving, loving person and she can be very generous. But, as we’ve seen, she makes you pay for it emotionally.” Ben concurs. “I’ve always considered her to be very much full of herself. More so than me!”

One doesn’t dwell for too long on these negative aspects of Gretchen’s personality, however, because while she is always so entertaining, so is also, at times, poetic.

I remember visiting her during my first summer of college. I was dating a boy at the time named Greg who lived near her. One afternoon, Greg came over and brought along his little brother, Peter. It was immediately clear that Greg and Gretchen didn’t like each other. From that day on, he referred to her in private as “Wretchin’ Gretchen.”

Gretchen, for her part, had a nose for sniffing out louses (as I would later find out) and was not very friendly with him, either. Yet she was immediately drawn to Peter, especially when butterflies began landing on his shoulders and sneakers. He stood like a bemused statue in her front yard, his hands shoved into his middle school pockets, not sure what has happening.

“That means you’re special, young man.” Gretchen remarked from her perch on the porch. She exhaled a languid stream of Carlton smoke. “They shall bring you good luck.”

Another one of Gretchen’s more poetic moments occurred one spring at the annual horse races in my hometown. Pink dogwoods in bloom had inspired her to sing a passionate rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” I sat captivated on the hillside as she theatrically extended her arms outward, eyes closed and smiling, lost in her romantic recreation of the tortured diva, the sound of horses galloping in the distance.

As the youngest observer of the Gretchen persona, Diana has always been less focused on her outlandish behavior and more impressed by Gretchen’s ability to create her own glamorous world wherever she goes.

“She’s the star in her own show,” Diana muses. “Just look at her cabin. From the outside it looks like a pile of Lincoln Logs, but inside it’s this hip New York apartment. It was like what Hansel and Gretel might have found if the witch had constructed the house out of modern art and vintage couture instead of candy. I remember her walls were painted silver and purple and black and blood red. The big self portrait hanging in the sitting room. Her enormous loft-closet, full of shoes and clothes. Her vanity and all the jewelry, the pearls and diamonds. But I remember being very bored there as a child. And I remember it being very cold. Picking blueberries behind her house was fun, surrounded by Christmas tree farms. It always smelled like fall, crisp like pine needles and dirt. Inside, I remember lolling in bed all day with Gretchen and Mama, reading magazines. Vanity Fair, Veranda, Vogue. Her bathroom with the porcelain tub the size of a Volkswagen.”

“I remember feeling like her house wasn’t child friendly, though, and more like a museum. The only girly part of her house was her bedroom and closet. The rest was more eclectic. I remember the moose head on the wall, the chair made out of horns, her creepy-cool art work everywhere. Her place was in place for her, but definitely out of place for a small mountain town. You saw the life she had created for herself everywhere you looked within that space.”

Mama attributes the way Gretchen conducts herself as being closely related to her obsession with self reinvention. You have to know her background.

“She is a character,” Mama asserts. “She likes to think that she is different and that she is special. I don’t know if it’s because nobody ever thought she was special, but she did have a very complicated upbringing.”

Gretchen was raised in Ohio. Her father openly had affairs, and her mother was a quiet, straight-laced, Quaker nurse. They divorced when Gretchen was a just a child, and to her knowledge, they were the only divorced parents in town. She was raised by her mother and her Scottish stepfather, whom she loved very much, but she spent the summers with her dad and her stepmother, whom Gretchen describes as “one of those floosies who went down to the docks to meet the ships when they came in after the War.”

Gretchen’s mother was very much Miss Right and Wrong. Her stepfather, being a Scot, was loving but also very rigid. Gretchen had a very humble childhood. She was an only child, very precocious and smart, but also very rebellious. Her mother kept her on a very short leash. Rules were rules. She was often sent to stay with her invalid grandmother, where she was faced with more rules.

Throughout these early years, Gretchen clearly remembers wanting desperately to be one of the cool, popular kids. She wasn’t. She set out to create the life and identity that she had always wanted. At age 16, she worked in one of the finest ladies’ stores in town and bought the same dresses as the doctors’ wives. Then there was the affair with the high school football coach, who considered her very mature for her age. At college, she and her roommate painstakingly decorated their dorm room to reflect their stylish disposition; everything was a dusty pale pink or a rich chocolate brown, the colors of the season. It attracted people to their room.

“She was always reinventing herself and creating the life that she wanted,” Mama insists. “You have to give her credit for doing that.”

As for her unabashed flirtatiousness, Mama says she has always been that way. Ben thinks it’s a social insecurity issue. Gretchen was married three times: the first to the young solider sweetheart who moved her to Georgia then divorced her over a non-mutual desire to have children; the second to the millionaire builder from a society family. He was fifteen years her senior and forced her to play mother to his children who were half her age. He put her on such a short leash financially that waiters at the country club used to sneak her cocktails; and finally, the third and final marriage to the charming but narcissistically manic movie theater chain owner and playboy who once ordered a Ferrari over the telephone from his hospital bed at Vanderbilt, and who eventually moved her to the resort mountains of North Carolina. There she met Mama, who was fifteen years her junior and became the younger sister figure she had always wanted.

Since becoming a widow, rumor has it that Gretchen has had several male admirers over the years, although she only alludes to them.

 “I once asked her if she had a boyfriend,” Mama explains. “And she just got incensed, furious. She said, ‘Allison, I’ve never had a boyfriend in my life.’”

Mama thinks that her objection was to the term “boyfriend,” that she saw it as Mama trivializing this emotional connection or this intellectual bonding or something that couldn’t possibly be encapsulated by the title of “boyfriend.” “

Remember,” Mama sarcastically warns, “Gretchen is not 'ordinary.' She could never possibly have a 'boyfriend.' She would have a 'lover,' something romantic or exotic like that.”

Mama believes that deep down, Gretchen is a very unhappy person.

“No matter how educated she is, or how much style or religion she has, at the end of the day she’s just like everybody else.” Mama’s voice cracks with sadness. “And she can’t stand it. Can-not stand it!”

Mama’s relationship with Gretchen is long standing, loving, and complicated. Over the years they have supported one another through personal dramas, and it was only until a recent spat that they have lost touch.

Regardless, Mama is still glad that Gretchen attended Diana’s graduation ceremony and fulfilled her role as godmother. As for Gretchen’s infamous performance at the restaurant, she maintains that she had not yet arrived to hear it, but believes that it happened and yet has no intention of ever asking her about it.

“It makes me mad,” she insists. “That day wasn’t about her. It was about Diana and Brad.”

I assure her that both Diana and Brad have always maintained that it did nothing to ruin their graduation day.

“And see, that’s why I don’t say something to her about it,” she replies.

Gretchen has always been a person who does and says whatever she wants whenever she wants.

“I used to think it was obvious through what she wore, like wearing a $20,000 broach pinned to a red sweatshirt,” Mama recalls.

“As for behavior, she’s always been outgoing and assertive, sometimes abrasive. I think it’s because she’s spent so much time by herself in recent years that she’s perhaps losing that filter. Her acting out is something I notice a lot more about her now that I did when we were first friends. So maybe something about it is age related. I think she’s realizing the older you get the more you learn that there are not a lot of consequences to your actions.”

To this day, Diana thinks fondly of her infamous graduation day.

“It was nice for Gretchen to be there. She gave me a really nice set of antique silver. As her goddaughter, it was the first time that she really gave me that kind of acknowledgment of maturity or showed support for me. She went on and on about how proud she was of me and how special the silver was. Regardless of what she did or said that day at lunch, I have only happy memories of graduation.”

Diana pauses to reflect more on this.

“Still,” she says and begins to smile, “it does make worry about what she might say at my wedding.”

After looking at the facts and analyzing all sides of the Gretchen debate, I’ve come to the conclusion that Gretchen’s verve (however vulgar) has only grown with age, stemming from a necessity to express freedom and project glamour. While she can be egocentric and enjoys shocking people with her performances, there is clearly more to her than what an outside observer, or friend, may interpret. As for the graduation lunch spectacle, I think the answer to why she behaved the way she did lies within Gretchen’s eternal desire for attention. But something tells me that if I were to ever ask Gretchen about this, she would insist it was none of those things.

And that would be just “so Gretchen” of her.

             The Daydreamer - Egon Schiele,1911

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