10 December 2016
The Woman Proprietor as a Wise Storyteller: My Grandmother
She loves giving gifts. On second thought, she loves her ability to give. It signals her strength, both financial and personal. During Christmas and Easter, this is especially obvious. My Grandmother did not usually spend the holidays with my family in Croatia’s capital, Zagreb. Instead, she preferred to spend these cold winter days in Zadar, a coastal city in Dalmatia, where she could soak in the sunshine. Most of all, she loved hearing gossip about local families while sipping her morning cappuccino. Whose son became chief of surgery in the hospital? Which family bought a new apartment in the city center in Zagreb? Someone is selling land on the touristy island that is only ten minutes away from Zadar? She was interested in all of that.
In between her morning chats, she also loved visiting stores. She loved shopping! It did not matter what she bought: velour track suits for my mother, anti-aging creams for her sister, or colorful stickers and jewelry for my sister and me. “Call Grandmother and thank her for the gifts,” my father would tell my siblings and me after the packages arrived. We were usually busy unpacking our new toys, but he insisted. Meanwhile, my mother would roll her eyes as her kids lined up to thank “the proprietor” for her generosity over the telephone. On her mobile phone, my mom would discuss the matter with her sister. She smoked, of course, to calm her nerves when talking about the mother-in-law. “The money will run out. The money will run out. Grandpa will not be able to work forever; he can already barely walk with the cane. Her properties will not be able to feed her character forever!” My mother was right. My Grandmother’s strength vanished when Grandpa passed away. Even her properties all across Croatia could not help her. If she were a storyteller, she would tell stories that would remind her of grandpa and the emotional and financial strength and security she had because of him. Moreover, she would tell stories about her journeys with my grandpa that would convey the success of their marriage despite it not being perfect just like Joanna did in the end of Frank Oz’s “The Stepford Wives.”
Grandmother would narrate stories about her car rides with grandpa and the way in which they interacted during those intimate times. Moreover, she loved car rides because of both the tranquility and strength she felt as she sat in the fast moving and elevated SUV knowing that her husband was by her side. She would tell how she met new family members in distant towns and villages of Croatia by making grandpa drive through forests and drive past the speeding limit on the highway. She would describe his calmness and patience even though she knew his thoughts about their journeys: that they were a waste of time. As Bennett agrees, “[her] humble art of storytelling can be made to do the serious work of illuminating complex areas of experience” (168) that she had in her marriage with my grandpa. In fact, simple descriptions of their day trips to the remote countryside would reveal not only their experience as a couple that the rest of the family did not know much about about but also provide an insight into her own character. When she would tell these stories, her gaze would be full of confidence and assertiveness. Her storytelling process would provide an insight into the complex areas of her own character.
Frequently, Grandmother’s stories would backtrack and be repetitive as Bennett suggests that most women’s stories are. She would repeat the little anecdotes about my grandpa, such as the way in which he used his cane to close the door that was blocking his view of the TV. She loved his silly moves and remarks; she would love remembering his silly moves and remarks through her stories. In addition, her storytelling would be inconclusive because she does not accept my grandpa’s death as a conclusion to their marriage. Her “failure to resolve the story” (168) is common to women storytellers as Bennett points out; however, her inability to form a conclusion from their marriage and relationship is understandable and relatable. In fact, that failure is what makes her veritable as a storyteller. It is important to note that Grandmother would tell these personal stories only to those of her own kin. She would use these stories so that the listeners, her children and grandchildren, would respect and honor her, her husband, and the relationship they formed. While Grandmother would succeed as a storyteller if her kin showed respect and honor, Bennett argues that tellers of family legends are only to be concerned with making sure that “the listener gets the points, and that important moments do not go by before the listeners have grasped their significance” (176). On the contrary, the young listeners of Grandmother’s stories would not have to understand her points and their significance immediately after they heard them. The success of Grandmother as a teller of a family legend would be shown in the honor and respect that her children and grandchildren demonstrate long after the storyteller passes away.
Through her stories, Grandmother would demand appreciation for her own genius of concept just like Hank did in Oz’s “The Stepford Wives.” However, her genius of concept would be at odds with the one presented in the film. Moreover, Grandmother would insist that there is no need for spouses to streamline each other and to enjoy each other only at their very best. Her concept would be similar to the conclusion that Joanna makes in the end of the film which is that marriages do not have to be perfect. Furthermore, unlike Joanna and Walter, Grandmother and my grandpa never gave in to the temptation of perfection. Therefore, Joanna and Walter arrived to the same conclusion at the end of their time in Stepford as my grandparents did at the beginning of their marriage. Grandmother was aware of my grandpa’s “annoying habits, physical flaws, and moments of whining and nagging” and vice versa but that did not make them search for something better (Oz).
Moreover, Director Frank Oz uses irony when Walter urges that Joanna should “understand what is important in life” and give in to the idea of an ideal marriage (Oz). On the contrary, Grandmother understood what was important in life to her and did not change her beliefs due to her marriage. Similarly, Oz foreshadows the abnormal nature of Stepford wives through the remark of Bobbi Markowitz when she says that the picnic looks like an “alien freak show.” Before her marriage, Grandmother met couples who strived for perfect marriages and women who changed their personal characteristics at the insistence of their husbands. More importantly, Grandmother immediately dismissed these and married someone who had no interest in perfection. While several of the scenes in Oz’s film include Joanna being surrounded by men so that she feels intimated, the stories that Grandmother would tell would include her intimating other men because of her personal and financial strength. Additionally, long shots of Joanna and Walter in Stepford typically include Joanna on the lower or receiving end of the shot and Walter on the upper or commanding end so that there is a perceivable imbalance of power between the spouses. On the contrary, Grandmother was never subordinate to her husband or anyone else for that matter.
She began accumulating property as my grandpa’s income rose. He loved working late nights in the hospital, while she loved seeing her real estate grow. Paradoxically, they were a perfect match. My mother first met her in her apartment in Zagreb after my dad announced his proposal. That was the only place she agreed to meet my mother. At the time, it was the only property she had in the capital city. More importantly, it was located in the center of the capital city. Thus, the property was her biggest pride at the time. She did not like meeting anywhere else; “I guess she did not feel as powerful if she was physically not located in something that belongs to her” my mother explains. However, this is just my mother’s point of view.
Grandmother’s second biggest pride was her summer house. Indeed, someone was selling that land on the touristy island just ten minutes away from Zadar. Expectedly, she was the one who decided to buy it. She did the paperwork and it was set: the house was hers. She was never particularly fond of the island, but she loved showing it off. In fact, we spent many of our summer breaks on the island. My mother recalls her saying: “When do you think you will be able to have a house as big and grand as this?” during one hot afternoon right after we grilled some fish for lunch. The scents of grilled fish over Mediterranean olive oil were always present around the house. “That is when I will respect you!” Grandmother added casually. My mother did not have much of an appetite during our summers. “But the fish is so crispy and delicious, Mommy!” we would say. My siblings and I were not particularly fond of the grasshoppers or all the other insects on the island; we were urban kids who only liked the seafood part of living on an island. Grandmother would not hear it. We were obliged to spend our summer vacations there despite our objections.
After my grandpa’s death, it turned out that the summer house was not actually hers and neither were several of the other properties. Her son, my uncle, wanted his fair share of the family’s real-estate. She was devastated after meetings with family lawyers who confirmed his rights. During the months following the funeral, she was weaker than I have ever seen her before. Her voice trembled this summer when we ate our fish in a house that she knew was no longer hers. In fact, she barely talked at all. If she did, she mumbled odd phrases here and there while watching Turkish soap operas on the TV. It has been over half a year since grandpa passed away and since she found out she is losing her proprietor status. She still finds it difficult to get out of bed every morning, knowing he has not slept by her side.
I talked to her recently over the phone. She says she hates being all alone and thinks about her husband all the time. However, she wants to go to Zagreb and see her mother, sister, and cousins. She also wants to “just check up on her apartments” or what is left of them. “If only I could get some motivation” she says. She adds that she looks forward to winter break and my arrival: “perhaps we can go downtown and check the new boutiques.” Do I still love jewelry? I sure do. But I would also love to know if her vigor vanished because he was gone or because all the properties will no longer be hers. Perhaps I will never know. Regardless, I do know that she was a good proprietor and an unorthodox wife. Compared to the Stepford community, she never gave in to the temptations of having a perfect marriage or being a perfect wife. Nonetheless, she would be a perfect storyteller. Her character as an unusual woman proprietor who had a good marriage would make her stories captivating and valuable for generations to come.
Word Count: 1920
Bennett, Gillian. “'And I Turned Round to Her and Said...' A Preliminary Analysis of Shape and
Structure in Women's Storytelling.” Folklore, vol. 100, no. 2 (1989): 167–183. Web. 6 December 2016.
The Stepford Wives. Dir. Frank Oz. Perf. Nicole Kidman. Matthew Broderick. Bette Middler.
Christopher Walken. Paramount Pictures, 2004. Film