The Box

by Melissa Lenos

The Box, lined with archival inserts and conscientiously tagged Ziploc bags full of photos, had become something of a party trick. One friend has a hilarious story that becomes more elaborate with each retelling, another a dog that can open the refrigerator and bring guests beers.

And I had the Grandmother Box: a plastic file bin packed with the history of my mother’s mother, hundreds upon hundreds of photos, newspapers clippings, fan letters and bizarre remnants of the life of a woman I don’t remember. My grandmother: the professional wrestler, the author, the songwriter, the model, the airplane enthusiast, the amateur sports fisherwoman, the possible (probable) escort. I would tell you her name, except that I’m not certain of it – the Box contains documents that use half a dozen different names and variations on their spellings, so I just refer to her as Grandmother.

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The author’s grandmother: “Polaroid Glamor – a Girl’s First Mink”

When my older sister sent me the Box, it was a different Box: brown cardboard packed with the ancient, non-archival photo albums, shredded promotional posters and a handwritten account of my grandmother’s life, taken down by my biological mother, who I haven’t seen or spoken to since I was three years old.

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The author’s biological mother (age 15) and grandmother at a wrestlers’ reunion cookout.

Grandmother launched a legacy of chaotic women; we are prone to extremes, drawn to anarchy, bright but restless, physically powerful and true extroverts. In other words: generally interesting and charismatic women, and not terribly maternal. The photocopies of my mother’s handwritten pages were the only contact I’d had with her in two decades. I noticed that it seemed as though she might be left-handed, because of the slant of the script, then I dropped the sheaf of pages back into the Box, and didn’t open it again for several years.

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The author’s grandmother enjoys the use of her home bar (1964)

It was my husband who saw the Box as a beginning, rather than the end of an extraordinary life. He pointed out that my grandmother was fascinating enough to warrant a biography of her exploits, and that I, her final grandchild, was the perfect candidate for the task: an academic obsessed with research and armed with a friends list full of historians of popular culture. But there was always a reason to put the project off – I was just starting a doctoral program, I was drowning in dissertation, I just began a tenure track job, I need to focus on my promotion binder.

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The author’s grandmother supporting some troops (undated)

All along, the real reason skimmed under the surface: that I reveled in being somewhat pastless; that I feared what Grandmother’s legacy might reveal.

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The author’s grandmother enjoys her coffee table (undated)

I also struggled with deciding on a format. “Memoir is my least favorite form,” I’d been known to declare in a bitchy tone, so while that did not seem like an option, writing an arm’s-length biography of a family member also seemed disingenuous. “Just start digging,” one of my writing partners said. “Why don’t you hire a research assistant?” my husband asked. To research what? The woman’s life was a hurricane of activity and there didn’t seem like a logical beginning.

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I started with a small address book. The second entry is Tom Burke, a mayor of Cleveland from the mid-1950s. The entry includes a phone number for “the mayor’s man” and a pasted-in photograph of Burke. The second page contains the updated entry: “Senator Burke” and a number that is annotated “private extension.”

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I put down the book. This task is daunting and frankly, surreal. What can this possibly mean? As though predicting my confusion, Grandmother included an additional preface: 

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Then below:

* opinions are in green ink

My grandmother had a lot of opinions; most of them are written in a code I cannot decipher. She occasionally made price notations in the margins as well – billing scales? At some point (between World Series wins?) good old Whitey Ford’s bill jumped from $500 to $1,000.

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And every now and then someone is crossed out with a violent strike across the page:

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Not all of the notes are about men; near the back is a list of women’s names and brief notes:

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Irene – tops, chic, smart

Joy – TROUBLE too young

Elitia – charmer, accent

Wilma, nurse – can get orders

And poor Roxanne, “dumb broad – okay for slobs before Grandmother changed her mind and crossed Roxanne out altogether.

The next time I opened the book, I discovered a page that had previously been stuck to another, in the section marked T, an offhand note in my grandmother’s now familiar script:

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My grandmother, who knew me as a shrill, precocious three-year-old, could not have known that I would become a film scholar obsessed with Classical Hollywood and that this single line of text (Lana Turner!) would yank like a steel cable on my heart; backward to her, to my past, more than any actual event in my life ever would.

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The author’s grandmother in 1947

The date next to the party notation is long after Lana and Steve had divorced for the second time, but before Crane’s daughter killed Lana’s boyfriend Joey Stompanato (who, it should be noted, is not in the book – although his boss Mickey Cohen is … or rather, was…)

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Poor Dorothy!

After this discovery, I put the Box away again for a long time. I couldn’t work out if all or none of this was real or fantasy; it seems too bizarre to be made up, and the lists seem deadly serious, full of references to Feds and T-Men and secret entrance instructions (“take elevator to 7 then back hall”) private lines to police chiefs paired with first-name only women, lines and lines of indecipherable code words, acronyms and seemingly random numbers and finally, the somehow ominous, “Sam B will call from airport – meet AFTER press conferences” because of course my grandmother would not be meeting Adlai Stevenson BEFORE press conferences; that would make no sense at all. To paraphrase Sherman Alexie, if my grandmother was a liar, then she was a magnificent liar.

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Aside from the little black book (volume 1; my sister still holds its sequel), the most enthralling objects in the box are the photos and newspaper clippings. So far, I can’t, with any certainty, identify anyone except my grandmother, but if the hairstyles and fashions are wonderful, the promotional materials for her stint as a lady wrestler are spectacular. Her competitors often have gimmicks – farm girls in pigtails and gingham rompers, dramatic beauties in capes and elaborate makeup. One particularly frightening-looking woman is billed as a “Lady Angel” who makes children cry.

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an undated newspaper clipping

But Grandmother is just herself, platinum blonde in a simple black one-piece. Up until the arrival of the Box, I’d assumed my sturdy build and strength were the results of my father’s genes – northern Greek mountain dwellers and herders of flocks, but my grandmother’s thighs and broad shoulders were immediately recognizable as my own.

lenos_FS11 Each of us creates a story of our lives, a narrative that casts us each as the protagonist of an ongoing serial. By necessity, we design conflict and, inevitably, a mythology that explains who we are and why we are who we are.

The narrative of my life splits with the arrival of the Box. Up until that point, I thought my story was a showstopper. A rural girl from humble beginnings – working class roots and a shy childhood that exploded into what I thought of as a series of defining – and terrific – adventures in my early 20s: working my way through college with a variety of weird jobs, partying with A- and B- list indie rockers and artists. Then scrabbling my way through a Master’s degree, then a PhD program, still occasionally having the odd run-in with celebrities and the stories with them that I collected like pretty stones. The first of my siblings to finish college, the only in my family to obtain this level of education; a woman who achieved her goals and now holds the life of her dreams: the college professor, the author, the scholar.

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The author’s grandmother challenges all comers

The Box shattered my self-made mythology; my life is so unbelievably dull compared to Grandmother’s, so lacking in adventure and danger and glamour. My stars are pale lights next to Lana Turner, my adventures child’s play beside mobsters, national politicians, actual federal agents.

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The author’s grandmother was not, as far as the author knows, a secret agent herself

By all accounts, Grandmother was a disengaged and unenthusiastic mother. My own single maybe-memory of her is of a perfectly-coiffed bottle blonde in a red bathing suit and sunglasses standing beside a Florida swimming pool. She is holding a tall glass of something clear, and has a rigid 1970s facelift (her recovery is documented in the Box – meticulously in daily, bloody color Polaroids, carefully dated; they are like horror movie stills). The memory is also a still in my mind; I am wearing jelly shoes and everything has the tint of the late 1970s. She is not looking at me.

About the author

Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College where she teaches English, cultural studies and film studies. She is co-author of An Introduction to Film Analysis: Technique and Meaning in Narrative Film, and is currently editing a collection on uses of classical fairy tales in contemporary popular culture. Melissa lives in Kansas City, Missouri with artist Corey Antis and one small cat. Those interested in following her Box research can do so here:  http://cargocollective.com/flyover/The-Box-Project