ELBOW MAGIC by Wendy Oleson

You thought your grandmother was exceptionally lovely. She had high cheekbones, a spirited application of blush, and a manner that, once she was gone, made you tear up to see Betty White or Angela Lansbury on television. Grandma had possessed the sweetness of Rose Nyland and the integrity of Jessica Fletcher—no easy combination. No, your grandmother managed to hold seemingly opposite forces with ease—she loved you, after all. For these reasons, including your tendency to fall asleep on the couch while watching Hallmark Channel reruns, it’s maybe not shocking that one night you’d wake to find an infomercial playing and your grandmother the spokesmodel:

It’s like magic! your grandmother gushes, a new elbow cream called Elbow Magic, TM. The cream smooths the elbows of young, middle-aged, and elderly women (and presumably women, like your grandmother, who’ve been dead for six years).

You are stiff from the couch. Your neck hurts. Everything hurts so goddamned much, and now you’ve got unsmooth elbows. Your grandmother raises her elbows, waves them around. She says she could be sixteen! Or younger—she is a child at church or the ice cream parlor or the park by the lake. Your grandmother tells the studio audience she doesn’t have to wear bulky sweaters to be seen in public. She won’t hide her lights under a bushel!

It’s good to see Grandma smile. She wasn’t smiling in the casket. She’s still got a deathly pallor, but it zings with her plummy, raspberry-kissed blush and white halo of hair. You reach for the open bag of popcorn near your foot (excitement makes you snack) but think of broccoli and skinless chicken breast because your grandmother watched her cholesterol. When Grandma claps her elbows, you recall how on special occasions she poured a paper packet of ranch dressing mix into buttermilk and, with both hands, shook the hell out of that mason jar. The flesh on the back of her arms flapped wildly—ecstatically—while she shook (your arms couldn’t do that) and you believed she was magic.

Now there’s a doctor (or a neatly-bearded man in a white coat playing a doctor) gesturing at your grandmother’s elbows. He believes smooth, young elbows are a predictor of health and happiness. He’s blessed with bushy, expressive eyebrows and seems happy to believe in something, though probably he does not use Elbow Magic, TM.

You’ve seen similar infomercials for various products but none with your grandmother’s endorsement. Do you need another reason to dislike your body or spend money? You know firsthand that buying things over the phone leads to buying more things (and once falling victim to credit card fraud, but that’s another story). Though your grandmother is a compelling spokesmodel, you aren’t going to call the number. Sometimes you didn’t call or write your grandmother when she was alive—even though you missed her. Since she already loved you, it seemed best not to ruin that, safest to keep your distance.

The infomercial will end, and your heart won’t be any more or less broken. If you can stay up for it, four hours of Golden Girls’ reruns will follow. You’ll see Grandma again: she appears in your dreams, always half alive. She goes into hospice, is embalmed and buried, and then comes back for a family gathering, which is her funeral again. Without your grandmother, you wouldn’t gather (or your family wouldn’t gather with you because you’re gay and they joined a new church, but that’s another story).

Once you used both elbows to coax paper towels from a dispenser at a rest stop near Waterloo, Iowa. It was laborious and difficult, but you didn’t want to contaminate your freshly washed hands. And as you pinned paper between the chicken-wing points of your elbows and pulled, your grandmother exited her toilet stall. She watched, smiling—cheering you on—swinging pretend pom-poms at the spectacle of your ingenuity, your dexterity! You both got to laughing, and you gathered enough paper towel between your elbows to dry her hands and your own.



Photo used under CC