A Woman Wearing Red

   Lois Mailou Jones - Babella, Paris 1938

Lois Mailou Jones - Babella, Paris 1938

I wrote The Curious Habits of a Wanton Wife as a short piece of fiction loosely inspired by rumors.  These were rumors of my grandfather's philandering, but the truth is a little more heartbreaking.

I grew up in a pretty open family.  Any skeletons hung out with us at the breakfast table, never in the closet.  I was awash with childhood stories.  And I thought I heard all there was to hear.  I was wrong.  Here is what I learned.

My grandmother Mary Lillie loved to talk on the telephone.  They had one jack installed for each floor of the house.  This was new.  Before the two jack system, there was only one phone.  My grandmother kept this one phone occupied.

The year was 1972.  Grandpa Saul had been laid off from work at the steel factory.  He used his down time to get better acquainted with the neighbor.  On the 1st floor phone, he and the lady made plans to meet up.  On the upstairs phone, my grandmother made plans to dial up a relative in Georgia.  She never made that call.

As Saul found his way out the driveway, my grandmother sat still.

Before long, she was searching, fumbling with keys to a locked cabinet.  This was a curious thing.  She avoided this cabinet.  This is where Grandpa Saul kept his gun.  Mary Lillie was afraid of guns.

Saul would pull out his pistol only on New Year's Eve, shoot as soon as the clock struck midnight, then put it away.  This gun made my grandmother very nervous.  Now she was standing with it by her side.

She took it to the meeting place of Saul and the lady.  They were not found.  She searched late into the night. She searched long enough to return home and lock the gun back inside the cabinet.


Saul was the controlling type.  He didn't want Mary Lillie to work.  He didn't want her to spend time with her elder sister Maggie (Aunt Maggie wore platinum blonde wigs, owned a beauty shop, and dated Big Timers).  He also didn't want Mary Lillie to wear the color red.  Tramps wore red.

The morning after overhearing that phone call, my grandmother got up and dressed herself.  She wore red from hat to heel.  She wore red and went to church.  It was Sunday.

She soon took to bed. Then the hospital.  She was dying.

My mother remembers receiving a late night call.  Her mother had asked to speak to Saul.

"Mama, daddy isn't home."

Mary Lillie, from her hospital bed said, "OK, do not tell him I called."

When my mother and her eight siblings were carried to Cleveland Clinic the next afternoon, they saw their father sitting by a man's bedside.  The man was unable to speak or move.  My mother at age fifteen was confused.  She asked, "Why are we in a room with this old man?  Why aren't we visiting my mother?"  My grandfather answered her, "This is your mother."

Mary Lillie's hair had turned white over night.  Her skin ash gray.  There was little trace of herself.  Her own children did not recognize her.

When my grandmother passed, shocked and weeping mourners crowded 113th Street.  Mary Lillie had meant a great deal to them.

My grandfather wed once again, but found himself at my grandmother's grave every Sunday.

He died a decade later, of a heart attack, while having sex with a woman who wasn't his wife.