(Jean Borgos Burnett in far left corner kneeling among her husband’s-James Faye Burnett’s-Oklahoma kin. 1947)
The world has lost two great influences in the last few weeks, my grandmother and David Bowie. At first sight, you’d be hard-pressed to find a decent connection between the two. One was born in 1922 in Brooklyn, New York to one Jewish parent and one gentile. The other was born in south London 69 years ago. I mourn them both in different ways and for some of the same reasons as well.
My grandmother was her own woman, completely ahead of her time. A survivor of the Great Depression and the granddaughter of immigrants, hers was a true American story. She was one of the first female Marine drill sergeants in US history. During World War II, while Hitler murdered her European family, she learned how to use a gun and train young men to defeat Nazis. She married an Oklahoma cowboy and left her New York life for a rural southwestern one. By the time I came along in the early 1970’s, her Brooklyn accent was mixed with a Southern one to form a unique voice that I always attributed to only her. She had a wealth of advice for me. I made a list on Facebook to share with my friends and readers:
The Words of Jean Borgos-Burnett, 1922-2015
“You will always needs a good pair of boots. It doesn’t matter what kind–cowgirl, knee-high, or combat boots. Whatever your preference, a woman’s wardrobe shouldn’t be without them.”
“There’s no excuse for failing to call your grandmother. It’s not your mother’s responsibility to remind you. I don’t forget your birthday, but I will start doing so if you keep forgetting I’m still alive.”
“You’re not wearing that sweater in public. Let me tell you something, if you dress like a bum, people will treat you like a bum.”
“IQ is what you’re born with, but stupidity is a choice.”
“Now that you’ve started working, you’ll always be successful if you work hard. But you should expect that someone will eventually call you a bitch. It could be a man or a woman, but when they do it, say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s a commentary on your work ethic.”
“This is my one piece of parenting advice: Give your baby lots of love and affection, but don’t pick him up every time he cries. Give him the opportunity to soothe himself every once in a while. It’s how we build survival skills. Babies are much smarter than we think and they’ve had a lot more sleep than their parents.”
“Do something for yourself every day. No matter what. Just a small thing. I drink a mocha java every day, even if it inconveniences me or everyone else. It’s just one thing and keeps me civil.”
“I met Frank Sinatra in the elevator of the Paramount Theatre in 1938.”
“There was a handsome Roman Catholic priest who came into the shop today, and all I could do was shake my head in sadness. Such as waste of good looks.”
“I prepared a lot of good soldiers for war, but none of them came back.” (Talking about her time as a Marine Corps drill instructor during WWII).
“Your husband is a good man. Keep him. You won’t find better. And he’s handsome. Don’t underestimate how important that is in a marriage.”
“Just sit here and hold my hand. It’s been a lot of years since I held your hand.”
I cried a lot the day before, during, and after my grandmother died. I didn’t grow up near her, but I visited her many times and we exchanged letters and phone calls (more so when I was younger). I treasured her. It surprised me how much it broke my heart to feel her slip away from this world, because she was nearing 100. It’s not like she hadn’t lived a full life, but I guess I just never wanted a life where she wasn’t part of it. I didn’t expect that day to come. I think that’s how it is with the people we truly love. They’re part of us and it tears at us to feel them leave. I know she’s still with me, but not in a way that I can call her up and tell her that I love her. Now, I just have to show her that I love her by living a life that honors her memory.
My grandmother was not into crocheting or knitting. She was much more practical, but she appreciated these arts in others. I made her a blanket and a scarf once in her favorite color, pink, and she always encouraged me to work hard at what I was good at. I will miss her. She was fearless in the way she loved who she wanted to love, did what she wanted to do, lived where she wanted to live, and identified herself as whatever she wanted. She was neither Jewish nor Gentile and she was both at the same time, and she made it okay for me to feel comfortable in my own skin, because she was beautiful in hers.
Now, why the comparison to Bowie? Because he died today, and he is fleetingly on my mind, whereas my grandmother will be on my mind for as long as I walk this Earth. They’re both sharing space in my childhood memories right now. I am of the MTV generation, and Bowie always had those mind-tripping videos that made me ponder big and frightening things.
Bowie, like Grandma, did what he damn well pleased, and he had a similar haircut to my grandmother. Really, what other man could have the same haircut as a 93 year old lady and pull it off so seamlessly?
(Note Grandma’s hair. She’s on the left. My beautiful Aunt Pat is on the right. They’re partying at the Marine Corps Ball, something my grandmother did every year and always as the oldest Marine present. The announcer always assumed she was a “Gene,” but she surprised him, standing up in her fur coat and announcing her correct female spelling).
(Look at his hair. It’s the same as Grandma’s, but his is a little more fluffed and, obviously, blond. But he’s cool).
Also, Bowie was fearless in how he created art and presented it to the world, unconcerned for how it might be perceived. There’s something freeing in watching an artist do that. It’s what the great ones have always done. They simply created. Don’t like? Don’t buy it. Love it? Great. Who gives a rip what the rules are. I’m making art.
Bowie was like that. He was that way with his identity, never allowing a puritanical view of morals and sexuality to pin him down. In this way, I see Grandma. Hear me out. She was straight as can be–not a gender-bending rockstar or anything–but like I said, she identified as non-Jewish and Jewish, as Gentile and non-Gentile at the same time. Whenever she wanted, that’s what she was, and she owned it all. She had faith and encouraged my belief, but she she did not practice any religion. No one could define that part of her. It was all her own to decipher and articulate and only if she felt like doing so. Life was lived on her terms. In that way, I find a spark of connection between her life and beautifully weird David Bowie’s. It’s a character I’d like to sharpen in my own personality, the gift of being me and not caring what others think. That is harder said than done.
Bowie always struck me as kind as well. He seemed to be thoughtful and intelligent and to pause before answering the important questions. So many celebrities just blurt out the word of the day. This guy thought about what he was going to say, because he valued his own words and the words of others. I wonder if he had a good mother. One has to think that, perhaps, he did. A good mother helps her children understand that their art and dreams are of great importance in the world and that they are needed to bring light to the dark places. I think Bowie did that. Grandma did that, for me, at least.
She would probably have laughed at this post, but she loved my writing and encouraged me to work at it until it was something great. I hope to keep doing that, Grandma. In heaven, I picture them both noting one another’s hair and complementing one another’s furs.
Shine on, beautiful people. Thank you for living to the fullest.
One of my latest blankets, inspired by all the warm colors I feel when I think of Jean Borgos Burnett.