The Cal Ripkin Jr. of going commando


My personal litmus test of whether a baby name book is worth its cover price is whether it contains an entry for my great-grandmother’s name, Ismay. Once, I picked up a book that listed famous bearers of names rather than giving their etymologies, and to my surprise, the most notable bearer of the name Ismay was none other than my great-grandmother herself.

My great-grandmother is in fact notable, because she lived to be almost one hundred and ten years old. She was also notable for having the muscle tone of tofu in her upper arms, as I learned when she was a hundred and I was twelve, when I had to squire her around on an outing to the Howard Johnson’s to make sure she didn’t slip and break a hip or expose her underwear.

Taking my great-grandmother to Howard Johnson’s could have been much more awkward, though. I’m told that any time you got her into the car for a road trip, she was liable to exclaim “We’re off like free niggers!” Maybe you just can’t expect someone born during Reconstruction to know any better. Then again, maybe she did know better and was just exploiting the fact that old people can say anything they like and no one will bother calling them on it, since it’s easier to just wait for them to die than to try to change them.

Thankfully, that embarrassment was averted, but it’s a good thing that my grip on her arm was firmer than the arm itself. Breaking a hip was a definite possibility, though it turns out flashing her underwear wasn’t: The other notable thing about my great-grandmother Ismay was that she was the Cal Ripkin Jr. of going commando.

A couple of months ago, I happened to Google her name, and found a photo that someone had posted of her great-grandmother Ismay at her hundredth birthday party. But that’s my great-grandmother Ismay, I thought. I tracked down the photo’s owner, who, rather than some kind of identity thief, turned out to be my long-lost cousin. She happens to be a graduate of the same university as me and still lives in Kingston, so when I visited there on the weekend to see my girlfriend, we met for brunch, and she shared this bit of trivia:

When our great-grandmother was ninety-six, she fell while trying to put her underwear on and broke her hip. Breaking your hip might not be a big thing for you or me, but for a ninety-six-year-old woman, it’s a pretty big deal. So, fearing breaking her hip a second time while putting on her underwear, my great-grandmother went on a panty-free ironman streak for the remaining thirteen years of her life. This was one woman who was not concerned about having clean underwear on in case she was hit by a bus, because until the day she died, she never wore it again.

After that, I guess it was the funeral director’s call. I wasn’t there and didn’t check if she was wearing any underwear then, but my guess is that breaking the hip wouldn’t have made things much worse at that point, but a pallbearer tripping and spilling her out of the casket certainly would have, so it would have been better to err on the side of caution.

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