Self-Portrait in the City – Brandon Sisson
Isabella Fordin

Standing on the edge of a rooftop, cigarette in hand, New York City towering behind her, she smiles at the camera and begins tap dancing. Her red lips, rosy cheeks, and natural curls bouncing out of her pin-up hairdo radiate 1950’s glamour. Dancing away from the edge and into the center of the bare rooftop, the woman starts hastily throwing her arms and kicking her feet as she transitions into a fast paced quickstep dance. After minutes of dancing, she twirls out of the camera’s view. Only a second later she pops back in, her face consuming the frame, and snatches the camera. She sets it on the cold concrete ground then pulls another person into the shot: her brother. She yanks him in close and they begin shagging together. I smile while I watch the home film and imagine that 65 years ago, my great-grandmother never could have guessed how her life would turn out, and yet, here we are, watching her videos together. She holds my hand while she laughs at herself on the tape.

“You were an amazing dancer, MaRose,” I comment as her younger self bows.

“Well, who do you think you got it from? Certainly not your papa or your dad.” She cracks up into a fit of laughter. At this point, each previous laugh acts as fuel for the next for both of us.


“Happy Passover, Grandma!” I cheer on the phone.

“Oh, Bella! Thank you for calling! How are you, sweet girl?”

Hearing the excitement in my grandma’s voice when I call her is one of the things that makes me happiest. Calling her is not like the typical grandparent phone call filled with forced enthusiasm and good-grandchild-obligations. I can talk to my MaRose for hours and never run out of interesting topics.

“Oh! I finished fixing up the beaded handbag you gave me. It looks as good as new!” This past Hanukkah, she gifted me a white and gold, hand-beaded, satin clutch. It is stunning and shines like it was picked off of a 1950s red carpet.

“Oh perfect! Have I ever told you the story of how I got that handbag?”

“Not yet!” I absolutely love when Ma shares her stories with me. The more stories she tells, the more of her I find in myself.

“Okay, well sit down ‘cause it’s quite a story. Every day after work, I walked past the Saks Fifth, and every day I stood outside and looked in through the window. I never actually went inside because if I did, I would surely buy something and we didn’t have any extra spending money. Anyway, Saks started selling this absolutely stunning hand-made handbag for $450 and I made it my goal to save up enough money to buy it. So, you know, a couple of months pass and every day on the way back from the Scholastic headquarters, ‘cause you know I used to work for scholastic right? Remember all those books they would send you?”

“Mhm, I remember. I loved those books as a kid.”

“Oh, I know you did. Anyway, I would always check to make sure they were still selling the bag. I wasn’t making any extra money fast because, you know, even though I was working hard, they didn’t think I was worth the pay.” I can feel her roll her eyes through the phone. “So, I turn onto the block where Saks is and I see a huge Saks Fifth truck unloading boxes into the store. And, you know, it’s been a couple of years since this happened so I can’t remember the details–”

(By a couple of years, she means about 50.)

“–but some time between them unloading the truck, and me walking past, the movers dropped a whole rack of the beaded handbags on the street and… they didn’t notice. I figured they can’t sell them now because they are all wet and dirty so… I picked one up and kept walking.”

Oh. My. Goodness. My jaw drops and, after I fully process what she just shared with me, I explode into laughter. It makes sense; she has always been one to seize the opportunities she saw. That must be where I get it from.


I’ve grown up being told the same stories about myself as a baby and young child. Each family member shares their favorite that makes me sound incredibly adorable, and makes them sound like the best relative ever. As the first born child of my generation, I always have an overwhelming amount of attention on me and my experiences. After a while, the stories get old. Except for one. Everything about it brings a smile to my face. Especially the way my great-grandma recalls the events.

I was very young, maybe six months old, and she watched me every day while my parents worked. One day as she was carrying me over to my highchair, her hip dislocated. The excruciating pain made her drop to the floor and lose grip of me. In the last second before we both hit the ground, MaRose threw her arms out and snatched me back into her chest. Lying on the ground with 6-month-old me in her arms, my grandma knew she needed access to a phone. She needed help. But before she could focus on anything else, I needed to be safe in my highchair. After collecting her thoughts and devising a plan, MaRose pushed herself against the wall and assessed the situation. On the complete other side of the dining room stood my highchair. Even further in the kitchen was the phone. After several long and painful minutes ticked by, she braced herself and began moving.

She transferred me into one arm and used the other to help her rotate her body into a crawling position. With her leg dragging limp behind her, MaRose began her great journey. She staggered halfway through the dining room before her body gave out again. Even though the entire room was hardly bigger than a dining room table that sat eight, it felt like crossing the entire world. Resting against the leg of the dining table, my grandma rocked me in her arms and made her attempt at settling me. Even though her pain was unbearable and my crying was unstoppable, she took her time comforting me. Not only making sure I was safe but also checking that I was still tightly swaddled and that my hat hadn’t fallen off. She would never let anything harm her great-granddaughter, dislocated hip or not.

After several more minutes under the table, she regained enough strength to continue on. Hauling herself back on her knees, MaRose took a deep breath, shifted her weight, and advanced. The fiery pain developed into a stabbing numbness that spread through her leg as she crept across the dining room. The more pain she endured, the harder she pushed returning me to my highchair safely. Inch by agonizing inch, my great-grandma finally made it to my chair. Carefully, she raised me above her head and softly placed me in my chair.

The end of the story remains unknown to me. My entire life she has always stopped there and I could never fathom why. Why wouldn’t she enlighten everyone on how she reached the phone and called for help?

Well, if you ask her she will tell you why: “Because all that matters to me is how you end up, sweet girl.”


With graduation and college so close, I can’t help but think about the future. What my life will be like as an adult. Who will be in it, and who will not. This year, on my great-grandma’s 85th birthday, I really came to terms with the fact that my MaRose will not be with me forever. She will not always be around, sharing memories and phone calls. Not physically at least. But all these anecdotes of her life will live with me forever. My great-grandma embodies everything I seek: free-spirited, driven, caring, lively.

Now, please excuse me, I have to call my MaRose.