You know how some people can surprise you, no matter how long you've known them? That was my grandmother, the most amazing, coolest grandma in the world. Her name was Elvira, but not like the lady who wears all black and has ridiculously long hair, like the song. If you’ve never heard Elvira by the Oak Ridge Boys, and you are under the age of 50, I’m not surprised. However, since it was her namesake, my grandmother sang and danced to it until her 75th birthday. The chorus is essentially a repetition of “I’ll be singing, Elvira, Elvira, My heart is on fire for Elvira.” It’s a fantastic song if your name is Elvira or if you happen to know anyone named Elvira that you adore, like I do. If you have never heard the song, I suggest you seek it out, and then listen to it, while imagining my 75 year old grandmother dancing and singing to it.When we were kids, my older sister and I spent every other Saturday night at Elvira’s house. We looked forward to these nights even into our middle school years because she let us watch whatever we wanted, stay up late and always ordered pizza. One such Saturday evening, as the ritual went, we attended 6:30 mass at my grandmother’s church before returning home for our pizza. Little did we know at the time, this Saturday evening would be different.We sat in our usual seats, eight rows back from alter, to the right of the center aisle. The service was mostly uneventful until communion. After receiving communion ourselves and returning to our pew, Elvira thought she had spotted her cousin Francis’s husband, Smilin’ Jack with what appeared to be another woman – in church! Jack was Francis’s second husband, who she married a few years after the death of her first husband, and he was roughly 80 years. He looked like he had died two months earlier, but no one thought to him, so he just kept right on smiling - hence the name, Smilin’ Jack. Although we had spotted him, he did not see us. With uncharacteristic zeal, my grandmother ushered us out of the church before the mass was completely finished. As we rushed through the snow to her navy blue 1982 Ford Escort hatchback she informed us that we were going to “Follow Smilin’ Jack and whoever that hussy is.” Imagine if you will, a woman in her late 60's who walks with a can, dragging two children behind her. It proved difficult to stay on the trail as the evacuation of the church parking lot was like a reverse game of Tetris. Once we escaped the labyrinth that was the parking lot, we were on the case. There we were, in the dead of winter, in an ’82 Escort, tailing an 80 year old man and his (alleged) mistress. Every few blocks my grandmother would yell “Duck down, so he doesn’t see you”, as if being tailed by an ‘82 Escort hatchback with a seven and eight year old in the backseat would be an more conspicuous than one without passengers.
We followed them for about ten minutes before they lost us by speeding through a yellow light. After the post-church stakeout, Elvira told Francis about the sighting. Francis subsequently hired a private investigator and had Smilin’ Jack followed – again. As it happens, he was cheating, and if Elvira hadn’t spotted him at church, Francis may never have known. Francis ended divorced Smilin’ Jack, but the story lives on in our family folklore, among a sea of other fantastic Elvira stories. I heard from my great-uncle a while back that Smilin' Jack is still alive, still taking ladies to church.
My grandmother passed away 13 years ago, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, when I was 16 years old. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her, smile and often tear up. Every family gathering involves at least one Elvira story, and there are many. At my sister’s wedding eight years ago, my sister instructed the DJ to play Elvira, which he considered an odd choice but obliged. When the song started my sister, cousins and I all ran to the dance floor, our significant others, though confused, joined us. Approximately halfway through the song my 28 year old cousin, Keri began to cry. This caused my sister and I to cry, all of us laughing at the same time. My cousin’s husband began to cry, as did my older male cousin. It was one of the most memorable moments from that day for any of us, my sister included. For an instant we were all able to remember her, dancing around her dining room in her nightgown, singing her namesake song. It was just like the old days.