“Dress for comfort,” Grandma Linda always says. Get a feel for the fabric. If you have to, rub it all over your face in the middle of the store to determine the thread count, staring eyes be damned. I think she would say the same for dildos. Go for comfort. Or at least that was the mentality she adopted when the two of us found ourselves in a condomerie-turned-sex-shop in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district.
Linda is an elegant woman. She takes great care in her appearance, spending an hour each morning blow-drying her light blonde locks and exclusively applying Giorgio Armani products to her heart-shaped face. She does pilates twice a week with her trainer Liz and did a stint of weight watchers in the early 2000s, but found the food to be “inedible compared to her own cooking.” As a result, she often appears 55 when in reality she’s approaching 75.
I don’t mean to paint a picture of Linda as vain. She’s simply concerned with her own contentment. Using collected tips and tricks from her mother, GG, she seems to know a hack for everything. When I was 6, I was taught the ‘ask for ice on the side’ rule when ordering a soft drink. “You get more soda for your money that way.” When I was 10, I learned that if I truly didn’t like an ingredient in my food, I should feign a life-threatening allergy. “That’s what I do with anchovies in my caesar salad,” she told me, matter-of-factly. And when I was 14, during that unfortunate sex-shop visit, I learned the importance of overcoming discomfort.
On a gray afternoon in March, the two of us wandered down the cobblestone straten of Amsterdam. Dubbed the Venice of the North by travelling assholes who liken themselves to the writer Peter Mayle, Amsterdam is never without water. There always seemed to be a river on our right and a stream of bikes on our left. The sky was the churning taupe color of the Amstel, but the city felt alive with color. Tulips, the national symbol of the Netherlands, were beginning to poke their way out of the soil; dots of orange, pink and yellow lined the pavement. We could smell marijuana coming out of the doorways of coffee shops, not to be confused for cafes. Before the lockdown in Amsterdam, lines were said to have gone around the block for entrance into coffee shops. I should have known from the moment Linda suggested we go inside one and split a brownie that she planned to embrace the city.
But when we visited the Anne Frank House that morning, Linda was suddenly somber, her fervor for the illicit temporarily suspended. When I think of Judaism, I think of pink sweet ‘n’ low sugar packets funneled into lukewarm coffee in the kid’s room at synagogue. I think of Grandma Linda’s matzo ball soup — with broth aptly described as liquid gold — and family dinners that ended in platters of rainbow sprinkled and black-and-white cookies. At the time, it was difficult for me to marry these two images of the religion in my mind. I knew Judaism as something that produced joy and laughter, but was suddenly confronted with the more painful history of her religion and our shared culture. When we exited the 17th century house, Grandma Linda wrapped her arms around me, pulling me into her chest, squeezing me so tightly I could barely whisper out the words, “I love you, too, Grandma.”
Searching for consolation, the two of us bought monstrous stroopwafels, nibbling on them while the caramel syrup dripped down the backs of our hands. It was then that Linda spotted the condomerie-turned-sex shop. Shuffling ahead, she pushed open the glass door with a renewed vigor in her steps, and immediately began cackling at the sight in front of her. A full-bellied, never-seen-anything-funnier cackle. I often wonder if in that moment she was trying to humiliate me. Following her inside, I was met face-to-face with a hanging rainbow display of condoms. To a bright blue one with googly eyes approximately the length of a tube of chapstick Grandma Linda whispered to me, “I hope your future boyfriend doesn’t have that one,” and raised her eyebrows at me in mutual understanding.
For someone whose profession is listening to other people’s problems, Linda was unafraid to share her own curiosities in the sex shop. Pointing to a diamond-studded metal object, she turned to the shop attendant and asked, “What does this do?” To which the six-foot, stick-thin Dutch woman responded with a self-contained smile, “Oh, well, that’s a butt-plug.” She dropped the object in disgust. “Oh my, that is not for me.” Her bright pink lips turned downwards. “Grandma!” I whispered, “Let’s just leave please.” I stomped outside, my cheeks burning. She turned to the shop attendant, shouting thank you in her thick New Jersey accent. The two of us stood in front of the store, the freezing afternoon wind whipping around us. “You need to do things that make you uncomfortable, Alexandra. That’s the only way you’ll grow,” she said.
I don’t think most people would imagine that leaning into discomfort would require going to a sex shop with their grandmother, but it certainly had the desired effect. Finding myself in a cramped space with phallic objects of every single shape and color lining the walls with my grandmother next to me seemed to be the perfect antidote to teenage awkwardness. While at the time the only thing I could lean into was my raw mortification, I understand now that Grandma Linda isn’t necessarily a creature of comfort. Rather, she searches for moments to break out of her prescribed routine — whether that be getting her doctorate after having three kids or going to a sex shop with her teenage granddaughter. It’s certainly a characteristic I hope to inherit.
Alexandra Gers | email@example.com