A Thousand Words: My Grandmother and MeBy Amy Shearn
September 06, 2009
1. There is this photograph of my maternal grandmother holding baby-me. I’m maybe 8 or 9 months old, decked out in a pink jumper and a stunned expression, as someone off-camera were dangling a particularly baffling toy, or warning me about junior high. I’m sitting on my grandmother’s lap and she has one hand around my waist and the other delicately supporting my right hand. We look poised for a dance. Her eyes are closed, the look on her face one of pure, dreamy contentment. Someone told me recently that there is no less-complicated love than that between a grandparent and grandchild. My grandmother’s face certainly suggests this. She looks like an angel.
2. When my brother and I were small, my grandmother would make us picture books. She wrote the stories (I remember placing orders over the phone, Illinois to Texas – “The main character should be named Samantha, and I’d like it to involve an elephant” – and then the moment of unbearable excitement after it had arrived in the mail but before I’d read it), drew the illustrations, and stitched together the pages made from wallpaper samples. I suspect this is what inspired me to want to write in the first place, what made me think of books as things that people I knew made, that anyone could make.
3. In the photograph, she wears on her left hand, which circles my fat baby waist, a green jade ring I always admired. When she was dying they cut her rings off her swollen hands. Her hands had always been so delicate. My strongest sensory memory of her, next to her powdery scent of Chanel No. 5, is the feel of the silken skin on her soft hands, her tidy nails always filed into little tips. After my grandmother died, my mother had the stone from the jade ring reset and gave it to me. I’m wearing it now.
4. My grandmother always wanted to be a writer, or perhaps I should say was always a writer. When she died, my uncle (a writer) sorted through her things and excavated some of her work – breezy gossip columns she wrote for a Kansas paper under the name Betty LaBette, a humorous radio play, a dramatic short story about young families living in New Deal housing in 1940s St Louis, type-written letters and journals. She corresponded with the journalist (and ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway) Martha Gellhorn, who encouraged her to continue with her writing. Her stuff is good, too – lucid, smart, funny in a self-deprecating, vaguely Erma Bombeckian way. (From a letter: “I always feel the less you know about the man you marry, the more interesting it will be to get acquainted with him afterwards, which has amply proven so.” Ha!)
5. Shortly after my grandparents eloped in 1936, my grandfather (who had been a journalism student when they met) found God and decided to join the clergy. His first gig was as rector at an Episcopal church in Alma, Michigan. My grandmother, who had loved the bustle of St Louis, where she was involved in local politics and the Women League of Voters, was now, as my Uncle Jim writes, “sort of the local mad woman of Chaillot, locked away in a tower in the tottering castle next to the church banging away at an ancient portable typewriter and emitting blood-curdling whoops and hollers whenever she thought she had written something especially funny or blood-curdling. She was very bright, truly eccentric and certainly had never bargained for the life of a middle western small town preacher’s wife loaded up with brats, scoured by the shrewdly appraising eyes of parishioners whenever she left the house.” He adds, “when we were small, the penalty for interrupting her at her writing was often a wildly unsettling outburst, even if one were bleeding, especially if one were bleeding.” I love this.
6. I think of the photograph when I see my mother hold my daughter, her first grandchild. I am awash with nostalgia for something I didn’t quite experience, for a moment impossible to remember. It’s part hormones, part exhaustion, part overwhelming, crushing love. My grandmother has been gone for a while. She never got to see me publish my first book, never got to meet this baby, who, I think, has her forehead and nose.
7. I am writing this in a coffee shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, surrounded by other people tapping into their laptops, their faces moonily lit by half-written screenplays and novels. I picture my grandmother riding her bike around some small town, books stuffed in the basket; toiling away at a story after the kids are in bed. There are all these connections between us — the writing thing, but also weird things like proclivities towards reading in the bathtub, or swimming, or eating avocados plain. I often think, If only she were alive today! We have so much in common! But do we, really? I think she may have been braver, better at ignoring what people thought of her. She was an eccentric in times and places where eccentricism was not nearly so accepted or expected as in current-day New York City, where I have landed. She read a lot and wrote a lot for her own pleasure, just for the sheer joy of it, because she couldn’t not. She raised four children and when she finally had a moment to breathe, instead of devoting herself to writing she took up teaching poor kids how to read. In the end, her greatest work was her family, her long love affair with my grandfather, her life. When the days with the baby seem long, or I am feeling sorry for myself because I haven’t had a moment to write, or haven’t achieved some level of success, or something, I think it serves me well to think of her – to look at this picture and try to access that contentment, that happy, dreamy moment of almost dancing.
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