I fought my way into this world backward – my mom reminded me of that til the day she died. I made quite an impression on her. It made such an impression that I’m surprised she had any more children. She did wait five years though to make sure the coast was clear and no more hellions were going to pop out.
I was a curious and energetic rascal. I wore my mother out to the point where she quietly abandoned me to my grandmother. It was not that she could manage me, but in her fifties, she could still outrun me. Her strategy, for which I am forever grateful, was to find me an occupation that would settle me. She bought me a book.
I’m sure she bought more than one but I seized on that one like it was the Bible. It took me into my seventies to find a copy of that book, “Three Mice and A Cat,” but I never give up on anything. By age three, I could “read” it out loud. While it didn’t keep me from roller skating in the house or chunking apples at the neighbor boy, it fired a love affair that lasted a lifetime.
The “word” was a tantalizing instrument of magic. It spun a carpet-ride of tales that I longed to play a part in. It brush-stroked lush worlds and adventures I wished to visit. It carried me far from the chaos that spun like an F5 tornado in my house.
I was a tiny little critter, bird-like in frame and flighty. To my grandmother’s dismay, I had the energy of a hummingbird. Nonetheless, my grandmother could entice me from running and jumping and generally creating upheaval in the neighborhood. I could sit with her without stress on my part or threats on hers. I sat absorbed in assimilating the mysterious which included the names and habits of flowers, how numbers could speak and family stories which I loved above all.
My grandmother had grown up the oldest of five. She was the only girl at a time when the education of girls was not only an afterthought but could be outright forbidden. I often regret that I never asked who in her family was her champion. Everyday she rode her bike on rutted dirt roads to a tiny schoolhouse where she transformed herself from farm laborer and prospective wife to an empowered woman. She was the first in her family to graduate high school.
And what an empowerment that was. She married the handsome police chief of the nearby town. My grandfather taught me to dance and play poker and tell jokes. He won a city council seat. Always the natty dresser, he turned women’s heads wherever he went. His weakness was get-rich-quick ideas. It would be my grandmother who ended up managing his fast money businesses and making them work.
And make them work she did. My grandmother was a quick study who helped her farmer brothers get sizeable refunds every tax season. She bought real estate. She bailed out my clothes horse mother who shared more traits with her father than what she viewed as the unglamorous psyche of her mom.
My grandmother was no feminist by modern standards, but she understood the high value of independence and knowledge and the economics that engendered those values. Never crass, never at the forefront. She was my rock.
It was she who assisted with homework that befuddled my mother. As I grew older, I had to live with my parents and attend the school in their district. My grandmother provided school lunch money every day for me and my three siblings. She cooked dinner for us every night. And she provided me money for books, books from school, from bookstores and from mail order back in the day. I soaked it all in.
I was reading Machiavelli and Red Badge of Courage long before my age level. I curled up in refuge with horse stories about the likes of Flicka and Black Stallion and my favorite of all time, Misty of Chincoteague, a legend local to where we lived. I thrilled to Call of the Wild and White Fang. I could talk to my grandmother about these books; my mother did not have time.
My grandmother took me out into the world to places that made my mother nervous. She took me to the circus and the movies. She made summers at the beach possible for our family. It was she who gave me good counsel about who was a good guy and who was suspect.
And when it was time to decide if I could go to college which I so longingly, desperately wanted to do, we worked out arrangements where I would work part time and she would fill in gaps. As I write this even now I feel that swell of excitement and gratitude for one of the greatest milestones in my life.
It was in a local teacher’s college that I learned not all people, all families are the same. I was awed by professors in convocation robes, they seemed at the time superior beings whose knowledge was borne out by the school colors in their academic hoods. I wanted to know what they knew.
Because of my grandmother’s assistance, I met another of those pivotal people that fortune presents along our way. I started classes with the most difficult English professor in the college, one every freshman and on up tried to avoid. I wanted what I knew she could give me – discipline in the craft of understanding good literature and the ability to express my ideas.
That professor, long departed from the lectern, descended on me and my pitiful attempts at writing. In the beginning she thought me a pretender and she told me so in blunt terms. I threw off harsh words. I asked for her time. I asked for direction. Each semester I came back wanting more. She finally accepted my sincerity and she gave me her time. She gave me guidance. She gave me the head and the eye and the skills I sought. In my senior year she nominated me for scholarship. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
I took her training onto graduate school. Once again, I got help from my grandmother. I also secured a teaching assistantship – and a job. I went on to finish my masters. My grandmother was bursting with pride on the day I graduated.
From that moment on, I wrote – on planes and in hotel rooms and after meetings were over. Like that intellectual discipline painfully acquired through my former professor, I was determined to make my work as memorable as the works I admired and envied. When you stumble out last from the starting gate, it takes a while to overcome the deficit, but I was in the running and that’s all that mattered.
I doubt if my grandmother ever heard of the butterfly effect. We don’t have to know it or comprehend it order to be a fortunate recipient. You must, however, be open to recognize wisdom even from the most unlikely of sources. She prepared me to be that student for whom the teacher would appear.
Now each time sit to compose, I honor her memory. I craft the story. I choose the words. I am willing to put in the time. I am unafraid of the self-reveal which every good writer unwittingly discloses. I will dig as deeply as I can to be my true self in every page.
I do not claim perfection. But every time, I write, I travel back to that corner of a sofa where a spindly little girl looked up in awe at a woman who opened a book and a door to a world where I could bloom, no matter where I was.