Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Grandparents Part II

-- Lynn York

I loved Michael Morris’ blog entry yesterday about his grandmother. And now, I can’t resist adding a few words here about my own grandmother. Though she died when I was only ten, I have never forgotten how warm and safe and beautiful I would feel in her presence. She would look at me as though I was the best thing the world ever made. She would dress me up and take me downtown to the drugstore for a cherry coke, just to show me off. Though she’s been gone for over forty years now, I can still feel her gaze on me.

In my family, we are not big on saving heirlooms, so we don’t have many of my Grandmother Evelyn’s things. I do have her Queen Anne dining room furniture. We have a tiny, filmy flapper-era dress that she wore to go out dancing. For my wedding, I wanted to carry something of hers down the aisle. My mother dug up one of her embroidered handkerchiefs to tuck into the sleeve of my dress. I was all set, but on the big day, in the last minute flurry at the church, we couldn’t put our hands on that handkerchief. That was probably the shakiest moment of the day. Everyone just stopped and looked at me for a minute to see if I was going to delay the ceremony over this sentimental detail —or worse, balk entirely. I did consider it. In the end, though, my grandmother’s practical voice whispered in my ear: “Don’t be silly. Get the show on the road.” This seemed like good advice at the time.

My grandmother turns up everywhere in my writing. Though I didn’t do it consciously, she shares many traits with Wilma Mabry, a central character in both of my novels. And I use her repressed, practical and passionate view of the world as a lens for much of my work. In this way, I am just like many of the undergraduates who will head back to creative writing classes in a few weeks. It is a well-known fact that the dying or dead grandmother is just about the most common character “created” by young fiction writers. I am often tempted to give my students a list of subjects that they may not write about. Dead grandmothers would top the list, but I would also include: first time sexual encounters, nasty breakups, and stories centering on tattoos.

Of course, I won’t give my students this list. In fact, I am thinking that I may actually assign them to write about one of these topics. There is a reason that all of us reach out to these subjects. We write, and we write most passionately, about loss. For many of us, the loss of a grandparent is a sad introduction to a lifetime of losses. We lose our virginity, our pets, our lovers, our nice pristine skin. Writing is a way to communicate these losses—to recreate, restore what is gone.

I’m going to try to remember that this year when I read my students’ stories, and my own.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Carrboro, NC. Her website is www.lynnyork.com.

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