How My Grandmother's Love of Stories Launched My Career
My beloved Granny called herself an 'open book' and gave me an appreciation for her life story
The summer I was 18, I first found myself curious about my granny's beginnings — about her entire life before me — and asked her to take me to where she had grown up.
We drove off in her old blue truck with a picnic basket of lemonade, strawberries and sandwiches. After about 45 minutes, we exited the interstate and took winding backroads.
"This little place is called L'Anse Aux Pailles," she said as we drove a Louisiana country highway surrounded by rice fields. Soon, she turned down a bumpy dirt driveway sliced through the tree line that led to an old white wooden house encircled by overgrown trees.
By the time we had reached Granny's old high school, I had conjured up a list of 44 questions I'd like to ask her someday.
Granny gave me the grand tour of her childhood home — the two bedrooms, living room, kitchen and bathroom her father added on when she was about eight. She explained that prior, she and her family had used an outhouse, pump for water, and washtub instead.
Going into the house surprisingly didn't quench my thirst to know more about her history. It actually amplified my longing. Standing on the hardwood floors she had played dolls on seemed to unleash a tidal wave of inquiries in my mind. When we returned to the truck, I pulled out my journal and began jotting down questions. By the time we had reached Granny's old high school, I had conjured up a list of 44 questions I'd like to ask her someday. I didn't bother to begin asking, though, because I knew more would eventually bubble to the surface.
Seeing Where Granny Grew Up
Once she showed me around her school, we drove to a country cemetery tucked so far back from the road we had to cross a ditch, trudge through a pasture and cut through some trees to reach it. We eventually emerged in a meadow where Granny's paternal great-grandparents were buried.
In the shade beside graves marked so long ago some inscriptions were illegible, we spread our picnic blanket, poured two glasses of lemonade and bit into our sandwiches.
"Was today what you wanted it to be?" Granny asked.
"Now that I've seen where you've grown up, I actually just want to know more."
"Well, I'm an open book," Granny said, and I believed her. She had always been the person I could ask anything and get a heartfelt reply. She would answer any prodding, listen to any dream, and encourage me so wholeheartedly I was certain she was the only person in the entire world who would always love me unconditionally.
"An open book, huh?" I repeated. "Maybe one day I'll write a book about you."
"Like one of our memoirs?" she asked, referencing the fact that we had an unofficial book club of two in which we exclusively read nonfiction. "Who'd read my boring story?"
"Your story wouldn't be boring," I countered. "Especially not to me."
'Who'd Read My Boring Story?'
"Well, you already know the answer." She smiled. "It's always been the same. If you want to write a book about me, go for it. You know you can do whatever you want at Granny's house."
Despite all of life's uncertainties, I knew one thing for sure: I could indeed do whatever I wanted at Granny's house. It had been a free-for-all as long as I could remember.
Growing up, while my sisters and I ran rampant, Granny often sat in her rust-colored recliner reading memoirs or biographies.
"Why do you like to read that?" I asked when I was seven and standing with blackberry-stained palms in her living room with a chicken in my arms — not an abnormal scene since Granny's mantra was "anything goes."
Granny had Pat Conroy's "The Water is Wide" open in her lap while my step-grandfather — Grumpy, we called him — sat across the room on a wooden stool playing Flamenco music. Although he had no Spanish heritage whatsoever, he loved Flamenco music so fervently that he deemed himself a guitarista. I accepted this as fact.
"Because memoirs are true," Granny answered, talking loudly over the sound of Grumpy's deafening strumming. That answer wasn't good enough for me. "What do you mean?"
Her Love for Memoirs
Granny took a long sip from her tiny coffee mug. She seemed to be forever clutching a demitasse and shuffling back and forth between her recliner and percolator in the kitchen for refills. She explained, "If a story's true, that means it happened to real people. That means they lived through it. It means you can learn from it, too. You can laugh at what's funny and be surprised by what's a little strange, a little sad or a little beautiful."
I thought I'd hear stories I had previously heard, perhaps with added caveats and details I'd use to craft a compelling narrative.
That answer was good enough for me. I nodded, scuffled off and let the chicken out the back door.
As I grew older, anytime I went to Granny's house, in the backdrop of chasing chickens, shooting marbles with Grumpy, or popping popcorn, I'd always ask Granny what she was reading.
The story of a couple who lived on a houseboat in the Atchafalaya Basin. A memoir about the poet Maya Angelou's childhood. This one's about friends reunited after the Holocaust.
The books Granny raved about were rarely enticing to a child. Yet, the older I became and the more books I consumed as I aged, the more I gravitated toward memoir, autobiography and biography — toward real life's strangeness, sadness and beauty.
It wasn't until the summer I was 22, shortly before I was slated to graduate from college with my English degree, that I decided I didn't just want to read life stories; I wanted to sit down and put pen to paper on one.
Remembering that I'd already drafted some questions to ask Granny, I hunted down my old journal and flipped through the pages until I found those 44 questions. As I typed the list, I added prompts as they drifted to my mind. In the end, I wound up with 128 questions.
Soon, Granny and I were sitting in her living room that hadn't changed over the years. She remained in the same rust-colored recliner as she always had, still clutching a tiny coffee cup. I sat on Grumpy's guitarista stool, turned on a recorder, and began asking her questions I'd long since wanted to ask.
Surprised By Her Answers
I thought I'd hear stories I had previously heard, perhaps with added caveats and details I'd use to craft a compelling narrative. Although I beseeched her for new stories, I didn't expect them, because I'd spent hundreds of hours with Granny and knew her well. Or so I thought.
I was riveted by how Granny, armed with just a high school diploma, had the courage to leave her abusive husband and care for her three children on her own.
Within minutes, I learned Granny had almost died of whooping cough as an infant, but after a local healer prayed over her, she miraculously recovered.
I heard the touching tale of how, when she and a friend walked to a country store to trade eggs for candies and Granny dropped her egg on the way, her friend dried her tears and promised to share her candy.
I was riveted by how Granny, armed with just a high school diploma, had the courage to leave her abusive husband (my biological grandfather) and care for her three children on her own. In awe, I listened to Granny recount how she found a job as a teacher's aide and attended beauty school. She went on to open her own beauty shop and later to cut hair in nursing homes.
I absorbed the details of how she fell for who would become my step-grandfather Grumpy, and how he not only loved her, but loved her children like his own.
Although I was disappointed when I reached the end of my questionnaire, I was also content to have answers to the questions I'd always needed to ask. That day, I realized it was truly a need.
As I wrote, I understood Granny more and more. I understood her choices, her greatest challenges, the magnitude of what she'd overcome and why she loved so fiercely.
Not long after her books arrived and touched our family, I decided to make a career of life story writing so other families could experience what I had. Since then, I've written dozens of books for grandparents and witnessed countless grandchildren come to understand their grandparents in a deeper way, much like I came to understand Granny.
Perhaps the domino effect that knocked my career into motion started with my curiosity about Granny's origins. But then again, maybe it started long before, in her living room as I ran wild and she faithfully read about the wonders of lived experiences.