As a kid, I preferred to stay with my dad’s mother rather than my mother’s. After all, she had a big black Cadillac, loved to drive as far away as Shreveport to shop and eat out, and had plenty of free time to devote to me. I’d spend the night with her, and we’d lie in bed and read raunchy historical novels such as Forever Amber. Occasionally, she even told me a dirty joke.
My other grandmother didn’t drive. Instead, she stayed home and took care of her huge family, some of whom always needed a place to live until they “got on their feet.” Her outside activities consisted of playing the piano for the nearby Methodist Church and teaching a long line of students to play hymns. Boring!
When I decided I wanted to learn the piano, at least this grandmother didn’t make me play hymns. Instead, she introduced me to classical music and helped me master Tchaikovsky’s melodious “Waltz of the Flowers” and Chopin’s passionate etudes, which I adored. I also recall her mentioning the opera Aida for some reason, as well as the fact that her younger brother taught at SMU and wrote books of poetry. He was even the poet laureate of Texas once. Still, none of that made her seem very interesting.
The years passed, and I went to college, hitchhiked through Europe and the Middle East, and experienced some of the adventures I’d read and dreamed about.
After I finally settled down to teach English to college freshmen and sophomores, I attended a feminist writers’ workshop in Aurora, New York, and my attitude toward my grandmother began to change. (Having Judy Grahn there as our featured writer certainly didn’t hurt.)
I began to write poetry, discovered that my grandmother’s poet brother was gay, and started paying attention to the stories my mom and aunts had long been telling about my grandmother’s difficult early married days on the farm. They said her music had kept her sane. Then I discovered a letter she wrote to my granddad before they were married in 1912, and the closet door creaked open.
In this early poem about her, I quote from her letter to my granddad. He’d proposed and given her an engagement ring, and she wrote him to explain why she was returning it.
My grandmother wrote,
“I can’t understand why I yield to you,
believe that I love you and say so, act so,
then doubt my own heart,
wonder at my actions when you are gone.”
He courted more ardently.
Fifteen years older, he plucked her
from her world of girls’ boarding school,
daily piano practice,
ice-cream socials, singing in a quartet,
He deposited her on a small farm in Texas
with onions to plant in her garden,
cornbread to cook on a wood stove,
five cows to milk each morning and night,
a black washpot to make lye soap in.
She bore him nine children,
which thickened her 18-inch waist;
bore with her mother-in-law who called “frivolous”
her thirty outing diapers,
her subscriptions to Ladies’ Home Journal and Etude—
declared “Pshaw” about her frequent washing
of babies and ammonia-smelling diapers in #3 washtubs—
who let her,
take care of the chickens
and the flowerbeds.
No wonder she doubted her own heart.
After I wrote that poem, I dug around in the family archives and uncovered some letters from my grandmother to her college roommate. I’d read about romantic friendship by then, in Lillian Faderman’s classic work, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present, so I didn’t immediately consider my grandmother gay. But something about the phrasing in her letters gave me pause and spoke to me in a language I understood.
My grandmother no longer seemed boring. I began to imagine what her life was like and what it could have been, and my novel The Storm was born.