A Tribute to the Grandmother Who Encouraged Me to Write




Today marks the 100th birthday of my paternal grandmother. 

There is no significance to this in terms of writing, except that Grandma Vivian was the only person in my family while I was growing up who did anything creative. She painted.

I still have a painting she made of a white rosebush in her backyard. It is painted from a picture she took. The caption on the photo simply reads,“Taken May 18, 1981. My roses.”

Grandma never pursued her artwork in terms of education or sought recognition. In her day, women didn’t do that sort thing. She married young and, though she held a job for a time, she spent most of her life as a wife, mother, and grandmother. Nothing wrong with that, but I've always wondered if she maybe had other aspirations. 
 
Grandma was so laid back that she often seemed disconnected from her surroundings, like a kid at a carnival who tries to take it all in. Perhaps this is the sort of artistic temperament that is needed to paint or write or draw or make music. 

Perhaps people with this disposition see what could be and find it more interesting than what is.

I see that as a connection between her and me. I often feel like that kid at the carnival--alternately exhilarated and disturbed by the sights, sounds, and experiences around me. In my less optimistic moments, I compare life to a minefield: waiting for something to go off when I take my next step. 

It is through writing that I've found a way to navigate this carnival-minefield. I imagine that art served the same purpose for Grandma.

Nevertheless, it was Grandma Vivian who showed an interest in my work as a writer when no one else did. She took the time and effort to read a play I wrote about a rock band. (She said she liked it, except for the language.) 

She even sought to collaborate with me by coloring a drawing I had made of the Marvel Comics character, Tigra. She got the colors wrong, but she was doing her own thing—something I didn’t fully appreciate at the time.

She also encouraged my interest in writing by suggesting that I write stories about the family she had married into, the Gildersleeves. 

Curiously, she never asked me to write about her own family, the DeFreeces. Perhaps the Gildersleeves seemed more interesting. (Two of my great-uncles served in World War I, and one later died of what she told me was a poisoned bullet wound. This turned out not be true—he died of appendicitis.)

Perhaps it was because she owned a history book written by a distant relative who had traced the history of the Gildersleeves in America back to the 1600s. (A cousin of mine now owns that book.)

I was into comic books at the time, not genealogy, so I never wrote the stories she wanted to read. I did, however, interview her a few years before her death to learn more about our family.

When I launched my own genealogical project a few years ago, I discovered that Grandma was wrong about certain details, especially dates. But she also gave me a lot of information I couldn’t have found elsewhere, including details of her family, which included seven brothers and sisters.

One of the more interesting aspects she told me was that her father—my great-grandfather—had been an acrobat. I couldn’t find any verification for this later on, but it’s a lovely idea and adds a sense of romance and adventure to our family history.

It would not totally surprise me if Grandma had made up that story, or perhaps misremembered and embellished something, as she apparently had done with the poisoned bullet tale. As I said, she lived in her head and seemed only mildly interested in the world around her. 

My mother used to tell me that she had tried to start conversations with Grandma Vivian, her mother-in-law, and was met with silence. Mom interpreted this as rudeness.

Yet I don’t think Grandma was trying to be rude. Some people are just better at small talk than others. I’ve been told that small talk is one of my areas of deficiency, and my dad was much the same way. 

People who live inside their heads often miss social cues or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Retreating into silence is safer than being called out for violating social norms.

Grandma Vivian passed away during my final year of college. Her passing and funeral are largely a blur—except that the pastor had calculated Grandma's age wrong, thinking she was 77 instead of 78.

Unlike Grandma, I was a stickler for details and meticulously recorded such things. I never said anything to the pastor about her mistake, but I’ve always remembered it. That’s how I make sense of the world inside my head.

But life goes on. I had to finish college and take a graduation trip to Germany, and then ... I had no idea what to do with my life.

Perhaps Grandma experienced her life in much the same way. At 19, she married a man 16 years her senior and moved away from her parents’ home in Nebraska to live with him in Kansas. At 20, she became a mother; when she was 22, her second baby died. 

Life just takes you in directions you never expected, and she had a husband whose strong personality often overshadowed her own. I don’t think she truly knew what it was like to live on her own until he passed away. She was 72 at the time.

I’ve often felt the way I imagined she felt: waiting for someone to come along, take my hand, and guide me through this carnival we call life. But on the two occasions when this happened, it didn’t work out. From my grandmother, I inherited the capacity to dream. But from my grandfather, I inherited a certain stubbornness that resisted being overshadowed by a stronger personality.

So, here we are, 100 years into this carnival, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. Maybe there is no sense to be made. Maybe there’s only an exit sign which magically appears when we’ve had enough.

But, through her art, Grandma Vivian taught me it was okay to dream. 

Happy birthday, Grandma!

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