My maternal grandmother, Jean, passed away about an hour ago.
She was a strong woman. After raising five daughters and helping my grandfather build his own successful business, she became a widow at the young age of fifty. When my grandfather passed away, she sold his business and took a job at the city library, where she worked for decades. It was through her that books came into my life, from the piles that I regularly checked out, to the used sets of encyclopedias that she gave to us.
She wasn’t a very affectionate woman, mind you. An relative once told me that Grandma Jean didn’t have a sentimental bone in her body, and it was true as far as I could tell. Where my paternal grandmother clipped every obituary for anyone remotely related to her, and offered hugs and laughter and comfort, Grandma Jean was stern, particular and more interested in quiet and cleanliness. She was intelligent and educated and proper and knowledgable. If my paternal grandmother was a feeler, Grandma Jean was a thinker.
When I was about ten years old, Grandma Jean bought a blank journal. It had a faux denim cover, complete with a pocket and stitching, and she began to write short stories inside it for my younger brother and I. She only composed two, but they take up twenty-two hand-written pages, about a tenth of the full journal, leaving the rest of it blank. I like to think that she wanted us to add our own stories to the book, though that is something neither of us ever did.
The first story is about a squirrel. Sammy, she called him. It was the sort of story you write for two boys, then six and ten, to teach a moral lesson while also entertaining them. I still have that journal, nearly 30 years later. In fact, I pulled it out last night to thumb through it once more. Sammy the Squirrel is still there, waiting for me to read about him any time I want. Sammy the Squirrel, a product of my grandmother’s imagination.
Shortly after she gave me the book, I entered the fifth grade. There, one of my teachers assigned us the task of writing our own short stories. I’ve dug through the dozen or so boxes of childhood possessions that I have here in my home, but I have yet to find them. I know they still exist, most likely in my parent’s basement, and desperately want to find them. They are awful, childish, wonderful stories, and when I wrote them, I felt that I was walking in Grandma Jean’s footsteps. I was writing.
I remember, sometime during that same school year, climbing into our big brown conversion van (the kind with the mini blinds and a round table in front of the couch that folded into a bed) with my mom to drive an hour south to the nearest mall. It was her and I, my mom’s friend and her daughter, a girl from my grade. I can still see that moment clearly if I close my eyes: I sat next to Cindy, a spiral notebook and pencil on my lap. I remember telling her that I was going to be a writer some day. I remember that she was impressed.
Writing became a part of my life from that moment on. I wrote short stories through middle school, and created comic books in high school. I even wrote poetry in college. I fell in love with telling stories, and writing them down was—at least for me—the only reason why written language had been invented. I wanted to write, whatever the style, and I did it as often as I could.
In the last decade or so, Grandma Jean began to forget things. Alzheimer’s slowly crept into her mind and stole bits and pieces from her. It eventually led to her needing to sell her home and move into an assisted living facility, and eventually to a private residence where she received constant, 24/7 care.
Before she sold her home, though, Grandma Jean began to have episodes of confusion. The one that occurred the most often was a hallucination about, of all things, a squirrel. She would see it every now and then outside the window in the backyard. And sometimes, ever more frequent as her illness progressed, she would see it inside her house.
Though she never gave this particular squirrel a name, I like to think that it was Sammy. Sammy, the hero of the first story she ever wrote for me. Sammy, the creature that showed me it was natural and good to create characters of my own. Sammy the Squirrel, a product of my grandmother’s imagination.
These days, every time I finish writing a book, I think of that day in the van. I think of Cindy and my notebook. I think of my short story assignment and the tale I wrote about the pumpkins with bones in them (they had been grown in an old, forgotten cemetery, naturally). But most of all I think of Grandma Jean, the woman who taught me about books and inspired me to write my own.
Good-bye, Grandma Jean. I’ll miss your stories. I’ll miss your strength. But most of all, I’ll miss you.