Growing up, the idea of writing or reading memoirs was boring to me. Autobiographies and biographies never appealed. Life is just life. Why not write something more fantastic than what I had for breakfast? Needless to say, I was never very good at journaling, either.
Then, a couple years ago, I got the opportunity to live with my paternal grandmother as her caregiver after she broke her rotator cuff. I call this an opportunity because, for all that went with it, I was lucky enough to have her all to myself. My father’s side of the family is relatively large: she had four children and, including me, nine grandchildren. As a crowd, we’re rambunctious, loud, and jubilant. Gatherings inevitably end with my father at the piano, working his way through the song books, and there’s no question that someone will sing. And in all that, Grandma R was through and through the matriarch. Whether sitting in an arm chair or at a kitchen table, she held court.
Getting to live with her (just the two of us and my Phebe cat) was something my cousins and my siblings didn’t get, and it saddens me there wasn’t time for all of us to take up residency in her spare bedroom. To have that chance to spend months with her all to themselves. Grandma R was the ultimate social butterfly, who had a sharp mind and memory, and chutzpah to spare. Having the opportunity to sit with her in the evenings, fire roaring in the place, glass of wine in hand, watching Downton Abbey or whatever with her was fulfilling in a way I had never expected. We would talk late into the night, both of us sharing our life stories, philosophies, and dreams. In many ways, over those few months my babushka became my best friend.
Because of the broken rotator cuff, one of my main responsibilities was chauffeur, and goodness Grandma R had a lot of places to go. “Drive on, James!” she’d announce to me, struggling to get her cane into the car. Or: “Home, James!” Early breakfasts with different groups of friends multiple days out of the week. Lunches. Dinners. An international food dinner club she and my late grandfather had helped found decades ago. Library trips. Doctor appointments. Memoir group.
Grandma R had been writing her memoirs for years. The group had started as a class at the senior center, but when the semester ended, they decided to keep going. By the time I started driving her, she had a collection of spiral notebooks filled with her wide, cheerful handwriting. And, most notably, she refused to share her stories with anyone in the family. None of her children, children-in-law, or grandchildren were allowed to read them until after she died.
But suddenly, there I was, escorting her around Annapolis in her bright red, hatchback, Cinderella carriage. And from day one, she invited me to come sit and listen. This is the gift I really wish I could share with my siblings and cousins. The chance to hear her read her own life aloud, sometimes editing along the way or adding details. The discussions that would happen after, or the times when something someone else wrote resonated strongly with her own experiences. It was magic.
The idea of starting to write my own memoirs followed me after she died from congestive heart failure half a year later, but I could never decide how to start. As a self-professed diary foe, it was a hurdle that seemed way too high.
AP is one of my favorite people in the world. We’ve know each other since I was fourteen and she was thirteen. She’s the type of friend who you know, no matter how far apart you end up, no matter how long it is between phone calls, you’ll be kicking it together in the end – sitting on the porch, nursing the gin and tonics, having the neighbors call in noise complaints because we’ll be laughing too loud too late into the night.
When I share memoir pieces on this site, it’ll be because of AP. A few months ago, we decided to write our memoirs to each other, taking turns to pick topics that resonates with us both in some way. For the most part, you’ll only see my half. AP is in med school, so doesn’t alway have time, but I’ve left the door open for her to guest post if she ever wants to.
This is a journey/experiment/whatever I never expected to make, but these days, with my own health skipping all across the board, it seems wise to start now. And I’m grateful to have her with me along the way.
Away we go.
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Featured image for this post is a close up of the prayers in the Western Wall. Mine is somewhere in there…