I hadn't wanted to share my writing with my family. Not the words themselves, or even the mere fact that yes, I do sit down and process things by writing them down. And maybe I secretly hope they'll get published. But I wasn't dying for everyone else who could trace the frayed thread of their lineage back to the marshes of Arkansas to know where it is that I hide.
But first, my mother was worried. I think you're depressed. You need a hobby -- do something. She mailed me things: a puzzle, embroidery supplies, cookbooks. So, I did find something: writing. And to prove that I had found some pocket to stuff my wadded-up insecurities and unuttered shrieks into, I sent some of my work to her. Not the meandering essay where I talked about how I felt abandoned as an adolescent. I didn't send her the pointed prose that dealt with my father's affair. I sent her a poem about cardinals, a retrospective about growing up eating the food that she cooked, and a glowing review of a memoir about how she and my father broke their families' respective cycles of spousal abuse. I sent her the fresh fruit of my cache of writing, keeping the pieces that let me sleep at night to molder, barely-hidden in rejected submissions to one magazine or another.
Then, my mother was proud. It shouldn't have been a shock that my mother told my family that I write. After all, and there's not much else to say about me that can be shared in polite company. This is my daughter, she doesn't like to discuss her job. No, she doesn't have kids. She, erm, writes.
This offering settled the old-south sitting room into a sort of puzzled silence. Before anyone could ask me why or what I wrote, Grandmother Rose jumped up. "I have something to show you," she crowed, taking her six-inch-long steps down the cracked-tile hallway to her room. I wondered what it could be. My grandmother had always had the neatest things stashed away in her leaning ranch. There were carefully-preserved snake skeletons, books on subjects as wild as poison, and hundred-year-old photographs of great- and great-great-uncles. My parents always rolled their eyes at the teetering piles of encyclopedias, and at the house itself. She has no business living out here in the country all alone, it's not safe. My grandmother had given nary a moment's thought to my parents' claim that she ought to move to a retirement community. Rose wanted to live in the middle of nowhere, so that's what she was going to do, "and to hell with anyone else." She even told me once that, once she died, she wanted her viewing to be held in her house.
The lady of the house returned, quite some time later, as we -- my mother, my father, my father's somewhat-unwelcome cousin, and I -- sipped our cooling coffee. She was holding a nondescript notebook with a green cover. "It's called Dear Sissy," she announced, beaming. This was the most enthusiasm I had seen from her, aside from when it was time to plant her garden every year.
She explained that her mother, for a very long time, wrote her, "Sissy," letters in this notebook and eventually gave it to her. I didn't bother to ask if my grandmother's sister also received a notebook. Rose was everyone's favorite, and had been for her whole life.
I examined the notebook self-consciously. I realized that my grandmother wanted me to peruse it live for an audience. Since I write, and all, I was supposed to have an opinion about it. I wasn't expecting what I saw. I thought I would be subject to mushy missives penned for a kindergarten-age Rose, or perhaps a Rose getting ready for the prom. Instead, what I found were eclectic, occasionally-manipulative passages for a young mother Rose who was director of the local hospital. The letters discussed my three-year-old father's antics, the tribulations of the farm's crops, and Vada's special place. There was a place she mentioned several times, out in the woods. She said that she felt God there, and that if she put her ear to the moss, she could hear the crops under the ground. She also mentioned that Rose didn't visit enough and that she worked too much.
Rose must have gotten her strong ideas about how things should be from her mother, though she had to have gotten her charm from somewhere else. Rose had never, to my knowledge, been afraid to ask for anything in her life -- not a raise, not a divorce, nothing. What Rose wanted, Rose requested (and she usually got it). She asked for things with the wide-eyed innocence of someone much more naïve. Make no mistake, she never gave the impression of being entitled. She merely didn't tell herself "no" before giving someone else the chance to. What Rose asked that day (in front of everyone), was for me to write something for her. I still haven't done it, although I have let her see the same carefully-curated collection of writing I've shown my mother. Upon seeing it, my grandmother told me that I'm a better writer than even her mother, and that she never did have the nerve to finish the notebook of letters. I wonder what will happen to it, in that cluttered, humid house once my grandmother passes or simply loses interest in the matter. At what point are they no longer letters from a relative, and become merely a scrap of family lore? And what eventual flat-assed, withdrawn soul will be made to sit down and read whatever I finally write Rose? And how could I possibly write to her that her resolve to do whatever she damn well pleases is one of very few things that I'd stoop to call "inspiring"?