by Jerry Waxler
My grandmother was looking at me, her mouth drawn taught. She had just found out that I had to climb in through the basement window to get into my house. This was not something a good boy does, she said, and backed it up with a financial incentive to never do it again. She wasn’t a harsh disciplinarian. She was an advice-giver. Most of the advice she gave me was more suitable for old people, like when she told me to think positively in order to feel better. I ignored her, letting myself think anything I damned well pleased, even if it made me miserable, as it often did. I knew she meant well, but I didn’t really care. I never understood what she wanted from me, so I kept my distance, and obeyed her advice, or pretended to.
As I grew up, I continued to see her as a remote figure, more interested in molding me than relating to me, and this connection prevented both of us from opening up and sharing ourselves with each other. It’s only recently, as I delve back into my memories that I see beyond these rigid impressions of her and uncover nuances of our relationship.
To see grandmom as a whole person, I recall the family lore about her own childhood. She lost her father when she was 12 and had to quit school to work as a bookkeeper in the Philadelphia department store, Strawbridge and Clothier. Her paychecks kept the family afloat, and then paid to put her brother Ben through college. He ended up graduating from Wharton, and then married into a textile family, while grandmom’s life remained modest. Her husband with his small neighborhood pharmacy was content with just getting by, and it was only thanks to her financial sense that they lived comfortably. When I visited their home on North Broad Street, in the midst of shops and a few yards from the heavily trafficked street, I would lose myself amid the thick bushes in her yard and imagine myself in a vast forest.
In high school, I was fascinated by numbers. When I noticed grandmom poring over the page full of numbers and symbols in the evening paper I asked her about them. I had stumbled on a topic we could talk about. Grandmom taught me which symbols represented preferred or common shares and how much dividend the stock was paying. I ordered annual reports to match the company face with its name. Then she hooked me up with her stockbroker and with her help and savings from working at my dad’s drugstore, I bought a few shares. Later, when I got to college, I moved on to calculus, which had the power to put a man on the moon, and I hoped, enough power to explain the mysteries of the universe. I lost interest in the list of numbers on the stock page and ended that connection with my grandmother.
A few years later, she took up still-life painting. We used to joke about her being like Grandma Moses. Now that I’m sixty myself, I no longer see her creative efforts as a joke. Now I see them as an inspiration. Her inquisitive mind kept trying new things. She never gave me any advice about art or life long learning. Instead she showed me by example.
Throughout my childhood, whenever we went to visit, we would sit dutifully while grandmom played the piano. The vibrant, youthful look on her face as she played leads me to believe she was getting at least as much pleasure from it as we were. She never gave me advice about service either, but later in her life I discovered she had been volunteering at a nursing home. One of her pleasures was to entertain the residents by playing the piano for them, a practice she continued when she moved into the same home.
It is only in this retrospective storytelling that I begin to see past all the advice and look more closely at the life she actually lived, her dignity, her desire to grow and her willingness to serve others. As a complete person, she has so much more to offer, adding richness to my own story, who I was, who I am now, and who I am yet to become.
Which characters in your early life remain stuck in the simplistic mold into which you originally poured them? One of the most interesting things about writing memoirs is to revisit these characters and flesh them in. Looking back from your adult vantage point, consider what they wanted, and why they acted the way they did, allowing them to evolve from distant figures to real people. Write about a character who seemed distant when you were younger, and fill in some details that takes the reader (and you) beyond first impressions.