January 27, 2017
My grandmother, F. Helen Hunt, was tough. I learned this when I was 13, the year I moved alone from London to Clinton County, Ind., to live with her on her 80-acre farm. I sailed in amid the wreckage of my parents’ marriage. Maybe I should say as part of the wreckage.
Upon my arrival, my grandmother took one look at furious, hurt, young me and prescribed hugs — she was never stingy with them — and what felt to me, lately prowling the streets of South Kensington and St. John’s Wood, like outrageous amounts of manual labor.
These weren’t chores: She paid me, not unfairly, for what I did. But it wasn’t quite voluntary either. I hauled wood, I mowed her enormous lawn with a little push mower, I cleared fallen branches, I raked, I burned, I strung and tested electric fences, I dug holes, I ran a rototiller, I pulled weeds, I knocked down derelict buildings with a crowbar and sledgehammer, I washed windows, I worked a scythe.
One of my early jobs was learning how to drive my late great-grandfather’s temperamental 1951 Farmall Cub tractor so that I could tear out a vineyard, relic of a winemaking project started by my aunt and uncle that had by that time, in the early 1980s, run its course. It turned out the Cub had a functioning mowing element, and when I had finished tearing out the rows of Foch grapevines, I regularly used it to shear the grass and weeds of my grandmother’s east and west woods. Even if from time to time I also found myself detasseling corn in hot fields or baling and stacking hay in even hotter barns for neighboring farmers, the core of what I did was always for my grandmother. And I didn’t do it alone.
My grandmother stood a smidgen over five feet tall in her Sunday heels, was a retired teacher of Latin who knew all the declensions and had once interviewed Thomas Wolfe’s brother and traveled the world, but man, could she get to it. After school and church duties were done — and there was no monkeying around about either — we went out rain or shine, cold or heat. It didn’t matter if I was walking with a limp or had sore muscles from playing football or basketball the night before. If it wasn’t torn or broken, you worked on it.
That first year, on a day when we were shifting old two-by-fours from one spot to another for no clear — to me — reason in a cold, steady springtime drizzle, I let one I was supposed to be holding steady slip, and it smacked her hard in the mouth. I already stood a foot taller than her and outweighed her by 50 pounds and that blow would have laid me out. But my grandmother just spat, instructed me through her swelling lip to get a tighter grip, and we went back to it, got it done. On those occasions when we worked independently — say my grandmother in her greenhouse and me at the woodpile — she was never loath to raise a steely eyebrow in the face of my highball estimates about how many chunks of wood I had carried.
I’m painting a picture of a tough-as-nails taskmaster here — the older player-coach who runs everyone else into the ground — but she also remained generous with those hugs. There were kisses too. My grandmother was, in addition, fond of affectionately grabbing and squeezing my forearm. At the end of a big job, or when I’d done something passable at school or on the field, we would link hands, throw our heads back and spin around together. She would also brag about me to anyone, in any context, within earshot, whether she knew them or not. Much as my teenage self rebelled against the one and sometimes only grudgingly tolerated the other, when I look back on it now, it is clear to me that with these sturdy threads of hard work and fierce affection my grandmother was weaving the torn world back together for me.
My grandmother’s admirable grit, which she displayed in just about every aspect of her long life (she variously credited these qualities to having been born breach and not breathing or to having come of age during the Great Depression), not only helped see me through my troubled teens and early adulthood, it has become the subject of my life’s work.
Indeed, I recently finished my third novel set in and around rural Indiana, featuring strong women as protagonists. These novels, which take place in the deep well of the past, aren’t studies of my grandmother’s life, but they are absolutely and unapologetically inspired by it. Each character is different, each is admirable and flawed in near equal measure, but they all have in common my grandmother’s near-constitutional inability to quit in the face of challenge and a thundering capacity for love.
When I first went to my grandmother’s, the idea was that I would stay in Indiana for a year. I ended up staying five with her, and nine if you count college in Bloomington, a couple of hours away. In the process, in the company of my outsize, diminutive grandmother, I grew to adulthood.
And although she has been gone for years, I keep her close both in my characters and in myself. There is no way to pay off a debt like the one I owe her, but I make regular payments in the only kind of currency she would have accepted: dedication to the task at hand and the ability, when it has been merited, to link hands with those close to me and spin with joy.