March 10, 2017
My grandmother knew she’d succumb to dementia long before she began to lose her memory, as her two older sisters had shared the same fate before they died. She fought against time to write her life story, but she will never see her dream realized.
My grandfather, who died before I was born, knew there was something special about her. He wrote a letter to his brother about his wedding day back in 1948, saying, “What do you think, folks? I married a gal with a typewriter.”
I knew I wanted to be a writer by age 7, and my grandma was my first editor. She raised my uncle and me while running her own business, and instilled in me a love of language from an early age. Critique sessions with her writing buddies were just as common as pulling out the dictionary during dinner to understand the true meaning of a word. When she read aloud to me as a child, I loved the sound of her soothing voice with its slight Boston accent.
Later, while I was in community college, she struck through my papers with her unforgiving red pen and magically transformed my lengthy prose into writing that got to the point.
I often wrote about my experience as a mixed-race young adult for class, but would keep these essays hidden from all but the instructor and my grandmother. In one of my grandma’s magazines, I discovered the book “Black, White, Other” — a seminal text for mixed-race scholars of my generation. It was my first purchase from Amazon, the company my uncle soon left the nest to work for. One cousin was bound for art school, another for music school, and I was bound for nowhere but knew I wanted to write.
It would take me years to realize this dream, through a marriage and divorce, undergraduate and grad school — until, at age 38, I packed my bags and moved to Los Angeles. As my grandma’s mind deteriorated, I felt myself holding on to her by becoming the woman we both wanted to be.
I lost my childhood home in 2000 when my grandma sold her house in Santa Cruz, Calif., to move to a retirement community in Washington State. For the first time, there was no home to return to. No desk to sit at and imagine my writing career. No critique sessions around the dining room table.
Eventually she moved in with my aunt and uncle, who live in a log house in Washington. I flew out last spring to help take care of her. One morning before dawn, she entered the guest room where I was sleeping. She had no pants on. Soft light filtered in through the open window, and she flicked on the lights to signal what she thought was waking time. Her knees shook beneath her as she stood on unsteady feet. I told her to go back to bed, but she couldn’t make sense of my words without her hearing aids. Instead, she repeated the nonsense phrase she thought she heard: “Go that to said?” It’s a “game” she and her sisters used to play, only now the game gets played every day.
Every now and then during my visit, she sat at her large wooden desk and took out a legal pad. In that space, she seemed to imagine her former self returning, as if a professional atmosphere could reawaken her lost language. I longed to see sentences flow onto the page. But after scribbling two lines in half an hour, she put down her pencil in exhaustion.
Sometimes she records nuggets of personal history on these pages, and my aunt hides them away in a file folder in the hall closet, where they wait to be pieced together into a narrative once my grandma is no longer with us.
During my visit, I was working on an educators’ guide to accompany an anthology of writing by biracial authors. Once, I noticed her reading the first essay in it. Hours later she was on the same page. I mentioned her unwavering attention to the writer of the essay, who had become a friend. “I’d love to know what she thinks,” she said. So I relayed her message to my grandmother, with just a little bit of hope.
“I think I don’t know much,” my grandma answered.
On one of the last days of my visit, I struggled through a third draft of something I was writing for Essence.com. The editor had wanted me to pare it down — something my grandmother had frequently helped me do in college with her red pen.
“Let me take a look,” she said.
As she had with the anthology, my grandmother read lines repeatedly. She gave me advice she didn’t remember. She found a redundant word, and I squealed. In my delight I hoped this brief moment of clarity would continue. It didn’t. My grandmother stared with desperation at the screen before her, trying to conjure up her buried critic. It didn’t come, and I finished the piece without her assistance. I called her from home once it published. She cried. I called her a couple of weeks later to tell her it had been retweeted by someone in the Obama White House. She cried again. Her tears have always been my barometer of success.
She had a brief lucid moment on a family camping trip over Labor Day weekend. “When you first told me you wanted to be a writer, I thought, ‘Oh Lord, I don’t wish that insecure fate on my grandchild,’” she said. “But you really did it.” We squeezed each other’s hands and I didn’t want to let go.
Meanwhile, a copy of my educators’ guide, now printed, sat on her lap, never opened. She’s proud of me for writing it, even if she’ll never read it.
I wouldn’t be a writer without her. Her words flow through me, creating their own lasting legacy. My grandma’s mind is disappearing, but her force within me is becoming stronger. I carry it with me to fulfill both our destinies.