For a long time I struggled with answering the question that make novelists cringe. “What’s my novel about?” I’d repeat, stunned speechless. One of our professors at Pacific University (and probably other writers, too) have quipped that it takes a whole novel to explain what that novel is about—if it could be explained in a sentence, well, why write (or read) the book? Another professor suggested that we follow her lead—a polite but firm, “I don’t talk about my work while I’m working on it.” I’ve wanted to find some balance between those two responses, to be able to talk about my novel without actually talking about it. So for a time I simply (!) replied that my novel was about grief—a concept so complex, so personal that that answer usually stopped curious friends from inquiring any further. What I have come to discover is that in the first and second drafts of my novel I really didn’t know what my novel was about—it’s only now, in the third and fourth drafts that I think I have a sense of what’s happening, what the meaning will be. And like a fool I’ve found myself thinking my own sense of knowing will render the question more easily answered. What’s my novel about? “It’s about the relationship between a grandmother and a granddaughter.” (An answer still boring enough, I had the audacity to think, to keep most questions at bay.)
“Oh,” people have said. “Is it autobiographical?”
“No,” I always say. Because my novel’s also about farming family land and losing babies and surviving domestic abuse and leaving family land and having babies and marrying good men and feeling like your arms and legs are burning off and navigating a large, unmanageable family and learning how to stop lying compulsively – none of which has ever happened to me (facts for which I’m grateful).
Of course, there are enough details in the novel that are autobiographical, scenes or snippets of dialogue that are based on things that have, in fact, happened to me, or to members of my family. My mother, who, like most mothers, knows her children better almost than they know themselves, finished reading the second draft of the novel—essentially receiving the read-the-novel-to-discover-what-the-novel-is-about answer—and asked, “Which one of your grandmothers is the protagonist based on?”
There’s some truth to the notion that I’m writing this novel because I want to understand the relationship between granddaughters and grandmothers, precisely because I only have flickering, dim memories of my own grandmothers, who died before I graduated from college. Because I have twenty-something-year-old friends who have thriving relationships with their still-hearty grandmothers and who sometimes take those grandmothers for granted. Because I have sixty-something-year-old friends (and older) who marvel at the gift of grandchildren and who claim that grandchildren are more miraculous than the intermediate generation.
In the last few years I’ve learned a lot about the blessing and grace of the relationships between grandchildren and their grandparents. A little over a year ago a death prompted me to rekindle a friendship with a woman who for time acted as a surrogate grandparent for me. When I first moved far away from my own family, she filled in parts of what I was missing and I did what I could do be a good stand-in grandchild. And then I found my footing in my new home and time unraveled and we lost touch. Later, two friends became grandmothers for the first time and I witnessed the ways in which their seemingly infinite love for their children continued to expand with a fierceness they had not anticipated. Their love in turn inspired me to track down the closest thing to a grandparent I still had living, to strengthen a bond that was weaker than the real thing but that was better than nothing at all.
The elementary school where I work hosts Grand Friends Day on the last day of school before Thanksgiving. It’s a chance for students’ grandparents and other special friends to visit classrooms, to take part in Meeting for Worship, and to sing with their students in an all-school sing-a-long. Because many of them come from out of town for the holiday, the grandparents are eager to spend time with their grandchildren and they often profess a profound gratitude for the unique community our school provides.
My first Grand Friends Day, three years ago now, I listened to grandparents stand during Meeting for Worship and express their joy, I watched them delight in their students’ projects and school-made treats, I photographed them mingling with other grand friends during recess and bungling the lyrics of Quakery songs. I ached for my grandparents – the grandmothers who attended my own elementary school functions and the grandfathers who posthumously supervised our childhoods by means of grainy black and white photographs alone. This year, after two years of deep discovery in the world of my novel, I observed Grand Friends Day with less awe and more analysis. I remembered my own grand friends—the surrogate grandmother, my old lady friends, aunts and uncles, other adults in my life who have cared about children abandoned through death by older generations—and I gave thanks.