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My grandmother’s portrait
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I knew my grandmother in the last ten years of her life. For the last year and a half, she lived with us. During all of these years, she was irascible, difficult, and, as I know now, in pain. She snapped and bit when she spoke and was never satisfied. Yet, she drew me into writing. She had a suitcase where she kept her blank notebooks, her India ink, her dipping pens, and her half gloves, the kind without fingers. They kept her hands warm while she wrote, but left her fingers free to write.

Every night, she wrote. In that last year and a half of her life, she gave me one of her notebooks and ordered me to write. It wasn’t a suggestion or a request. It was ‘an order’. I had no idea what to write and was sufficiently unnerved by her that there was no way I’d ask. So I faced a blank page every evening before bed.

It was strange to stare at a lined piece of paper with nothing on it, especially when, later at night, I could imagine all sorts of stories with my imaginary friend and my fellow bedmates. All of us together in bed: my imaginary friend, Bunny, Lorna (my doll), and me. My bed rose every night and we floated through the air to my next adventure.

The following evening: a blank page.

It didn’t occur to me to write down what happened in the night. I was afraid I’d be told off for these ‘adventures’ and I didn’t want them to stop, so I never wrote them down on the page. It also didn’t occur to me that grandmother must have known I wrote nothing for days, weeks, maybe months. She left me to it. She never told me what she wrote and she never asked me what I wrote. Of course, I wrote nothing.

What changed this was hearing a poem by Robbie Burns, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785.” Most people don’t know the full title of this poem, but the title was what got to me, the idea that a mouse’s home would be destroyed by a human being when the mouse was simply trying to live. I’m sure, too, that it was connected with the fear that we’d all be turned out of the house we were living in, something that happened after my grandmother died. I’m not sure I made that connection at the time, but I must have overheard adults talking about our precarious finances and my mind made an obvious leap.

I was angry about what happened to the mouse and that evening, I wrote. Penmanship, something emphasized strongly in my youth, went out the window. I wrote fast and furiously, irate on behalf of the poor mouse. My writing life had begun.

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