I am addicted to old family pictures. I gaze at the walls of other people's houses, memorizing family portraits. My mother practically raised me at estate sales and junk stores. I was not allowed to touch anything, but I could ask all the questions I wanted. What was this metal thing used for? Who wore shoes that buttoned up the sides? Did you have a doll like this when you were a little girl?
The two people who encouraged my curiosity in the past would be surprised to learn I consider them the fairy godmothers of my writing. Those two people were my Grandmother Rodman and my mom, both natural born storytellers.
|The couple in the middle are my Rodman grandparents|
She knew which details would make her story real for a little listener...the taste of homemade peanut brittle, the mustard color of a funnel cloud so enormous it blocked the sky, the stiff, slick material of her mother's "Sunday dress." Her stories were peopled with characters named Country and Myrtle and Ardell. She evoked the sound of their voices, the way they stood and moved, the little quirks that made those long-dead people come alive. She was economical with her words, as she brought the events to the climax, never once saying "Oh I forgot to say that..."
Not only could my grandmother put names to the family photos she kept in a big silk stationary box under her bed, she could spin stories about every one of them. She also told me about my father growing up in small-town, Depression-era, Southern Illinois. My father did not tell me his own boyhood until very recently. Learning what kind of little boy he had been, helped me understand my sometimes puzzling, taciturn dad.
|Mom on the far right, her brother Jimmy and sister Agnes|
Mom was a one-woman show. She imitated voices, created sound effects and even acted out the events when her vocabulary failed her. Ironically, she considered herself shy and disliked speaking in public. Writing anything, such as a letter, was a laborious process that would go through several drafts before she would write on her good linen stationary with a fountain pen. Since Mom wrote to at least some of her family every week, that was a lot of moaning and groaning and crumpled up notebook paper. (I learned the pain and value of revision early!)`
Jimmy's Stars began when I found a WWII two-star service flag in a box lot of china I bought at an auction. I knew from photos that Mom's family had a four-star flag in the window of the boarding house (three for my uncles and one for Mom who was a WAVE). Looking at that flag, I heard my mother's voice recounting life on the Homefront, the terror of receiving a telegram, the peculiarity of wartime rationing. With those stories as a foundation,Jimmy's Stars was the fastest I've ever written anything...18 months. (That included lightening striking my computer and wiping out the unbacked-up first five chapters.)
Yankee Girl is based on my own childhood stories I told my daughter. I am currently working on two books that are based on Grandmother Rodman tales.
I'm sure that neither my grandmother or mother knew they would inspire my own books. Their stories taught me the beauty and drama of everyday life. This sense of wonder in what seems ordinary to us, I try to pass on to my own students. Over the years, they have told me about grandparents who wandered in the rubble of WWII Europe, orphaned and homeless. Of their parents as children, in refugee camps, fleeing Asia by boat. One girl's family escaped the Holocaust by immigrating to Cuba... and then fled Cuba after the Revolution. My hope is that these tales will live on in my students' writing. I think the best gift you can give a child is a family story.
I was blessed to be descended from two of the best storytellers ever. Thanks, Meemaw. Thanks, Mom.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman