Early in our novel writing process, as Patricia Shinn Wojtowicz and I discussed what we wanted to write, we kept coming back to the relationships we had with our grandmothers. We found that we both had many pleasant memories of our grandmothers and learning from them became highlights of our young adult years.
As Patty and I developed our fictional characters for Relative Disenchantment, we enjoyed the interplay of young and young-at-heart that developed between Joanna, a college student, and Ruth, her grandmother. Joanna struggles with Ruth’s habit of saving everything that has any sentimental value, but also admires Ruth’s love of life and refusal to admit that she’s getting old. They share memories and a few harsh lessons, bonding over those experiences. Not all the stories Patty and I heard from our own grandmas were happy ones. In fact, one of the stories was a bleak one, inspiring an important part of our novel.
The first time my grandmother told me an unexpected story about an ancestor marked the beginning of my adult relationship with her. My grandma told me that her great-grandmother, Mary, lived in Alsace, France in the mid 1800’s. The story my grandma passed to me was that Mary, as a young unmarried woman, gave birth to a son. The father of her child was unknown. I remember thinking I must really be an adult now, because my grandma thinks I’m old enough to hear this story. There were other stories she told me about my heritage then that are pretty hazy now, and unfortunately she is no longer around to fill me in.
Through family documents and genealogy records, I learned more of Mary’s story. She left France on a ship sailing for the United States. Maybe it was easier to start over in a new place. Maybe it was easier to find work. For whatever reason Mary made the journey, she was brave to make a new life for herself. The story even had a happy ending. Mary met a man on her voyage to the U.S. who later became her husband and adopted her son.
I can no longer tell my grandmothers the ways that their lives and stories have impacted me, but I hope to pass some of their stories onto my grandchildren one day (when they are old enough.)