Words that didn’t come easily
He was 87. I was 33. Here’s what we learned in our email writing club.
The first time Grandpa and I tried to bond was over algebra. I was a 14-year-old freshman failing the subject. Each weekend, he and I would meet in his dining room, under Grandma’s wooden clock from the 1890s, and he’d try to explain how X equaled Y, and so on. Grandpa was a physicist. But as smart as he was, and hard as he tried, his lessons did not sink in. I ended up with a D.
It was not until after I graduated from journalism school and found a newspaper job that we discovered something we could both connect over. Writing. Since his retirement, he had devoted himself to the craft. He sent me his memoirs with notes like, “I never can tell whether a piece is good or not. Will you be a critic?”
I sent him my essays, some articles, and a book proposal. He wrote back with emails like, “In my role as amateur editor, I have a few comments. (that’s what I do).” He went on to discuss chapter breaks, punctuation, and characters, always signing his email with one word: “Grandpa.”
Sometimes, he’d add another word. “Love, Grandpa.”
But never did he say those three words. “I love you.” Not in person or in print. I didn’t either.
With my own parents, my husband, and now my daughter, telling them “I love you” is a daily habit. But it wasn’t so with Grandpa, and I always attributed the formalness of our interactions to generational differences. He showed his love for his children and grandchildren in other ways, like his passion for the things we became passionate about. He was proud of his family, and it was obvious in how he boasted about each member — the veterinarian, the travel writer, the activist,the bellydancer, the lawyer, the security guard, the athletic instructor, the chef,the journalist, and the jewelry maker/dental technician — to whoever would listen.
Yet my edits for Grandpa’s memoirs were always the same. Show more emotion, I would tell him. How did you feel?
In one of his pieces, “A Fearsome Fighter?” he described in riveting detail his experiences as a WWII soldier in the 104th Infantry Division, “The Timberwolves.” He wrote of coming across a bloody horse carcass and a long-dead German soldier who looked about 14. He described tightrope walking over the cables of a blown out bridge while dodging bullets, and while carrying 75 pounds of weaponry: five rifle grenades, an M-1 rifle and ammunition, an anti-tank mine, and a couple of hand grenades in his pockets.He wrote of an artillery shell striking his compound. It bounced him off a wall, and caused bleeding in his skull, though he didn’t lose consciousness.
“I really want to know what is running through your mind in all of these moments,” I wrote back to him. “Are you thinking about Ruth or your family? Is your mind blank? Are you sleep-deprived and weary, or do you have an adrenaline rush? Adding more of your thoughts – combined with the compelling scenes you have written – would help me understand what living through all of this was like.”
He’d reply: “Your comments are always welcome. Well, not only welcome, they make my day brighter.”
Grandpa’s draft came back like this: “Now artillery shells were exploding all around me. My mouth tasted like dry metal filings. Heart racing. Legs too weak for support. Separated in the dark…” He added that the soldiers told him: “’When your time is up, you’ll die, whether you are here or at home in your rocking chair’…I couldn’t accept that.”
Somewhere along the way, I decided to change my email signatures to Grandpa. “Love you,” I wrote at the end of a critique. It felt odd. Embarrassing even.
A children’s writer who went by the pen name Lemony Snicket once wrote, “Love can change a person the way a parent can change a baby — awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess.”
That’s kind of how it felt, minus the mess.
A few months after I changed my signature, I received an email from Grandpa. He had read something I’d written and replied with: “Your descriptive images made the visions almost visible. And brought emotions and dialogue into real life.”
“Hooray,” he wrote. “I love it — and you.”
I stared at those words for a while, touched.
Grandpa always told me to write about experiences as “strings to hang the pearls of ‘Teach ‘em something’ facts on.”
So here is one of many lessons that I learned from him: The expression of love can be tricky, but how to acknowledge that love is a personal equation worth understanding.
I have spent much of my life capturing other people’s stories, but Grandpa did the hard work himself. He wrote his own memories down to keep and share with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He self-published his own life stories, and facilitated writing groups with other retirees at his dining room table under Grandma’s antique clock until he was 87, before his body gave out on him and he lost the abilities to type, read or write.
When he died this month at 89 in a rehab center hospital bed, not his favorite rocking chair, he didn’t leave behind much unfinished business.
Still, if I could write to him one last time, if he could read these very words,I would tell him this: I miss your critiques already, Grandpa, your words of encouragement, and the expectation of another one of your short stories to come. I miss your emails.
And, I love you.