Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Love of Jazz, Cowboy Songs, and Great Stories

I come from a long line of artists and musicians and teachers. My grandparents had a vaudeville act in the 1920s--"Haywood's Hawaiian Players". My mother was a teacher and a beautiful painter. My dad played the saxophone and has the best jazz collection of anyone I know. He also has a really good singing voice, but he won't do any solos unless he's belting out one of his cowboy songs. As a teenager, I lived in fear that he would do that around one of my friends, but now I actually look forward to it. My brother, Tom, plays guitar and bass, and my brother, Tim plays brass, a little bit of percussion, and is a talented graphic designer. All I'm going to say is, it's a good thing I can put a sentence together, because I can clear a room pretty quickly with my singing voice.

My family treasures books and good stories, but I am the first in the family to be a writer. When ALSO KNOWN AS HARPER became a reality, my brother and sister-in-law had a party at their house in Seattle. Before I got on the plane, my cousin called.

"I have something for you," my cousin, Lynn said. "I think it belongs to you."

Lynn is a special kind of relative. The kind who you love not just because you have a family obligation, but the kind you would choose for a friend, even if you didn't share a DNA pool. And the fact that we are separated by about 3,000 miles means I just don't get to see her very often. So I couldn't wait to see what she was talking about.

She arrived at my brother's with a thick brown box, the size that would fit a tall stack of manuscript pages. It was tied up with a thick white string, kind of like those wonderful bakery boxes in the Bronx, and Lynn sat down with me to watch me take the lid off. But what was inside was even better than a pastry from Arthur Avenue. It was our great-grandmother's stories. She had been a writer! My family is not quiet by any means, and I was pretty sure I would have heard about this before. My father had known his grandmother, but had not known that she was a writer.

The stories are in all of the drafting stages, from the notes she'd scribbled on the back of scraps of paper ( just like I do!), all the way through her handwritten drafts on old newsprint tablets, and to the final draft that she'd typed.

One page of notes is written on the back of an old milk receipt from the dairy farm that she owned. It was dated November, 1933, which meant she was already a grandmother at that point. Did she wait for her kids to grow up to start writing? And when in her busy day as a dairy farmer, did she find time to get out her pen and paper? And since nobody knew she was a writer, did she write in secret? Her stories are full of action and adventure and great dialogue. I picture her standing at the counter in the kitchen, dreaming about places seemingly out of the reach of her farm, and scribbling as fast as she could.

I wish I could sit with her and talk about writing. Had she ever sent a story off to a publisher? Did she dream of seeing her work on the shelves of a library? Would she love the same books that I love? Would she think Dorothy Parker and Flannery O'Connor were brilliant and ahead of their time? Was my great-grandmother ahead of her time?

But my biggest question was this: would she have ever imagined that her great-granddaughter would be reading and cherishing her stories almost 80 years later?

"I wish she could tell her about my book," I said to my critique group.

"Oh, she knows," they said. "She knows."


Cuppa Jolie said...

I have a little tear, my friend. That was a lovely post. Thanks for sharing.

gael lynch said...

Great post, Ann! Oh how I love the ancestral ties! You've got a window into a whole new world!

Jame said...

You're so lucky to get that box---what I wouldn't give for a treasure like that!

P.S. Frances drew a girl with Eat Sleep Read on her dress "like Ann" she said. I will send you a copy.