The Unexpected Life Lesson This Grandmother Learned While Writing Her Memoir
She kept scraps of paper with small bits of memories on them but never wrote out the whole story.
Joana Villez for Reader's Digest
A note about the author (by her granddaughter, network news producer Allison Arlene Hansen): Not long before she died, I sneaked away for a Grandma sleepover. A character who was always full of surprises, she motioned me to her beloved writing desk—black with gold chinoiserie and a white leather top. “That’s yours,” she said. “You’re a writer, like me. You get the purple box inside too.” I opened the box to find stacks of her stories, some sweet, some adventurous, some droll—just like her. This one, an amusing look back written when she was in her 70s, shows her fondness for the unexpected path.
As you know, for years I’ve planned to write up the memories I’ve been saving on scraps of paper since you were young. I’ve kept them put away in safe places, like memory hooks holding on to funny remarks and actions.
“Guess Who Gets to Keep the White Rat for the Summer?” was one of my favorites.
And the one about the frog we planned to train for the Frog Jump at the Calaveras County Fair until your father hit it with the lawn mower while he was mowing the backyard.
(My training as a nurse came in handy when I was called to splint its leg with a Popsicle stick.)
And the one about the baby alligators who lived in our backyard pond.
We do have an interesting history with animals, don’t we?
Now that you are grown and off having adventures with your own children, I’ve enrolled in a memoir-writing class. You know what? It’s such a struggle!
I wake up in the middle of the night with just the right thought in my mind. Grabbing notepaper and pen, I go in the bathroom and write it down. Great! I don’t want to lose that, and in the morning it may be gone.
But I’m having trouble getting back to sleep these days and find myself nodding off in my chair after dinner.
I also tend to pick at a certain area of my head when I’m searching for exactly the right phrasing. It seems to me the hair is a little thinner now in that one area.
I spend a great deal of time staring out the window in contemplation. I’ve noticed I’m having a wee bit of trouble sometimes getting my eyes to focus again, and once in a while, I get a little twitch in the left eye.
I also carry around a notebook in my purse to capture the thoughts I’m coming up with during the day when I’m driving around or at the grocery store. The notebook takes up so much space in my purse!
It’s great to have pictures to illustrate the writings—they add so much. But in finding just the right ones, I have to search around through all the boxes, and the house is in disarray. In fact, I’m becoming a little bit absentminded, I have to admit, from all this creative concentration. I forgot to turn on the coffeepot the other morning, and yesterday the potatoes burned when I was writing down this great description that came to me out of the blue at dinnertime.
Your dad is supportive, but it’s a mistake to let him read my articles while I’m composing them, I find. Last week he very nicely said, “I don’t like the way this sounds. Why don’t you say so-and-so?” and I didn’t handle it too well. In fact, I said, “Please! I read this in class, and they thought it was good. I’m not changing it.”
We are encouraged to be original, so instead of writing “I remember,” I said something like “The long-dormant brain cells were activated again,” and he said, “That’s corny. Why don’t you say ‘sweet memories’?” To which I replied, “We’re supposed to be original. ‘Sweet memories’—that’s so everyday.” Later I decided it sounded ridiculous. But the right expression came—during the night. Naturally, I jumped up and got it written just the way I wanted.
It’s all sort of an exquisite torture, as the expression goes. I’m walking around with dark circles underneath puffy eyes.
So, my dears, I’ve decided it’s fun to write and relive all the memorable times I’ve enjoyed in my life and to share the happy days of your growing-up years. But I think at my age, I need my rest. And frankly, I think your dad misses me watching those great PBS shows and National Geographic specials on TV with him. He says he’s lonesome. Enjoy the ones I’ve written because I’ve decided not to write any more memoirs.
Stephanie Bletzacker/Courtesy Allison Arlene Hansen
When Grandma gave me those stacks of handwritten stories in the magic lavender box, many of which I’d never read, on top was a letter addressed to “Editor of Reader’s Digest.” Grandma explained that she had written that letter a hundred times. But she’d never sent it, and though many of her stories made it into her local paper, her life’s dream remained to be published in the magazine. After she passed away at 94, I made it my life’s dream, too, and sent her work to Reader’s Digest. You made it, Grandma!
Next, read more heartwarming stories that will restore your faith in humanity.
Joe McKendry for Reader's DigestArlene Aikins was a proud mother of two, grandmother of six, and great-grandmother of 12, and a lifelong writer.