"My Grandson, the Writer"

She was tough and controlling, but she respected what I wanted to be.

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The summer I turned 18, my parents went away to Europe and I lived with my grandmother in our family’s rambling summer home in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. It was an unusual housing scenario. My grandmother was the grande dame of an elite summer colony that had begun hosting cocktail parties and picking blueberries in the New Hampshire hills even before her own grandparents had bought the house in 1905.

Meanwhile, I was there in the house expressly to escape the confines of the upper-crust world. A bony, scowling, and acne-pocked iconoclast, I’d never fit in at my prep school back in Connecticut. But there in New Hampshire, hanging out with my friends, year-round residents all, I’d been able to flourish — to recast myself as a wry comedian and a sort of visiting scholar capable of leading beery colloquiums on, say, the writings of Nietzsche and what The Door’s Jim Morrison really meant as he writhed his way through his 12-minute epic, “Celebration of the Lizard,” on the “Absolutely Live” album.

I lived in my own sphere that summer, independent of my grandmother. I bagged groceries at the IGA. I trained for cross-country, running a few miles each day on the winding back roads, and I spent long hours burrowed in my upstairs bedroom, trying to impress myself with how profound and subversive I was. I used all the stage props at hand, so that when the show was in full swing I was sprawled on my bed wearing a red bandanna around my head, a pair of rust-colored corduroy cutoffs, and a white T-shirt from the Madison Cafe back in Hartford, where I’d already savored the 25-cent happy hour drafts, thanks to a home-doctored fake I.D. that would cut no ice in today’s more litigious times. I had my earphones plugged into my Walkman, and by the bedside was a small blue plastic cup half-filled with a slimy brown fluid. Every few minutes I would spit into it. I had a penchant back then for Red Man chewing tobacco.

The most critical part of the equation, though, was the spiral notebook in my lap. I was keeping a journal that summer — stowing it in my sock drawer and filling it with my most private and deepest thoughts: my meditations on world peace and on certain girls I admired, along with notes on the classic rock I was still listening to, even in 1982, and on the various parties I attended in town that summer. These were not polite gatherings. At one, a fellow nicknamed Hinckley, after Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley, arrived late. He drove his van right up onto the lawn, crushing the host’s flimsy patio furniture, and then proceeded inside with his posse. There, he pried the cover off the back of the television set and, laughing, poured Old Milwaukee onto the filaments within.

Anyway, Granny knew about the journal, and when I was ensconced in my secret writing, she mostly gave me my space. Between songs, I’d hear her downstairs, rustling around in the small pantry, perhaps, or slamming a cast iron skillet onto the stove, so as to cook supper for herself and my step-grandfather, Ebby, a deaf and retiring Southern gentleman who was serving as her third husband. Her movements always seemed muscular and proprietary.

The house had existed as a physical structure before her birth in 1904, but if it had any story that predated my grandmother, I was unaware of it. The spirit of the place was her spirit. The house was a blithe and magical place, structurally crumbling and aesthetically akilter, with ancient, peeling wallpaper and a slapdash array of four-leaf clovers, all serendipitously found, Scotch-taped to the window in the entryway. She was a wildly impulsive and impractical person.

Born a society girl, she had never really shed the starry-eyed thrill and the dramatic flirtatiousness of a debutante. She was forever in search of a party. At her winter home, in Washington, D.C., she harbored an apolitical thrill for protests and social movements. In 1968, as police were teargassing civil rights protesters outside her townhouse in Georgetown one morning, she wandered out into the toxic mist, barefoot, in her nightgown, merely to be one with the action. Later, when she was in her 80s and a massive pro-choice rally hit town, she found a van crammed with slumbering male demonstrators and left a note on the windshield inviting them all in for breakfast. “They were such lovely people,” she reported after the visit, “and so handsome.”

Coming from someone else, the whole act might have seemed batty or vapid. But my grandmother had endured hardships and challenges: the early, sudden death of her father; a precipitous decline in her family’s fortune; a varied career as a publicist, retail saleswoman, and interior decorator; two divorces; and a prolonged ’30s-era court battle that saw her name splashed about in the newspapers as she lost primary custody of her only child, my mother. She was a survivor. Her bright presence at a gathering of summer people was a million times more inspiring than any motivational speaker ever could be.

But she was terrifying, too. She had pushed past tragedy by bending the world. Everything around her was marvelous — utterly charming. She did not brook exceptions to this rule. And so if she gazed at you across a crowded room, subtly nodding, to signal that it was your turn to pass the hors d’oeuvres, you did not dare disobey. If you did, you were toast.

My upstairs writing sessions were both a marvel and an affright to my grandmother. I was “developing a wonderful mind,” she’d tell me at the breakfast table, “just like your mother.” But I was a brooding kid writing — well, she didn’t know what, exactly, I was writing as I stood on the cusp of a shadowed adult world so different from the one she’d been born into. I scared her a little, I think, and I certainly did not live up to her standards of genteel decorum. The journals were a topic that at first she discussed nervously, with a game cheer. “Do you think when you’re older,” she asked once, “you might write about tennis? Or the opera, perhaps?”

As the summer wore on, remarkably, she learned to appreciate my life as an adventure. Indeed, she began to ask questions that struck me as very astute. “What’s the name of that band you listen to all the time,” she asked, “the one with the drummer named Moon? Isn’t it The Whos?”

Bill,” she said, “you have the keenest eye for observing human nature. Has anyone ever told you that?”

Finally — unbelievably, and out of the blue — she asked me if I’d like to host my own party, in the airy barn we had behind the house. “We’re going away for the weekend,” she said. “Just a few people, just a small gathering.”

“Really?” I said. My grandmother had a knack for reading other people, for discerning what, precisely, they needed to make their lives the sunny gala that hers already was. But this? This was like a miracle. I activated the phone tree and the word got out — “Donahue’s having a rager.”

But then just a few hours before the party’s scheduled start, Ebby decreed that they were not going away at all. They were staying in the house.

“You’re staying where?” I said. This was totally uncool.

“Oh, don’t worry,” said my grandmother. “We wouldn’t dream of getting in your way.”

Ebby spent the early evening tacking up small signs inside the barn: “Absolutely no smoking,” “Please, no alcohol.” And then the first guests began trickling in, bearing full cases of Michelob Light on their backs. By 10 p.m., the barn was packed and crowds were spilling outside, onto the terrace and the darkened croquet course below. There must have been 70 people there. Ebby had removed his hearing aid and trundled off to bed hours before, and Granny, apparently in deference to the torrents of youth, was leaving us alone, staying inside the house. She was reading a novel in the lounge. The party was unfettered. It was huge, and it was my party, and as I stood there on the sloping wood floor of the barn, the roar of voices all around me, I felt something close to omnipotence.

At around 11, however, Hinckley showed up. His attack this time was clean and quick. He simply snipped our garden hose in half, used the severed end to siphon gas out of a VW Bug belonging to a guy named Art Jones, and then left.

Once the theft was discovered, Art needed to go inside the house to use the telephone. As he was waiting for his brother or whoever to pick him up, he talked to Granny. He was a large and genial kid, red-haired and poised to ship out, in a few weeks, to North Carolina, where he’d begin basic training with the Army. He was sloppy drunk. I don’t know what he and Granny talked about, but when he returned to the barn, he said, “Your grandmother, your grandmother, your grandmother, man — she’s amazing.”

Soon, the party seeped into the house. I went in there myself eventually and found five or six people circled around Granny. She was telling stories as though she were Sarah Bernhardt called back out on stage for an encore. For her it was old hat. What made the act work, though, was a certain tenderness. She heard the lilt in the young people’s voices and she joined, perfect pitch, in their revelry. It was almost as if somehow she already knew them.

How did she pull it off? How was it that every time people came over she had full social command? I always wanted to ask her, but it was the sort of question she was sure to meet with a steely, implacable smile. We both had our secrets.

Or so I thought, until that fall when one afternoon (I was in college by then) a packet arrived in the mail, sent by my mom. Photocopies. Of my own handwriting — of a few inflammatory excerpts from my personal journal. In one regrettable passage, I’d carped about my grandmother’s domineering and meddlesome ways. Beside my words was my grandmother’s own marginal comment: “Look what he said! How ungrateful! How hurtful!”

My grandmother had apparently rushed to the Kinko’s in Concord after clandestinely reading my slurs. Then she’d written my mother, in tears. My mother is a writer herself, a historian. She believes in handwritten documents — believes that they have an integrity and that they should never be raided. She’d put off writing me for a few weeks. But what else could she do? My grandmother had kept after her. She wanted my mom to exact an apology out of her cretinous son.

I did not apologize. Today, I kind of wish that I had called Granny to enunciate the obvious — that I only despised her for about 15 minutes, in my journal, and that I understood her desperate need to understand me. I also wish that I had asked her a question. That party in the barn — was that inspired by her reading? Did she settle down with an iced tea one afternoon while I was at work and immerse herself in my scrawled tales of Hinckley, et al? Did she think, “Oh, this all sounds so colorful” and then decide that what I needed most — what would make me most delighted — was a rager in the barn?

My guess is that this is what happened, more or less. It’s funny to think about, but still even now I can’t write off my grandmother’s snooping as pure lark. What she did was wrong. She invaded my privacy, and she did this at a time in my life when privacy shined as a new and exquisite thing. I was silly and juvenile that summer, sure, but I was making a splendid discovery — that one could have a secret, intricate life of the mind, and that maybe thinking and writing could be the focus of your existence.

My grandmother harbored a romance for the sort of person I was trying to become. She adored dreamy-eyed artistes, and she always raved about how she was there in Paris in the ’20s, staying just down the street from Sylvia Beach as she published the first-ever edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But at bottom she didn’t really get the whole fragile introvert thing. She just barged right in on me. It was a mark: an unfortunate part of our history. We never once talked about what had happened.

Still, we both knew, and as I went on to become a journalist, a freelance writer for magazines, the secret loomed larger. It bonded us, even. She was my first critic and my first fan. She’d read my earliest work. She had seen the best and the worst of me, exposed right there on the page, and in a sense I’d seen the best and the worst of her, too. I’d seen both her generosity and her thirst for control. And so it was no surprise what happened a decade ago when she summoned me to her deathbed. She whispered, “Bill, get a pen. You’re writing my obituary.” Then, in careful, stentorian tones, she began to dictate the lede.

I revised the write-up, of course, once she was dead. But as I remember that summer now, what I realize is how thoroughly my grandmother owned it. She read me. She knew me. She invented me, even, and forced upon me her own infinite hope.

I think of this one evening in August. She had a couple of codgers over for cocktails and came to the foot of the stairs and called up for me. “Bill,” she chimed, “Bill, dear, won’t you come down and be charming?”

I took off the headphones. I spat out my chaw. I lumbered downstairs and then stood there, my hands on my hips, and scowled at the codgers as they squinted back and then looked over at Granny, begging for some explanation.

She swept her arms along through the air, toward me with a great ta da flourish. My grandson,” she said, “the writer.” • 8 August 2008

 

Bill Donahue is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.
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