Of Spearmint Leaves and Tootsie Rolls

My grandmother, Nana to me, Grandma to the rest of my cousins, died this past September.  She was 93 and had been suffering terribly from dementia in the past three years. She also had a wicked sweet tooth–spearmint leaves and tootsie rolls were a lifelong staple of her diet (my cousin, Christine, passed out the above at her funeral), along with the apple she cut up each day with a paring knife, when she still could.  Talk about embodying the old cliche–she almost never needed a doctor.

Remembering who she was for 90 of those years–90!!!–got me thinking about the role she played in my life, how it affected my writing and my teaching of writing.

The common theme of everyone’s remembrances was what a can-do person she was.  “You can do that,” she’d tell say, with utter conviction, when her children, her family,  her friends, her colleagues faced a challenge.  “Oh, I know you can do that.”

Anyone who writes will tell you that succeeding at writing–in whatever way you define that–is more a test of endurance than anything else.  In other words, far more talented writers than I gave up on this vocation long ago.  It’s really hard. It’s depressing.  Rejection and uncertainty are the name of the game.

But I’ve never given up.  I’ve never even considered it. And I think, in part, it’s because I had those words and her example.  My grandmother was perhaps one of the most positive people I have ever known (and where, I like to think, I get some of my own glass-half-full tendencies).  She never doubted my choices–or those of any of her other children or grandchildren.  She just assumed we could do it.  Whatever  “it” was.

This comes to play in my own career as a writing teacher and as a director of a writing project, working with teachers, many of whom were told they “could not write,” at some point in their lives. Sometimes I think “professional encourager” should be part of my job description; probably the best part of the work I do. Mind you, I’m no Pollyanna; I communicate to my students where and how they can do better. But sometimes, what they really need is permission. Permission to write. Permission to fail, even. And I’m all about the permission.

We have a tendency, in our society, to want to preserve the mystique of the artist by deciding who has permission to pursue that dream. As the story goes, for example, famous children’s illustrator James Marshall drew incessantly as a child until his second grade teacher looked at one of his drawings and proclaimed, “Jimmy, you’re no artist.”

That’s right. His second grade teacher.

Devastated, he did not pick up a drawing pencil again until he was twenty-eight years old. Between that time and when he died of AIDS at forty one, he authored and illustrated countless books and racked up awards. Maurice Sendak considered him an artistic peer.

A famous story, perhaps, but not an isolated one. Over the course of my career, if I had a dollar for each story I’d heard from someone who’d been told she “couldn’t write,” often in the most humiliating of ways, I’d have a nice nest egg by now.

I’d love to give those heartbreakers a good shake; I really would. But often, the damage was done long ago. All I can do is react with righteous indignation and the words that will begin them on their recovery.

“That’s ridiculous. Of course you can.”

What’s amazing, I think, about those four words, “You can do it,” is the way they live on. From my grandmother, to me, to my students and someday their students. . .

One more memory. Nana was an extremely generous soul; often pressing twenties into her grandchildren’s palms just as we were saying our goodbyes, but her abilities in the gift selection department left a lot to be desired. All us kids and grandkids have our own stories about the crazy gifts she picked out over the years (never mind the fact that she was also a procrastinator who was often,  quite literally throwing these gifts into boxes moments before the exchange started). I’ll never forget taking her Christmas shopping once at her favorite store–Sears– and discovering her gift selection philosophy when I hesitated over whether my cousin would like this or that sweater. “Oh just pick something,” she told me. “No one cares what it is, they just want to open something new.”

Yet she gave me one of the best gifts I ever got.

Those four words.


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