Be who you are. Don’t let anyone tell you who that is. You tell them.
That’s the essence of Grandmother Sawyer. My other matriarch, Grandma Barovian, can also be summed up in a conversation – the one she had with me before each dance recital:
If you mess up, I’ll tell you. If you do well, I won’t say anything.
That was Grandma Barovian, that was her version of a pep talk, and she was the reason I didn’t grow up a complete narcissist. She was a tough bird, Grandma B – the eleventh of twelve children born to Polish immigrants in Pennsylvania mining country. She and my grandpap had four children, two born deaf. They raised their family on his factory wage, and to help balance accounts, she waitressed at nights, sewed her kids’ clothes, and cooked their food from scratch. She was a magical cook, and by that, I mean she cooked delicious meals from penny ingredients: stuffed cabbage, spaetzle, pierogies, soup …
She also baked brilliant pies. She knew it, too.
“Lizzy,” she’d tell me, “pie crusts are difficult for any cook. I can do them, of course, but you’ll probably never be able to.”
Fifty percent of my piecrusts do meet the trash, so I can appreciate her story of “The Great Piecrust.” One day, long ago, Grandma made a perfect piecrust: a thin, flaky, buttery, dissolve-on-your tongue piecrust. A Great Piecrust. She laid it bare in the pie dish before leaving the kitchen to tend to another task. Grandpap entered from Stage Left. He was a habitual picker, pinching his pointer finger and thumb to pick a sample of whatever tastiness my grandma was conjuring. He picked a taste of The Great Pie Crust. And then some more … when Grandma spied him from Stage Right. That piece of thin, flaky, buttery piecrust had probably just dissolved on his tongue when Grandma whirled its entirety, glass pie dish and all, at his head. She missed; it hit the wall and shattered next to his feet.
“And you can clean that up!” she shouted before leaving the room.
Grandma Barovian makes for the best stories, so it’s no surprise that when I sat down to write my book, she and Grandmother Sawyer formed the inspirational backbone.
“Did you know what you were going to write about before you started your book?” people have asked. I shake my head. Not really, other than I knew the story would be about a girl and her two grandmas.
“Is the book about you?” people have asked. I shake my head. Not really, other than those grandmas again. It’s not a direct personality or even circumstance match, but the will I wrote into those characters and the tension my main girl feels in asserting herself against their plans for her? That I understood quite well and could write about with enough authenticity to ring true.
The world tries to corner us girls. You strong girls, you go over there. Smart girls, stay here. Quiet girls, your people are to the left, and pretty girls are on the right. We either work or stay at home, right? Quiet vs. loud, submissive vs. strong-willed, soft vs. strong, selfless vs. selfish. My matriarchs blew these dichotomies apart. They weren’t tidy enough to be reigned into one category, which is why I can’t take the Myers-Briggs personality test to save my life. The last time I tried, I quit halfway, flipped to the back, and chose 5 different personality types that describe me on most days. Grandmother Sawyer would have applauded; Grandma Barovian would have rolled her eyes.
My book is filled with female characters like this, and I’ve set a release date for it: June 28! Nostalgic Me hates that my grandmas aren’t around to see it, but then Real Me remembers how they’d go about it. Grandmother Sawyer would flip through it, pronounce it lovely, and never get around to reading it. Grandma Barovian would read it in one sitting, and then tell me everything I did wrong. Neither would agree with its premise – that God exists – but they’d appreciate I took a stand. Because much as they might have liked me to think like them, they really raised me to think for myself – to talk straight, stand up for myself, own the consequences of my actions, and do a job right. What was never allowed was self-pity, excuses, quitting …
And calling boys. That made it into the book, too.