My Grandma Jo (or, as I’m sure she would have preferred to be called, my Grandmother Morgan) was the kind of old-school Lady who took her appearance very seriously. Her outfits always matched, her shoes were classy, her waist was cinched, her lips were red, her eyebrows were drawn about half an inch higher than her actual eyebrow hair, and she went to the salon every Tuesday to have her hair done. I think every other week she had her roots done, and every single trip meant a very nice coif. She called applying her makeup “putting on her face” and I only ever saw her without it when she was very ill indeed.
Grandma Jo and I had quite a few debates about how girls should behave about their appearance. I was a wild thing as a kid, and I looked it. My hair was long, and always in a ponytail, because I was usually rambling through the woods or bent over a book. She was at least proud that the dance lessons she’d signed me up for at the age of three had given me impeccable posture, but otherwise I was a bit of a mess.
You might be getting the impression from this that my grandmother was stuffy and aloof, but you couldn’t be more wrong. She might have once told me that “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory”, but she was also the first person to sit on the floor and play with us grandkids. She cheered us on, sang, danced, and told us how special each and every one of us was. She was both indomitable about what she wanted, and the most cheerful damn person on the face of the planet. The only time I ever saw her get really upset was the occasion when I sprinkled baby powder all over the hardwood floors in the top floor of her house, and she wept as she said that the powder would never come out of the cracks.
Yes, I was a handful. But no, this woman who had a hand in bringing me up never raised her voice.
Grandma Jo also supported every single one of her grandkids. One of her favorite phrases that she delivered to my exasperated parents was, “Just keep loving them.” When we had trouble in math, “Just keep loving them.” When we were frighteningly bold, or oddly quiet, or too rambunctious, or later on when we were getting into more serious trouble, the solution was, “Just keep loving them.”
And truly, she did, but I was a bit tougher than some of the others. I had big thoughts that I seemed incapable of getting out without getting irritated that no one else seemed to grasp their import. I spent an inordinate amount of time scribbling in notebooks while the rest of the family watched football games. I read too much, and I just didn’t care if there were holes in my jeans, or if the kids at school didn’t like me that much. Grandma Morgan praised my academic skills and my dancer’s poise, but she sighed at my disinterest in my looks and rather pointedly took me shopping for clothes. She strongly encouraged belts, which I loathed.
I moved away after college, and we exchanged emails once a week. And then Grandma Morgan got sick. It was pulmonary fibrosis, and it was incurable, and it meant that the cells in her lungs were turning into scar tissue, which meant they were going to stop working. Cell by cell.
Soon after her diagnosis, I moved back to West Virginia. You can read my last essay for a broader view of that time, but to say I was a bit wound up almost all the time would be an understatement. And I never quite knew what to say to Grandma. I’m not so eloquent about my feelings in such situations, not without pen and paper, and even then –
We talked a lot about Madigan. Grandma loved the fact that she was so interested in being with people, even though I thought it was really only useful in large gatherings. Most kids melt down when surrounded by a crowd, but that’s when Madigan was at her best.
I was old enough to get the advice, “Just keep loving them.”
And meanwhile I was struggling to finish another draft of the novel I already viewed as a bit of a failure. It had taken way too long to write, and it wasn’t nearly original enough for me to be proud. And it was starting to feel like a slog.
Then one day I dropped into Grandma’s house. She was watching one of her favorite movies, a Hallmark Channel original. It was about some cute blond girl who had moved from the big city back to her home town and found love and belonging and an appreciation for where she’d grown up. I was groaning internally as soon as I walked in the door and heard the dialogue.
Then my grandma looked up at me while I was taking off my shoes, and said one of the most startling things I think she ever spoke to me.
“Megan, I was watching this movie last week, and I just couldn’t help thinking how amazing it is, that someone like you can sit down and think up all these things that people say to each other, and the things these people do. It’s all imaginary, and it’s all made by one person. And I just thought that was the most amazing thing. How do you do that? How do you think of all the things that people would say?”
As the characters onscreen delivered dialogue that sounded like nothing anyone would ever actually speak, I grinned. For real. And I have no idea what I answered. Something about observing the people around me, and then putting myself in the characters’ shoes. Even though the answer is something more like, “Grandma Morgan, I have no idea how the hell I do it. There are people inside my brain who talk to each other! It’s weird, but I swear I’m not crazy.”
My answer, whatever it was, pleased her, and she was proud. It’s the only question she ever asked me about my writing. And her astonishment that one of her grandkids could do something so complex as create dialogue between characters is one of the best moments I’ve had as a writer.
Grandma Morgan never read much more of my writing than a few college essays. I always sort of figured science-fiction wasn’t her jam, and besides, the thing wasn’t finished yet. I could be disappointed by that, especially when I’m finally about to publish it. But I know what her reaction would have been.
Pleased with the book, but even more thrilled that I actually do something with my hair, now.