Monday, August 29, 2011

A Grandmother's Legacy: A Painful Memoir

During a conference consultation, I once asked Jane Kirkpatrick, noted speaker and author who is known for creating strong, worthy characters who have human flaws, whether or not I should write a memoir about a grandmother for whom I have ambivalent feelings. She thought the story fascinating and said I should determine why I was writing the memoir, who I was writing the memoir for, and then write it “when the time was right.”

My Grandma Dewey never played an important part in my life, but I occasionally read of her exploits on postcards sent from across the U.S. While growing up, I admired her as sort of a free spirit, and thought her life quite exotic and exciting. Born in 1910, my grandmother came of age during the Roaring 20s. Perhaps that is why she ran off with a saxophone player in the Jimmy Dorsey Band (later to become my grandfather) while still a teenager.

She loved to hunt and fish and ride horses and motorcycles. She divorced my grandfather and later lived with a man for nearly forty years before marrying – which we didn’t discover until her death. In her later years the two purchased a motor home and criss-crossed the U.S., only bothering to visit us twice during 10 years of travel.

Grandma Dewey appeared to be self-actualized thirty years before it became popular. She was spontaneous, unfrightened by the unknown, unhampered by convention, and able to enjoy herself with neither regret nor apology.

But as I matured, I became more in touch with the damage this tiny dynamo had done to my mother. My grandmother showed no maternal feelings, abandoning the only child she would ever have shortly after her birth. Uncaring, selfish, and extremely prejudiced; she was unable and/or unwilling to interact with others except on a superficial level throughout her life.

No cookies at grandma’s house from this grandma. During the one time myself and four siblings went to visit her in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I remember she barely knew what to do with us; feeding us mostly dry cereal, and on one special night, charred hamburgers. Meanwhile, she prepared a perfectly broiled medium-rare steak for her dog each evening.

In the end, though, it was to her only daughter she turned, spending her final years in a nursing home near my mother. My mother worried about her welfare and cared for her every need until the day of her death.

Taking Kirkpatrick’s advice to heart, I’ve given a lot of thought to why I want to write about my grandmother, and whether or not I should do it.

In “Ethics in Biographical Writing", Inga Simpson writes, “At times, the desire to be accurate can conflict with the desire to be ethical. Negative or potentially scandalous revelations may well be true, but writers and biographers need to consider the impact of this information on friends and family: to weigh up the ‘public interest’ or relevance of the information against the private damage it may cause.”

She stresses the importance of comprehensive research and double-checking of facts; and advises figuring out delicate subjects before writing and negotiating how to handle them with those involved.

I've recently decided I am going to write this memoir. My motive is neither to destroy my grandmother’s remembrance, nor to cause painful memories to resurface for my mother; but to bring to light the emotional tug-of-war this woman created within my family. I want to write my grandmother’s story because it demonstrates that our actions, whether well intentioned or not, affect others; and it reveals the power of forgiveness.

I will write it when I know "the time is right."

Read more about The Ethics of Biographical Writing at

1 comment:

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

What an extremely moving story, Mary Jane. Proof that we human beings can be very complex characters. Thanks for writing this. It's given me a lot to think about.