(Preparing to teach a course on finding characters for fiction, I am currently thinking about the origins of people in my writing.)
As I drove to work one morning, I caught a glimpse of what had to be a grandfather walking a child to the stop for the school bus. I thought about their relationship and its future as the little girl grew up.
The glimpse I had may have been for 20 seconds—at 50 miles an hour on a curvy road. I started to fill in details in my mind and finally had to stop my car to write them down. Years before I had tried to jot notes for a poem while driving and had a very minor accident.
This is what I wrote over the next few days, based on what I saw that day. After the poem, I’ll speak about other factors that went into the writing:
HANK SMITH Walking with Marcy
When they moved in with Betty and me
after the divorce, my daughter and her daughter,
it annoyed me at first, spoiling our quiet routine,
but soon I enjoyed having everyone together,
especially Marcy running around the place,
asking questions, sidekick on my afternoon walk.
Getting Marcy ready for school became my job.
I’d fix her breakfast and walk her to the school bus.
In winter, wake-up time was dark as midnight.
Why was the morning star so bright, she asked.
In spring the sky could be pink and orange
as she took my hand walking to the road.
Years passed and I saw she was letting go my hand
when the bus came near, averting her eyes
when kids yelled “Hiya Gramps!”
As we walked to the road one morning, she said,
“You know, Grandpa, it’s okay if you want
to sleep late. I can get myself ready.”
I looked at her, pretty and grown so much
since first she joined us, and I said not a word,
just nodded and smiled back. I heard the bus
brake to a stop, heard the kids shouting
“Hey Marcy!” as I started back to the house.
I could stay in bed, sleep as late as I want.
The best writing—as with creativity in any art—has strong feelings behind it, even if those feelings are not the subject of the story, poem, painting, or performance. In this case, although I was telling the imagined story of Hank Smith, I was writing under the pressure of feelings that I became aware of as I thought about the man and girl on the side of the road.
I thought about growth, age, mortality. I remembered holding the hands of my son and his older sisters when each of them was young. And now I was anticipating a loss: my son was about to leave for Asia for an indefinite period to begin a new job.
We want to let our children go (not that it’s usually any choice of ours). They need to escape our influence and move along new paths. They need to let go of our hands and leave us behind. That’s unavoidable; it’s natural and good.
But it can hurt, which is what I was trying to convey in Hank Smith’s story.
(Performance and Publishing Note: I included the piece in my collection about life in Massachusetts, transferring the location from the Hudson Valley to a town on the Middlesex Canal. Then I saw in our local paper that an anthology about grandparents was being put together by Sandi Gelles-Cole and Kenneth Saltzmann. They accepted the poem for Child of My Child, which won the About.com 2012 Readers’ Choice Award for Best Grandparenting Book, and this was one of the selections posted on the About.com site.)