My Mary

My paternal grandmother passed away last spring…I have been participating in National Novel Writing Month, and thinking of her often. This is what I read at her funeral:

When I was thirteen years old I took a sick day from school. Tired of wallowing in my parents’ king-sized bed in front Duran Duran videos, I pulled my Grandma Mary’s novel off the shelf. I read the whole thing in one day then cried all night because it was so good.

Mary’s novel, full of stomach-churning racism, heart-wrenching kindness, and a violent loss of innocence, led me across a certain threshold of my own childhood.

Reading this book ignited one of those eye-popping, coming-of-age moments when I realized that the adults around me were not mere naïve rubes who existed only to serve my every whim. They had lives before me. And Grandma Mary was no exception.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised. In defiance of tradition and West Texas culture, Mary had long since decided that “Grandma” was too fuddy duddy for a woman of her progressive nature. So my sister and I grew up addressing my paternal grandparents by their first names.

And once I told her how much I loved her novel and how much it moved me, my Mary shared more of herself with me.

Thank God she wrote Thorpe, so I could find it and read it and get to know my Mary as the woman behind the funny grandma who made fudge and crocheted clown dolls for Christmas.

Before I read Thorpe I knew Mary was an amazing storyteller. She peppered my girlhood with country tales of putting goat poop in her sleeping brother’s mouth. Of dragging her mattress to live in the barn and keeping teenage diaries in Latin to trick her parents. “Tell me that one again, Mary!” I begged while she dragged her long crimson fingernails in “spiders” across my skinny back.

She worked on and off as a reporter at the tiny local paper. I went to the office with her when I was seven or eight and felt utterly glamorous alongside the large-bosomed woman who toted skinny cigarettes, giant 1970s sunglasses, crazy dangly earrings, and a necklace that probably weighed more than I did. I delighted in the knowledge that underneath it all she wore psychedelic paisley bras. I worshipped and adored her and wanted to be just like her. So I decided I would be a writer.

And after I read Thorpe I knew Mary was an amazing woman. A ferocious daughter of the South, angry and proud and complicated. Full of off-color jokes and serious opinions. A tough mama and rebellious homemaker, who hid her dirty dishes in the bathtub so she could pursue her creative dreams. A woman willing to stand up to hate and terror, ready to risk being unpopular.

Last summer I gave Mary a copy of my own little book, a puny self-published collection of essays on parenting.

Her words were gold to me, “You’re too good to do this on your own. Next time make them pay you.”

I think of Mary everything I put down a good book. Every time I write something that makes me feel proud. Every time I put on the pair of dangly brass earrings that she lovingly let me sneak out of her jewelry box of wonders when I was a teenager. I wore them at one of my first book signings in her honor.

I recently pulled out a note she sent me in college. Its words, along with an autographed copy of Thorpe, are my most precious gifts from my Mary:

I live in a world where fairies live under toadstools

And Santa comes at Christmas.

Where children and babies are born sinless

And God’s love is omnipotent.

When I stop believing

I will be old and gray on the inside.

Thank you Mary, for teaching me to love reading, writing, storytelling, and funky jewelry.

Robin Dutton-Cookston is writer, editor, mama, and lots of other good stuff too. Learn about her book at The Foggiest Idea.

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