My grandmother's memoir still influences me
In 1993, she published So the Woman Went Her Way—the book and her example still impact my writing
I would like to live in a spiritually perfect universe. Instead, I am at a dinner just outside Santa Fe.
Those are the opening lines of my grandmother’s memoir, So the Woman Went Her Way. It’s a book that has loomed large in my life. Half the women in my class at College read it. There are copies lining the bookshelf of my home in New Hampshire. And every time I sit down to type words on a page, my grandmother’s brilliant prologue to that book is in some sense still influencing my work.
“There are twelve of us in the room,” she continues.
Two men are sitting by the fire. They are in the middle of a seven-day fast and prefer not to sit at the table with the rest of us. A woman who has just begun a sexual liaison with one of them pulls her chair between the men.
Loud enough for all of us to hear, she says, “You know, there are secret manuscripts in a monestery in Llhasa that tell how Jesus really treated women.”
The scene is quintessential Santa Fe. City of my birth, city of holy faith, city where, for more than a century, artists and writers from New York and Los Angeles and Washington D.C. have moved to find a quieter pace of life—and perhaps a more meaningful (or, spiritual) existence.
Someone asked me recently why Santa Fe became such a magnet for artists in the first place, and I replied that I think it had something to do with Georgia O’Keeffe, who first visited New Mexico in 1929, though I’m sure it goes back even further. Most know O’Keeffe as the one who painted flowers that looked like vaginas. Some others know her as the great chronicler of Northern New Mexico’s stark and beautiful desert landscapes. I know O’Keeffe as a woman my grandmother knew and photographed multiple times.
O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe in 1986. I was born in 1981, and so legend has it I actually met her. There, in the dark recesses of my earliest childhood memories, I remember an old woman who my grandmother told me was a famous artist, lying on a bed, quite sick, inside an adobe casita. Maybe that was O’Keeffe.
Anyway, the artists have flocked to Santa Fe ever since. My grandmother among them.
“And how is that?” my grandmother asks the woman who had just mentioned the secret Llhasa documents:
She stares at me as if she didn’t understand.
Thinking perhaps she really doesn’t know how Jesus treated women, I say, “You don’t have to go all the way to Tibet to find that out. It’s in the Bible. I’ve got one here, in my purse, if you want to take a look.”
She looks at me, forehead crinkled, as if to say, “The Bible? Don’t you know better?”
I am surprised. The woman is not interested in information that might be within reach. It is written all over her body, in the darkening of her eyes, the flush rising on her cheeks, the way her shoulders shift and arms wave off a suggestion that knowledge of how Jesus treated women might be at hand.
This book is the record of my grandmother’s own spiritual journey—thus the Bible in her purse. But more than that, it is one of the few books I’ve ever heard of that takes seriously the idea that the Bible contains within it stories of female power. Decades later, women still write to my grandmother to tell her about the influence the book had on them.
It is both a memoir and an exegesis (i.e., an interpretation of scripture). The title, So the Woman Went Her Way, is taken from 1st Samuel and refers to Hannah—the name her daughter, my mom, gave to my sister.
The book was published in 1993. I was 11 years old, going on 12. My sister Hannah was 9. Two years later, she, my grandmother, and my mom would collaborate on a book on how to do art projects for kids on the computer. It was early days and Microsoft Paint was the biggest design tool around. I remember my sister doing a lot of work on the book, and I also remember feeling some slight sense of having been left out.
The three women in my life had published a book together. My sister became a published book author at age 12.
I still haven’t published one.
“What does interest her,” my grandmother continues, “is the gap between how her new love is viewing her and how she wants to be seen:
What obsesses her is her current self. She is draped over a chair crying out for attention and respect that she somehow senses are not really here for her tonight but that she hopes exist in hidden documents in a far-off place guarded by strange men from another culture and a distant past.
If I told her that I was a Celtic princess descended from the Valkyrie and that my sisters, the trees, talked to me about the healing of men and nations, she would believe me. But if I told her the Bible was about her life, she would think I was selling a doctrine.
My grandmother was raised Episcopalian in the suburbs of Chicago and spent summers as a child in Minnesota. She married a man from the big city when she was just 19, and soon after she had my mom. Not long after that, she discerned that the men always coming in and out of the house and speaking in hushed tones were part of the Chicago mob—including her husband. One night she would be laughing and smiling among her husband’s friends at dinner, and the next those men would be “found in the trunk of a car with various body parts removed.”
Two years after she had my mom, she had my uncle, and coming home from the hospital she resolved to find a way out.
Then one evening her husband was in the living room with three men from a small town over a thousand miles away: Deming, New Mexico. They were building houses there with union pension money and offered to give them one of the houses. “I’ll take it,” my grandmother responded.
Her husband was furious, but she drove far away from Chicago with her two kids, eventually settling in Santa Fe.
And oh, does she capture the New Age atmosphere there.
Later, the host of the dinner party says she is “channeling the Magdalene” and my grandmother asks her if she has been writing down any of the messages coming to her “from the only person understood by all four gospels to have been an eyewitness to the Resurrection:
“I don’t have to,” she says. “I have money. I’m spending my time developing television shows on socially conscious investments.”
I hear a small sound, a pop, in my ear. Channeling the Magdalene passed up for socially conscious investments?
The food is served and we all join hands and make the sound of “Om.” There are squeezes on both my hands from people who have never met me before. French phrases are dopped into the conversation, and Velveeta cheese is served melted over the shrimp.
Last Christmas I was in Santa Fe visiting family. It was winter solstice and some friends took me to a dinner party outside of town. The house was owned by an artist, of course, and after the food, we all went outside to where he had built a kind of mini henge. There were gigantic, 8- or 10-foot-tall stone pillars arranged in a semi-circle—he called it a temple.
Our host had hired someone to build up a bonfire, which had now been going for some time. An MC led us through a solstice ceremony. We held hands (and squeezed), sang, chanted, and were encouraged to say our peace to the group.
One man recounted with complete sincerity that he had recently seen our alien overlords’ spaceship through the gaps in two of the stones not too many nights ago, and he was sure that they were interested in the same goals as we all surely were: peace on Earth, etc.
Toward the end, we were asked to go commune with one of the stone pillars. I went up to the tallest and started to feel the texture, picking out hand holds as I went—naturally, my mind turned to whether I could climb it. But I opted not to try and instead wandered back inside to find some hot cider.
In my grandmother’s book, there is also a fire after dinner, but this one is for an Indian sweat:
We walk down the hill, joined by two small children who have been fed in another part of the house, leaving the lights of the house for the light of the fire.
A woman strips to enter the tent where the sweat is taking place. Except for the tent it looks to me like the saunas and Finn baths that I took as a child with my family in Minnesota.
A child starts to cry, and some of the adults tell him to be quiet. I can tell that the four-year-old does not understand why his mother is going with no clothes on into a tent with six other naked men and women.
I have not disrobed and, taking him by the hand, suggest we look for a cookie in the house as I wait my turn for the sweat. We walk up the hill, and he shows me the way to go to find the kitchen. We search through cabinet after cabinet. Wheat germ, noodles, dried tomatoes, nuts. Not an Oreo or a Mallomar, not a Milano in sight.
My grandmother is in the second half of her 8th decade on earth now. She has lived on and off at my house in New Hampshire recently, where she stocked copious amounts of Oreos and some Milano cookies.
She used to occupy my son for hours when he was younger—he would wake up on vacations and go crawl into her bed, where he knew I would let him stay uninterrupted for a few hours every morning watching videos on her iPad. “It’s educational!” my grandmother would say if I came in trying to crack down on screen time.
She is in Santa Fe now, with my sister and her three young kids, the older one, who is six, and the twins, who just turned four. My grandmother has told me that watching those three kids trundle about in all their cuteness, discovering the world in all its complicated glory, is just about her sole joy and purpose nowadays.
So I can very much picture my grandmother in this moment in Santa Fe, taking the little four-year-old by the hand and going in search of cookies. She was probably craving an Oreo herself. That and the naked, self-obsessed New Agers she had been trying to connect with all night were the only excuses she needed to leave the Indian sweat and walk back to the house.
But alas, they can’t find any cookies.
“What kind of house is it,” I say, “without a cookie?”
“Not a very good house,” he says.
Are there no cookies in the New Age?
It’s a great line.
The book is filled with great lines.
A few years ago, I told my grandmother (not for the first time) how much I admired the writing, especially in the prologue. She replied that she had obsessed over it, writing and re-writing until she felt that every single word in those initial pages was exactly the right one.
The writing we most admire can sometimes feel as if it were birthed whole in all its brilliance from someone who is simply much better at the craft than we are. But it’s not true. Most great writers write, rewrite, and do it again and again. We can be masochists that way.
Inevitably, I find that my favorite passages in literature are the product of dozens of rewrites. “The first draft of anything is shit,” Hemingway once declared.
I had been dispairing about the quality of my own writerly output at the time, so knowing more about my grandmother’s process on the prologue made me feel better. It meant I wasn’t necessarily a worse writer than her—I just hadn’t put in the same effort.
Still. This is the example I have been chasing for almost as long as I can remember.
Not just her. It was all great writers and all great writing. My childhood homes were stuffed with books. On the wall above a doorway in one house, my mom once painted the words of Cicero: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Imagine growing up and walking under those words daily.
In high school and college I accumulated used books from thrift stores at such a rate that by the time I moved back to Santa Fe to go to grad school, I loaded no fewer than 12 boxes of books into the moving truck, and did so with pride. I was 23 years old.
To me, books were the pinnacle of civilization—not the only way, but the best way to leave a creative legacy. Books were what we write when we have something to say. It thus followed: if you have not written a book, you must not have had anything important to say.
It’s taken me a lifetime to unwind some of that thinking. Today, I regard a book as one medium among many, just one tool. Art and influence can come in many forms, and important things to say can be said in a whole host of mediums. Although: I still can’t shake the thought that a book is just a bit more special than all the rest.
My grandmother, no doubt, is still waiting for me to publish one. And to be fair, it still might come. The draft is sitting there, in my files, awaiting the day when I have the motivation to do the rewrites necessary to transform it from the aforementioned first draft “shit,” to something that I would actually like to put into the world.
I’m not sure if or when that day will ever come—and I’m trying not to feel like a failure about that. Legacy, influence, and impact can come in many forms if those are indeed things you seek. That might seem obvious, but for me, it has been a lesson slowly, sometimes painfully learned.
At the end of the dinner party, my grandmother drives home:
A glance at the odometer tells me I live forty-two and a half miles from the intersection of Trinity and Oppenheimer Drive. Checking the mailbox, I walk down the drive to the house fully aware that I live at the intersection of the mystical and the individual and one man’s finger away from total annihilation.
And then there’s this:
My grandson Russell’s bike is on the walk, and I remind myself to tell him tomorrow that bikes get parked, not dropped.
The words mattered to her. And indeed they do.
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