How I learned my grandmother had a hidden talent for poetry

Like many people who come from large families, I’ve gotten used to my grandparents’ house being the hub of activity for every holiday, birthday, and family-oriented event. I’ve watched my granddad cook meals for as many as thirty people in his small, linoleum-floored kitchen, never taking up valuable table space but hovering instead to make sure everyone had what they needed. My grandmother — simply “Granny” to her dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren — has always been the one to sit quietly at the table as we flock to her in turns, asking about our lives in her sweet way and snuggling any babies within her orbit. She is inherently kind. She raised nine children and never learned to drive, because when she was growing up young women weren’t encouraged to do so.

 And that, unfortunately, is nearly the extent of what I knew about Granny’s life before last year.

When I received an email from my cousin last summer asking for my help with a book she was putting together, my first thought was that she needed an editor, or maybe advice on where to publish it. As the only writer in my family, I get those kinds of questions a lot, which is a welcome change from the curious, yet guarded interest I used to get from family members who didn’t quite understand my artsy-fartsyness. But to my surprise, my cousin wanted me to write the foreword for a book of poetry she was putting together. The poet, she said, was Granny.

I was astonished and, to put it bluntly, ashamed —for as much time as I’d spent at my grandparents’ house, I never knew Granny was even interested in poetry. I agreed to help my cousin in any way I could and spent much of the next day reading the dozens of pages of Granny’s poetry she’d emailed me. I was floored.

The poems were beautiful, sad, and hopeful glimpses into the life of a wife and mother who spent years and years with at least one child in diapers. Here were the words of a woman who was living a complex inner life; she was feeling her way through a life full of sticky fingers and messes and birthdays and worry. She loved her children, but that didn’t keep her from feeling overwhelmed; she was a good Catholic girl torn between loving what she had and wanting more. Granny — then, just Mary — was bursting with creativity and her writing provided an outlet. Her prose struck a chord in me, and not just because I love good writing. As a wife and mother, I could identify with her words, and I immediately regretted not sitting down with her a long time ago to talk about her experiences. How many of us can relate to the agonizing dichotomy of motherhood and self?

As it turns out, Granny’s talent for writing wasn’t a complete secret; my dad and a few of his brothers and sisters say they remember her talking about wanting to be a writer. But, Granny says, her family teased her about it when she was younger and that discouraged her from talking about it again. Her sisters could be cruel, she admits, and told her that writing poetry was “weird.” Back then, creativity was seen as an eccentricity, especially in a small Kentucky town. I realized how fortunate I’ve been to grow up in an era where creativity is not only encouraged, but celebrated. Despite having a few family members who don’t understand where I’m coming from (and, let’s be real, who doesn’t), I’ve had mostly good experiences when it comes to my writing and art, and those things have saved me many times from the dark grip of depression.

I will be forever thankful to my cousin for taking the initiative to put together all of Granny’s poetry in a book (which she presented to Granny as a surprise last year), because it brought to light not only the incredible talent this woman had kept to herself for decades, but the realization that I had unintentionally boxed her up in a neat little package.

Kentucky native Amanda Crum is the author of The Fireman’s Daughter and Ghosts Of The Imperial, and her short work can be found in publications such as SQ Magazine, Bay Laurel, and Dark Eclipse. Her first book of horror-inspired poetry, The Madness In Our Marrow, made the preliminary ballot for a Bram Stoker Award in 2015. She is also an artist and is preparing for her first gallery show this summer. Check out her author page here

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