I come from a long and possibly unbroken line of non-writers and non-readers, and was about eight when my mom read my description of a family trip to visit her father up north. I must have written it for a teacher because in the piece I used his surname, calling him "Grandpa Pongratz." "'Grandpa Pongratz'!" my mother howled, but not angrily; more as if she'd been startled from behind.
What had I done wrong, I wondered, and slunk away.
Now I'm beginning to see how what I wrote startled her.
- I had re-named, for an audience, the man she had called Dad and I had called Grandpa.
- In doing this I had asserted my difference from her. Mom did not at that time perceive us kids as differing from her in any important way. I was the eldest and my job was to break such news ("Mom, we're different from you") and absorb the response.
- In writing "Grandpa Pongratz" I had used the power to name. Such power in the hands of an eight-year-old--anybody would freak out.
- By writing, I had transplanted Grandpa from our entirely private family hothouse and placed him in the light normally reserved for public figures.
- Words on paper strike much harder than information conveyed verbally.
- Until that moment her father had not existed on paper, in prose, independently of his own hand.
Writers forget how non-writers perceive us. We forget how amazed and hypnotized we were to see our very first work in print. We might even have succumbed to it ("The first time I saw my name in print, I knew--").
Reminded of this by seeing Indian Paintbrushes growing in the roadside today, and remembering that long-ago car trip, on which Mom told me the name of those orange flowers.
More on this later...