My grandmother and I are connected by books

I always wanted to be closer to my grandmother while I was growing up. She lived far away and we usually saw her on holidays, when the house was full of people competing for her attention. I was the youngest granddaughter. I know she loved me, but there was a lot going on, not to mention the fact that I was always chasing after my older cousins instead of hanging out in the kitchen, where you could find her.

I have this memory of sitting in the back seat of her car, my grandfather driving in LA traffic after we left Disneyland. It was hot and my little brother was in the seat next to me, probably making annoying noises. My grandparents bickered loudly in the front seat– the traffic, Disneyland, the heat, children, each undoubtedly testing their nerves. I think I learned a few new adult words that day. Still, I was somehow comforted by the predictability of their squabbles. Love was never missing. Even then I admired her fire.

As an adult, we finally spent time together, alone. We took a drive to Southern California to visit relatives and she told me all the secrets to our family tree– the Native American blood, the car accident that stopped their Western migration in Bakersfield of all places during the Dust Bowl, the hard work of all the women in our family on farms and in factories to keep the household afloat. She spoke openly about relationships and loss, her three big loves in this life each gone before her.

My mother bought her a book of questions to answer for her granddaughter, me. She filled them out lovingly and gave me the book of her words before I got married. I will always cherish the beautiful arches of her cursive, the unexpected memories from her childhood revealed in her shaky pen. The day of my wedding, she and my mother carefully hand-crafted a beautiful dragonfly out of beads to put on my bouquet. Even if sometimes there was not a sea of words between us, she has always shown her love through actions– cleaning, cooking, painting, sewing, creating. I get that now. As a child I thought closeness required more words.

Now there are more words. Today I returned my grandmother’s phone call, to see if she would ride up to my mom’s with me for Mother’s Day. I sent her Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as an early birthday gift. Just three days since it arrived, she is already halfway done. We spent most of the time on the phone chatting about Cheryl’s journey. We both call her that, Cheryl, as though we know her on a first-name basis. My grandmother cannot get over Cheryl’s courage. We both are haunted by her memories before the Pacific Crest Trail, especially the scene with her mother’s horse, Lady.

There is a part in the book where Cheryl reaches Kennedy Meadows, and that is the point where I knew I had to send my grandmother the book. It is a place she has told me about many times, but I could not place when or why. The first thing she told me on the phone, “You know, we used to go up to Kennedy Meadows all the time– your Grandpa Don and I lived near there, you know.” I did not even tell her that was why I sent the book.

My grandmother, 81 on Monday, and I are connected by books. Every time I finish one I especially love, I send it to her. She has read Middlesex and A Thousand Splendid Suns, never off-put by the complexities of life, but intrigued in very much the same way I am. I thought about this today, how much I love that we share our secret world of written words, how even fifty-one years apart, we both devour good books ravenously.

The first time I decided to send her a book, I hesitated, uncertain she would like the same things I do, worried I might somehow offend her with the brashness of my taste in literature. To my great relief, she loves my favorite stories too. I should have known. She still has a lot of fire.

Our grandmother on her 80th birthday last year in Bodega Bay. I'm proud to say I made the birthday crown!

My cousin and I with our grandmother, on her 80th birthday last year in Bodega Bay. I am proud to say I made her birthday crown in very much the same fashion she has made so many things for me over the years.

I look forward to our drive in May. She requested we talk more about Wild. I cannot wait. I am grateful we found a way to exchange more words than can ever be spoken aloud, that our shared love of books has helped us know one another more deeply than I ever expected.

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8 thoughts on “My grandmother and I are connected by books

  1. Taryn says:

    This is beautiful, and I really hope you share it with her at some point.

  2. nicole says:

    Lovlely Oliva, you have a special relationship with her. I too thought that as a child more words were needed to be close to someone, but so many other things are there too. The book of questions sounds like a lovely wedding present for you, what a lovely memory for you. Enjoy the trip on Mother’s Day; enjoy talking about Wild!!!

    • oliviaobryon says:

      It is so interesting how our perceptions of life change as we get older– I’m really grateful I’ve been able to connect with her in unexpected ways as an adult. Have you finished Wild yet? Are you enjoying it? 😀

      • nicole says:

        Hey Oliva, I am almost done, enjoying it so much; I do not want it to end. Did you read her other book — the one with the advice columns, I think they were from a job she had. Did you read her fiction book?

      • oliviaobryon says:

        Yes– I loved Tiny Beautiful Things, so touching! I didn’t know she wrote any fiction, excited to go check it out now 😀 And, I was sad when Wild ended, too…

  3. loloslunch says:

    I had an acquaintance who told me of the connection she was able to make with a neighbor who had passed away by reading her old books with the notes she had made in them over the years. She described it like having a conversation with her. She had picked up the books at an estate sale and her only regret was that she hadn’t bought every last one of them. Your writing reminds me of that story. -Lolo’s Mom

    • oliviaobryon says:

      How interesting. I feel like that is almost a book itself– the story of your neighbor and her unexpected connections through the books she bought. I have a book of poetry that belonged to my grandmother who passed when I was little. She marked all her favorite poems and I’d read them over and over because it gave me that same sense of connection. Funny how your comment made me think of that– I hadn’t in quite awhile. Thank you for sparking an important memory!

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