Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Someone once told me once everyone has their secrets.

I doubted the verity of that statement. Everyone? Really?? Is it possible every person I see on the street, from the darling old lady walking her dog to the mailman, has their secrets?

Of course, well-kept secrets are the plot of many a great book. Still, someone's life has to be a dull, secrecy-free void, doesn't it?

As it turns out, some of the most interesting secrets I've discovered lately were kept by my grandmother, AKA the adorable old lady walking her dog. My grandmother is in her late eighties and thinks she's sixteen. And sometimes, if you ask her again, she'll smile sweetly and hazard she might even be nineteen. Her senility combined with other health issues means she can no longer stay in her home.

The last two weekends my mother and I sorted through a lifetime of accumulation.

It turns out my grandmother kept a secret or two. Nothing earthshattering. No illegitimate children or love affairs. Her secrets were in the form of sketchbooks and writing.

She loved fashion and had a gift for drawing. Who knew? Not me.

In an essay penned in neat cursive she writes
"At that time my husband left on Monday morning and usually came home on Thursday night. My infidelity began to be apparent in small ways. Namely, a small dog who visited daily, getting surreptitious bones and other tokens of my esteem via the back door. For some reason he considered the back door more appropriate for his station in life. Or quite possibly, this was all part of his attack and integration strategy."
The essays and pictures make me wonder if she ever published anything. Of course, knowing my grandmother such publication, if it exists at all would be blanketed underneath an assumed name of appropriateness.

More than anything else, the starts, stops and snippets of the secret life my mother and I uncovered filled me with resolve to live my own life in big vibrant strokes of color.

My grandmother's secrets make me want to be inappropriate, in all the best ways. No hiding emerging talent in private journals or dabbling around at this and that behind closed doors because I'm afraid of what the neighbors might think. I don't want my grandchildren or children to some day discover things I'd done and wish they'd known me better.

Of course, there's still time to ask my grandmother questions about her life. There are moments when she's lucid and knows my name, but even in those moments I'm not sure she'll open up. She's spent her life cultivating expertise in the art of the arm's length transaction. Which is why I've been thinking about how to frame my questions. But I'm starting to realize everything I want to know boils down to the same thing.

Did she want more out of life, and if so, what held her back? 


jaybird said...

Johanna, those sketches are amazing. I would definitely pick your grandmother's brain when she has those lucid moments.

I often wonder if after I'm gone some of the later generations in my family will find all of my journals and ramblings. Will they wonder if I was insane or will they realize I've made most of it up, lol

ilima said...

"My grandmother's secrets make me want to be inappropriate, in all the best ways."--I love this. She was (is) so talented.

Beylit said...

Those sketches really are good. I hope you get the chance to ask her all the questions you have and she can and will answer them.

Some people don't need recognition, so maybe she was happy having the writing and sketching as her own little happy place. You never know.

And I have to say I love the idea of being inappropriate in the best ways. I think everyone should live like that.

Nicki Elson said...

Hmm...I guess that's the thing we don't think about when hiding our things---that someday someone's likely going to find them anyhow.

Those sketches are wonderful - I can't believe she never shared them.

Michael Di Gesu said...


Your grandmother was INCREDIBLY talented. Just fantastic fashion illustrations!

Also remember she is from another world completely. When she was a young woman, it wasn't the norm to have a career and art was considered a foolish one. That is probably why she kept it hidden for so long.

Joanne Noragon said...

Please talk to your grandmother as much as you can. There will be full chapters to accompany those illustrations.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Those are beautiful! Maybe you should put together a book for her?

Connie J Jasperson said...

I think I would have these sketches properly framed, and hang them proudly somewhere. My own house is full of art done by my Aunt, Florence Lemke and also some very modern art done by my son-in-law.

My blessing is that I come from a long line of artists and musicians--neer-do-wells who were often amazing people. This gives me permission to be a struggling writer!

Johanna Garth said...

Jaybird, I think you're so open about writing that they'll know they're all your wonderful stories.

Thanks Ilima!

Beylit, clearly I love that idea too :)

Nicki, I know. There are pages and pages of them.

Thank you so much Michael. I know she was from a different generation and it makes me feel lucky to be part of mine.

Joanne, I absolutely intend to, but she's very good at deflecting questions.

Diane, That's an interesting idea. I wonder if she'd like it or if she'd be annoyed that we'd discovered her secret.

T. L. Cooper said...

I couldn't help but think about your posts regarding your daughter's interest in designing clothing... Your grandmother seems to have had a similar interest.
Those are incredible drawings.
Secrets sometimes are secret not because we're ashamed or scared but because we want to have something just for us... Perhaps that played a part in her not sharing her work. Or perhaps it was because, as someone else expressed, a different time for women... Or a combination of the two... Or something entirely different.
I used to feel that way about my poetry. I'm glad I got over it because my work has been really well received, especially the stuff I felt most hesitant about sharing...
What a wonderful mind she has, and what a wonderful grandmother she must be. I know how I cherished my grandmothers and miss them still...
Great post! I really enjoyed it!

Unknown said...

What you don't know is your grandmother used to be a CIA agent. Shhh! :D

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Talk to your grandmother now! Just think of all the stories she could tell you.

Elise Fallson said...

What a touching post and I agree with Alex, if you can, talk with her while you still have time. She may actually want to open up, but maybe she doesn't know how.

Chuck said...

It sounds like you and your grandmother will both enjoy her final years. A treat not to be taken lightly.

Teresa Cypher said...

Lovely post, Johanna! Wow, what a discovery! I'd definitely ask her the burning questions you now harbor. What's the worst that can happen? She won't tell you?

I am the older generation in my family now (I know--at only 53?) and I do regret not asking my mom and my grandmothers more. Opportunity lost forever...

Thanks for the food for thought. :-)

Shell Flower said...

Wow, those sketches are amazing. What if your grandma had lived in the Project Runway generation? We are so lucky to be born when it's okay to be yourself right out in the open. I hope you get answers to your questions. Enjoy her while you have her. And yes, the unfolding of secrets is what makes many a good book interesting.

Unknown said...

Wow, those sketches are beautiful! Your grandmother had a real eye for fashion. I hope that you two have the opportunity to have a real and wonderful conversation. I regret that I never had a true heart to heart with my grandparents before they passed.

Sabrina A. Fish said...

I often wonder about the adventures my mom, dad, and grandparents experienced as children. I can still remember the day I realized that they were people who had lives before I came along with stories I know nothing about. Aren't we just so self-centered as children? I am making up for that now. I love getting to know them each as people rather than just 'mom', etc.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I'm willing to bet that your grandmother would love to tell you more about her life. I think that a lot of people, particularly older people, just want someone there to talk to and to listen to them. And I like those drawings that your grandmother made. They're really good.

PK HREZO said...

Wow. I love these kinds of stories--when the little old person has a past that makes you see them in a whole new life. Are those her fashion sketches in the pics?? If so they are dynamite! This reminds me of a Danielle STeele book called Granny Dan. It's a great story. I bet your grandma was full of brilliance--and you know, the apple never falls far from the tree. ;)

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