Thursday, July 23, 2009

A Tribute

The title of this post reminds me of the Tenacious D song of the same name. I want to offer a tribute to someone who mattered a great deal to me, and who left me with the most valuable legacy--a sense of my place in the world, an abiding belief that I am a writer, and that this isn't a crazy career choice. But when I try to come up with the right way to express all this, it seems that the real words are already gone.

Just as it happened for the guys in Tenacious D, who while playing for a demon that was threatening to eat their souls:

And we played the first thing that came to our heads,
Just so happened to be,
The Best Song in the World, it was The Best Song in the World.

But later, when they tried to remember it, they couldn't. And so they wrote another song, which was a tribute to the first song, which they had forgotten.

So it is with me. The picture above is of my grandmother, Madlyn DeWitt, who died one week ago, on July 16 at the age of 91. She was much more than just a grandmother to me. She and my grandfather raised my sister and me from the time we were very small. This was the result of a number of forces, not least the fact that it was the late 1960s and my parents were pretty far gone into the boho world of the hippies and beatniks of the Lower East Side.

My grandparents turned out to be pretty darn good parents, all things considered. Madlyn was my first--and my best--editor. She managed to simultaneously support my creativity, while giving me heavy duty lessons in grammar and sentence structure. Later, I knew the rules so well I was able to play with them. Turn them into games for my mind. She also taught me that great writers are usually great readers as well. She didn't have to tell me this. The evidence was all around me. In the evenings, rather than turning on the TV, we generally all settled down to read. There were books of course, but also many mysteriously erudite magazines to choose from--The New Yorker, something from England called "Punch," and many others. For years, all I could really read were the cartoons, but eventually I found myself delving into those long articles--the ones that went on in tiny black print for page after page--and was amazed to discover that there were other people who wrote like my grandmother spoke.

She wasn't a known writer, but she had her moments in the sun. For four years, from 1972-6, she was the editor of a tiny literary journal that became something of an insider's secret among what my uncle has termed the "literati" of our local area, called The Barrytown Explorer. She contributed many of the articles, and her style--a combination of witty bon mots and sincere appreciation--captivated the audience, which ballooned during her tenure. She managed to wangle contributions out of any and all good writers in the Hudson Valley, including the celebrated writer Saul Bellow, who was spending some time there, and New Yorker contributors of the time who maintained homes there.

Many of my recollections of those early years of my life involve the sound of my grandmother click-clacking away on her Underwood manual typewriter--she couldn't think, she said, when using an electric, because there wasn't enough time between each key stroke. To this day, anything that sounds like that keyboard sends me back to age five. I sometimes hovered outside the door of her office, playing with my toys in the hallway, and listening to something that sounded like what I knew would be my sound when I was a grownup.

I wrote my first book at age six, when I was confident enough in my writing abilities that I figured it was time to start publishing. Madlyn never treated me like a little kid when I was involved in such serious matters. She helped me staple the pages together, and gave me a few suggested edits to the text of the story, which was called "The Big Gum Chewing Boy." I was, at the time, obsessed with bubble gum, because Madlyn didn't allow it in her house under any circumstance. It was both a forbidden fruit and something I could stand in judgment on others. And so the book told the story of a boy who partook of this sinful item, and was punished with the loss of his mother. (Yes, I now see the significance.) In the end, the gum actually saved him. He used it to fly away and get home.

Madlyn was of a time and place that doesn't exist anymore. She made jokes that required you had a provisional grasp on at least three languages. Mealtimes were for serious conversation. Either you kept up with the adults, or you stayed quiet. When you were done, you had to ask, "May I be excused?" My sister and I honed the phrase until it was uttered so quickly it became one word, "MayIbexcused?"

Madlyn was passionate about politics. She expressed this through an intense and vocal opposition to the Vietnam war. But there were other more subtle ways that she revealed her political views. For example, if we had soup, we were all allowed to pick it up and drink it directly from our bowls, because "Mrs. Roosevelt" did that. Later, she was actually hired by the Roosevelt Library to write books commemorating the centennials of both Franklin and Eleanor (Mrs. Roosevelt)--a chance to express her gratitude and respect for a presidency that was as personal to her as the Kennedy administration was for a later generation. I wonder if I'm inheriting this, as I find myself feeling a personal connection with the Obamas in a way I wouldn't have expected.

Her passing is a personal loss to me. And, as so many of her friends are saying, it also feels like the end of an era.


Kristi said...

This is really lovely, Sunshine. Thanks for writing and sharing. I miss your voice.

Fredrica said...

As one who feels very close to both you and Madlyn -I love what you have written and hope to read more. Don't stop Sunshine!

Anonymous said...

And don't forget "No Popping", which was the phrase used to prevent children from leaving the table before excused!

Thanks...and now I remember that was an Underwood and not a Royal, as I thought...although she had a couple of them.

Yes, Mom had the viewpoint that we could write and so we do....

Aunt Alice

Stephen Foskett said...

I'm sorry for your loss, Sunshine, but you certainly honored this amazing woman in an appropriate way. I'm sure your memories alone are a worthwhile legacy!

SpecialK said...

Sunshine, this was a gift to have been invited to read. Thank you. Thank you for sharing your talent and this very personal relationship. Few people influence and inform, I'm jealous for you and having this force of nature in your life. How beautiful. How lovely. How wonderful that this is a part of your story in life.

Gideon said...

Thanks Sunshine, read this with your sister over the internet and it filled in some interesting gaps for me. Of course I only knew her as a 13 year old, over a few holiday days in Cape Cod with you and your sister, but she sounds a fascinating woman. I loved the three language joke thing, it paints a very clear picture.

Anonymous said...

Great tribute Sunshine! :)