(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
We meet a couple of times a month, schedules permitting. We drink a cup of coffee and if I’m lucky there’s cake or pie. Then we spend an hour or two working on the words she has put on paper since we last met.
In her mid-80s, she is writing down the memories she spent a lifetime collecting, organizing them as a surprise gift for her children, great-grandchildren and newborn great-grandson.
My job is more than just editing what she’s written or giving her advice about the choice of words or a turn of phrase. I’m her coach, there to give her confidence.
“I’m not a writer,” she said the first time we spoke by phone. “I’m not a writer,” she says as she hands me the paper. Oh, but she is. And like all of us, she has a unique story to tell.
She married young and stayed married for half a century. She raised a family, navigating the upheaval and shifting social landscape of the late 1960s and 70s. She volunteered at her church, traveled some and survived the loss of a spouse.
Now, grounded by arthritis and failing eyesight, she wants to leave her family with a window to who she was and how she came to be the woman they know as mother and grandmother. The stories she is writing down aren’t grand, sweeping dramas. They’re the quiet stuff of an ordinary life.
Her children know their parents took a cruise through the Panama Canal but they don’t the couple sat on the deck one night and, holding hands, began to talk, looking back over their years together. And that both ended up in tears, crying over the flush of first love, over the harsh words, the occasional cold nights and wasted time given over to the ordinary spats and grudges of any marriage. They wept over the sweetness of family and the beauty of the life they’d had together. In less than a year he was gone and she’s never told anyone about that night. Until now.
The children know the dishes on the table each Christmas belonged to a great-grandmother, but they’ve never heard the story of how that china, packed in excelsior and shipped in a big wood barrel, made its way across an ocean as a wedding gift only to arrive just after the groom succumbed to influenza and died leaving a grieving young widow. And the barrel was passed down, still unpacked, to the next generation.
She is writing about the scar on her knee and how she got it when she fell through the ice as a child, ripping the skin on a jagged rock on the edge of the lake. She’s putting into words just how it felt to hear the ice break beneath her and feel herself plunge into water so cold it stole her breath. How her legs were so numb she didn’t know she was injured until she was pulled to shore and the blood trailed bright scarlet across the ice. The memory is still so terrifying she’s never talked about it to anyone. Until now.
So we meet. And one day at a time, one word at a time, I encourage her. Together we tell her story as she becomes the writer she never believed herself to be.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance writer based in Spokane, Washington. In addition to her Spokesman-Review Home Planet , Treasure Hunting blogs, she chronicles her travels on CAMera: Travel and Photo. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org