In elementary school I read A Writer’s Notebook, a children’s book that taught me how to tell stories by keeping records of my life and my thoughts. I remember having half a dozen Writer’s Notebooks scattered around my room, some filled with stories about my friends, some filled with secrets about boys, and some filled with disturbing stories about kidnappings and cancer.
It baffles me that none of the English/Language Arts lessons I teach are of any interest to my students. In their free time they ask me to give them math questions (of all things!) and beg me to teach them algebra. This is cool of course (any student who enjoys doing math will probably end up okay), but they despise reading and writing.
And so in an attempt to make these young people love writing, they now each have their own Writer’s Notebook. And even if it kills me, by the end of this semester they will all love to write.
The other day I asked them to take out their notebooks and write about a family member. But what do we write about? they all asked and I said well, you can write about your mom or dad or brother or sister or grandma or grandpa…
And one of my kids shouted from across the room ‘Why would I write about my grandpa if I don’t even know him?’
And for a second I wanted to cry (but I promised myself I would never do that again in front of them) but I started to say ‘Well I don’t know my grandpa that well since he lives in China’, and luckily the room erupted with China! he lives in China? so I didn’t get to finish, which is good because I probably wouldn’t have been able to.
What would I have said to that? How do you write about someone you don’t really know?
Growing up, I remember thinking I would have more stories to write in my notebook if my life was more like the stories I heard about how my dad was raised on the side of the mountain and had to take care of chickens and fight off wild animals. I remember dreaming that one day I would be the one to take all the tales I’d heard about their little village and weave them into a story that gave voice to the people on the mountain during the Cultural Revolution.
What do I know about him? What do I know about the man who raised my father, who flew halfway across the world to hold me and my brothers on his lap and tell us stories of the wild animals he and my dad had to fight off? The man who told us all about the monkey king and taught us surprisingly applicable life lessons from Chinese fables? The man who tried to learn how to say ‘grandpa’ in English and had the only laugh in the house that was louder than my dad’s?
I wonder if I could ever really write that story. It’s too late to ask him to tell me those stories again because the last time I had a chance to do that I was a teenager, and somewhere along the way it became more important to me to be introspective and self-absorbed than to care about my family.
All I really have now is the little things. Like how I always found chocolate hidden in his desk because he had type II diabetes. How he never forgot to water the vegetable garden or take care of the plants.
But I still have to write those little things, because they’re all I have; I guess a language barrier can do that to you.
How do you write about someone you don’t really know? And why do I feel like it’s something I must do? Does it somehow make everything more significant if I can record on this blog the tiny collection of stories and moments that barely even live in the corners of my mind?
I’ve read somewhere that part of grieving is taking inventory of that person’s impact on your life and on the lives of those around them. Which is what I guess I’m doing. I’m scared that if I don’t write it down, no one will remember. I don’t know who I’m writing this for because it’s not like anyone who knew him will read this, but I’m writing it anyway because I think I’m desperately trying to prove to myself – to someone – that it mattered.
My mom forwarded me the e-mail that my pastor sent to all the church leaders. At the end he added the quote by CT Studd “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what is done for Christ will last.” And I’m incredibly thankful my grandpa believed but I feel –
And somehow I’ve again made this all about me so I’ll just stop here.