Writing Lessons I Learned At My Grandmother's Knee

Wednesday, July 08, 2020
When I was a child I was always at my maternal grandmother's knee, who was affectionately called Mama. Every weekend for as long as I could remember until Mama passed away, my mother, sister, and I would pack a weekend bag, kiss my father goodbye, and go stay with Mama in her apartment which was over a laundromat in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn. It was the apartment she moved into after leaving New Jersey, and where she would later raise five children as a young widow. 

We'd arrive at Mama's in a yellow taxi cab most times and other times we'd take the bus that dropped us off a block away. Delicious aroma's from something she was cooking always greeted us in the stairwell before she unlocked the front door. And when she opened it, her salt and pepper hair in pin curls, her arms would open wide to give us the tightest hugs, as if she hadn't seen us in a while even though she'd just seen us the weekend before.

"What you writing about now?" Mama would ask me when I unpacked my writing notebook along with my clothes to put in an empty drawer she had cleared out.

I'd show her whatever had filled the pages of my writing notebook. She'd smile proudly. At that age I wrote mainly stories about cats, but when she nodded her head in approval it made me feel like I was a writing prodigy.

It was at Mama's knee that I learned an abundance of lessons that inspired me as a writer and infused my writing. Lessons about life, love, family, food, faith, and determination.

At Mama's knee I learned about my history; the painful part and the joyous, proud hopeful part. She was a living history book. Her lessons inspired me to write and speak about our history not just with my own ethnicity, but others so that they too would know those parts about us. The history she spoke into me fortified my storytelling.

At Mama's knee I learned about faith, never giving up on my dreams no matter the challenges. That has helped me press on as a writer when facing rejections or writer's block. 

At Mama's knee I gained wisdom. She had a sage saying for anything and everything, that lifted me up, humored me, and taught me. My female characters often repeat her sayings in their narratives, a favorite one being, "This too shall pass." 

At Mama's knee I learned the importance of traditions; the loving act and art of preparing meals that were food for your soul, the sacredness of family and friends gathering around the table, and other cultural traditions. Her traditions bonded us as a family, and I frequently recreate them with detailed imagery in the fiction stories I write. 

Mama indeed was a gem. Just as it was with my late mother and paternal grandmother, I cannot write stories without a huge part of Mama's molasses sweet spirit and nuances being in it.

What fond lessons did you learn from your elders whose knees you sat at as a child, and how has that inspired you as a writer? I hope you share a few of those lessons in this post.


Jeanine DeHoney's writing has been published in several magazines, anthologies, and online blogs. her fiction stories are always "full" of the voices of the women who loved and nurtured her.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Jeanine--Your post took me back in time. My family would often go to my grandparents' house for Sunday dinner. Like you, I learned that love could be served up via a bowl of homemade gravy, hand-kneaded yeast rolls and mounds of creamy mashed potatoes.

My grandfather was occasionally a storyteller (when he wasn't working in his garden and when he sat still long enough) and the details he included, the simple way he told stories... It stuck with me.

Because of their support, I began to believe I had some talent as a writer. (My grandmother kept a scrapbook with all my school newspaper articles.)

This was a wonderful post, Jeanine. Transporting people back in time, with just words, takes talent. (Your phrase about about your "Mama's molasses sweet spirit" really struck me. My grandparents loved sorghum, so I can definitely identify.)

Cathy C. Hall said...

Oh, Jeanine, you took me back to my Aunt Mary, who was really my great aunt. She never married but helped raise my mother and her two brothers when her daddy died during the Depression. I learned a lot about sacrifice from my Aunt Mary, and grit and grace.

Thank you for the reminder of that gracious woman in my life!

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Thank you Sioux and Cathy, and thanks for sharing. What cherished memories you have about your grandparents, Sioux, and your great Aunt Mary, Cathy, to inspire you in all of life's journeys.

Angela Mackintosh said...

Ah, Jeanine, your post reminds me of my Aunt Ann! She's a retired English teacher who has written four or five novels. They are unpublished, but I did send one to an agent friend of mine. :) When I was in high school, my friends and I would drive up the California Coast--from Orange County to the East Bay of San Francisco--and stay with her for the weekend. I'd write romantic stories featuring my friends and the boys they had crushes on, and my aunt would read them and give me writing tips and praise! (Even though I was super embarrassed.) Then she'd take us out to the theatre to see plays...I specifically remember seeing Lily Tomlin's one woman show, which was incredible and felt like I was getting away with something since the content was a bit racy. But it was my aunt's belief in my writing that encouraged me to pursue it later in life. I never thought of myself as a writer until a few years ago. I'd gone to school for fine art and graphic design. My aunt also taught me about my father's side of our family's history. She's a wonderful historian. I guess you could say she was my only female role model since I grew up without a mom from thirteen on or any relatives close by. She taught me to believe in myself.

Mama sounds like an incredible woman. "This too shall pass" is one of my favorite sayings, too! :)

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Angela those were beautiful memories and such a beautiful story about your beloved Aunt Ann. When we are so very young we often don't realize all of the diamonds our elders were consciously instilling in us, but as we become older it comes full circle. We are so blessed to now carry and share their essence and wisdom with others. Ps. I was always a fan of Lily Tomlin.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I come from a long line of Southern story tellers. Not the women though. I would sit under the trees in the backyard and listen Grandad and the uncles tell stories about ranch life and history. Always history.

Then there was Aunt Sally and my grandmother and the laughter. Aunt Sally was a practical joker who would show up at family gatherings with a purse full of gags. My grandmother's humor was more sly. You had to keep an ear and an eye out for it.

My other grandmother taught me that even if you were making clothes out of feed sacks and had to use the sun to dry clothes, there was always room for another dinner plate at the table.

Jeanine DeHoney said...

Sue, there is a quote by Maya Angelou that says, "I sustain myself with the love of family." How true that is. Your Grandad, uncles, Aunt Sally, and both of your grandmothers, offered you valuable stories about your history and ranching, gave you the gift of laughter, and taught you practical and compassionate life lessons to sustain you. What great loving memories you will always have to sit with, pass on.to others, and write about.

Cassie DeVouse said...


I am so proud of you. Lessons learned and repeated. This is Cassie.

Cassie DeVouse said...
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