What Really Happened
Life is God’s Novel
Isaac Bashevis Singer
My mother’s mother, my favorite grandmother, was an immigrant who
as a girl lived in a middle-sized town in Roumania, called Bacau, and then moved, a
married teenager, to Grand Forks, North Dakota with her husband, older than she
was, a Rumanian man named Shmuel Markovitz. He died when she was still in her
thirties, leaving her with a house,four children, and a meat market. What I know
about her life is just a sparse outline. I’ve always wished I knew more. And a
thousand times I’ve had the thought that I wished she’d written it all down.
In a path that was not so rational and not so clear, she moved to New Haven,
Connecticut, and then to Beverly Hills, where she lived in a small apartment with her
only son Alex, next door to Rosemary Clooney’s mother (and George Clooney’s
grandmother!). Eventually Alex married Bea, a widow from Los Angeles
and my grandmother continued living California for nearly twenty
years. Although she was a letter writer – she wrote to her children every single week
always on thin sheets of onionskin paper, always with a blue ballpoint pen,
her letters were more or less identical: she’d begin with weather. Because she lived in
Los Angeles the weather was always fine. She didn’t tell us much about the inside of
her life, about what she felt and what she feared. She loved us all, but we didn’t know
much more than that. What she’d recount were social details: cards with her
girlfriends, different flavors of ice cream she tried at Baskin Robbins on her block.
My grandmother never learned to drive. She’d walk wherever she had to go, or take
a bus. She did tell us about Baskin Robbins though. Because she loved their ice
Baskin-Robbins was founded in 1945 in Glendale, California by Burton Baskin and
Irvine Robbins, ice cream enthusiasts and brothers-in-law, whose passion inspired
what is now the world's largest chain of ice cream specialty shops.
(What was once a selection of 31 flavors a different ice
cream flavor for each day of the month—has grown to more than 1,400 in its flavor
In a funny way I feel I know as much about Baskin Robbins as my grandmother.
I loved her completely, and have wished a thousand times that I knew much more
about her life, and especially, about how she felt. I wish I’d asked her many more
questions, and I wish she’d given me many more answers. I loved her, the way
grandchildren often love their grandparents. Without question. Now all these years
later, I wish I’d asked more.
What did she think of the path she’d chosen? What were her parents like? And her
siblings, people I never got to know? What is it she would have liked to tell us about
English wasn’t her first language. But still. I wish she’d written it all down.
So many of us feel that way. We want to leave our families with the stories of our lives.
But how? How do we write them down?
The incredibly prolific writer Nora Roberts, she’s published two books a year forever,
gave the best writer’s advice I’ve ever heard in a New Yorker profile a few years ago:
just put your ass in the chair.
Beginnings are absolutely everywhere. Even the great story tellers tell us that where
we begin doesn’t matter at all.
Start with your own childhood. Your mother’s or father’s or a relative you once knew.
We all have stories to tell, especially now that we’re not young anymore, and
we’ve actually lived rich real lives, full of problems, and memories, of
relatives, of happiness and of stories, so many stories.
Of what we did right, and what we did wrong. Of what we learned, and what
we know, and what we know and who we lived and What Happened.
What Really Happened.
We at ALTE would be very happy to hear your stories. Write them down and send
them to us.
And meanwhile, here’s a poem about how to begin.
A question people often ask:
where does a story begin.
Anywhere is the answer
We all know that.
A story can begin on a park bench
in a city familiar or unfamiliar
deep in the woods
or with the description
of a relative or someone entirely
fictitious, someone very tall.
A story can begin with
a stranger I think he is a dogwalker
ageless man wearing bright red glasses.
who said yesterday to me:
Would you mind
telling me what it is you do?
Or with these words, always good:
This is a story I want to tell to you.
Love to everyone from a cold cold New York
PS Here’s some music for this week