I’d like to say I was born at the beach with a pen in my hand.
Ostensibly, that’s the case.
Lit-trilly, I was born in an Army hospital in Missouri, to a teen bride and a much older soldier stationed at Fort Leonard Wood. My parents met at a roller skating rink in New Jersey. They skate-danced together.
My mother’s father was a brilliant (my opinion, but you should see his stuff) and prolific writer of many things. He wanted to be a newspaper reporter. He worked at the Asbury Park Press from the time he was in middle school, first as a printer, later as a linotype operator. He didn’t have the formal education for official journalism, so he wrote letters and letters and more letters, and essays and jokes and articles that were sometimes published.
My grandfather had a passionate love affair with words. He kept an OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY (cue the choir of angels singing) open on his dresser. He read that thing — read it — and memorized words from it every day.
My father — another genius with words. No one debates this. The man wrote poetry and songs and letters that would rip your heart out. He was a proud hillbilly from a tiny Kentucky town, and grew up on a dirt road. He played the banjo and according to him and other family members, played and recorded with a number of very famous country and Bluegrass artists. I do have a copy of his published album with a Bluegrass band he had in his younger years. I never knew him growing up.
My parents came back to Jersey when I was an infant and my sister was a couple of months from being born. My father left, mom didn’t join him, and I got my first sunburn in diapers on the beaches of Central Jersey, which were just a few miles from my grandparents’ farm, where my mother, sister and I lived. I have sea salt and barn dust in my blood.
When my sister and I were slightly beyond toddlers, my grandfather thought it was amusing to teach us gigantic words and have us recite them for company. I think I was four when I clearly enunciated for guests, “antidisestablishmentarianism.” How could a kid not become addicted to applause for just saying something? And hey, it was only one word!
The real “thing” happened, though, in second grade, when I took a novel from my grandfather’s book shelf to school for “share your favorite story” day. No “Horton Hatches the Egg” for this kid. I didn’t want to look like a silly little girl, so I grabbed “Under the Lilacs” to read to my classmates. I remember Miss Holtzeimer’s eyes. At the back of the room, I could see them growing wider and wider. About a paragraph in, she made her way to the front of the class, put her arm around my shoulders, gently closed the book and said softly, “you understand this?”
My cheeks on fire and feeling like I’d done something horribly wrong, I sheepishly told her that I did. “Share your favorite story day” ended for me being guided back to my seat, with Miss Holtzeimer holding on to my grandfather’s book. The next thing I knew, some lady came by to take me just outside the classroom door. She read a list of words to see if I understood what each of them meant. I did. No more kid stuff. Reading time from that point forward was in a separate classroom with some other kids, reading, writing and sharing words I didn’t know then were college level English. No one explained “gifted.” I thought I was the freak the other kids called me, but honestly, that other classroom was a relief. I never realized why even though I thought Dick, Jane and Sally books were full of cute pictures, my first grade teacher, Mrs. Risner, got frustrated with me for blasting through them so quickly.
While second grade and forward was fun, the real “Moment” happened for me the first time I walked into a real library, with walls and stacks and short shelves full of books. I stopped dead in my tracks and just stared. All the hair on my arms stood up. The classmate behind me bumped into me. All I could breathlessly say was “look at them all!”
“Freak.” I guess I was. I really didn’t care. All those books…
I checked out as many as I could every chance I had, and devoured them. On book fair days, my poor grandmother didn’t know what to do with me and my list.
When it started becoming apparent that I had a flair for creating stories as well as — “what’s this now…?” — mimicking the styles of whichever writer caught my fancy, it officially became a Thing.
Funny thing about gifts. I always wished I could draw like some of my friends. I wished I could sing. My sister was a much better dancer. By the time I got to algebra, I wished to God math wasn’t like Greek to me. I cried every single day as an adult college student when I was forced to take two semesters of algebra. By the grace of God and a phenomenal professor who taught bonehead math for non-math students, I squeaked by.
But I became a journalist there. And I got to write features. I made a living doing what my grandfather had always dreamed of doing. I got to educate people about abuse and date rape. I got to share stories of people who were going through rough times but inspired others because they survived. I wrote poignant things and funny things and sweet things and heartbreaking things that made people think, or moved them to action in some way.
I reached people. I had to leave it for a while, but thanks to a gifted, passionate and driven former college classmate, I’m revisiting that role and feeling incredibly blessed that I get to do some of my own recovery from some challenging circumstances by sharing more of other people’s stories.
It is a gift, and I’m grateful and humbled by what I get to see, and how I was trained to see it and write it down. And I’m incredibly lucky, because it’s easy for me and the process of crafting facts into an art form is like very few other things.
I love words. They’re like music, because they can make people feel things they didn’t feel before they read them. They’re powerful. They can create and foster love; they can stir or promote hate. They evoke emotions like music does, like acting, like photography, like dance. They have rhythm. They have cadence. They have flow.
I get to play with them every single day. That is a gift in itself.
Thank you, Grandpa, and thank you Dad, for whatever you put into my genes. I’ll do my best to always use it wisely.