I have never had kids of my own. At the age I am now, I’m quite alright with the fact that any offspring of mine will not have mouths to feed or brains to send to college. My “children,” so to speak, unless you count the four-legged buttmonkeys who live with Lee and I, will be words weaved into stories.
In spite of that, I am blessed with the chance to witness the way the legacy of words can sometimes run in a family.
I first knew I wanted to be a writer when I was about eight years old. My parents were very young when I was born – Dad was only 18 and Mom barely 20. So during my elementary school years, my grandparents on my father’s side were only in their 40’s. I often spent weekends with them so that my parents could get out and about and be young. During those weekends, my grandmother filled my head and sparked my imagination with tales of her own childhood.
In many ways, her formative years were the opposite of mine. I was an only child for many of those Grandmom-storytelling years, since my sister wasn’t born until I was 8. Grandmom had 4 brothers and a sister. I grew up in a suburban area outside of Baltimore City. She was raised in the mountain farmlands of West Virginia, and some of my relatives there still had outhouses instead of indoor plumbing even when I came into the world. She went to a one-room schoolhouse instead of a buzzing public county school, and met my grandfather at 14. He was the only man she ever dated, the only one she ever loved.
Her stories of walking past country graveyards, her mischievous brothers, her moonshine-drinking father, and her dresses made of potato sacks enthralled me. To me, it was like Laura Ingalls herself was sitting beside me telling me her tales. Well, except that Pa Ingalls never got drunk and passed out on his porch.
So as soon as I learned to put letters together to form words, I began writing down those tales. For my grandmother’s Christmas gift in my 8th or 9th year, I created a picture book of all the tales she’d told me. The stories were written in big block letters, and each one was accompanied by a stick figure drawing. The grand finale was the tale of how they had moved to Baltimore when my dad was a little boy, and he’d been so amazed at the flushing toilet in their city rowhome that he’d invited all the neighborhood kids over to check out the miracle. Imagine what those city kids thought when he herded them upstairs so he could show them how to flush.
I still crack up when my Grandmom pulls out that old booklet – a little smudged and very well-worn now, and we flip to my stick figure rendition of my father surrouded by all his buddies as they hover over a toilet bowl.
Although they are much older now, my niece Jordyn also spent many weekend nights with my grandparents as she was growing up. It warmed my heart when Grandmom told me how Jordyn loved to pull out that old picture book as well as the many stories I’d written for her since, and pore over them as if they were masterpieces.
It made me even happier when Jordyn and Grandmom showed me a new set of stories – ones that Jordyn had penned to carry on the tradition.
That was a few years ago now, and my niece still writes. As a little girl, she played with words way outside the normal vocabulary range for her age. That was something I never did as a young writer. But she also pulled together stories that made you care about her characters, who were sometimes members of our family, sometimes herself, and sometimes completely imaginary. She also started keeping journals that she liked to share now and then, and I could see early on that this girl had the gift.
Since then, she has branched out way beyond her writing talents. She is a gifted young photographer. Most teenage girls have Facebook pages littered with shots of themselves in front of mirrors, sticking out their tongues and making “see, look at meeeeee! I’m cute even when I’m being a dork!” faces.
Not Jordyn. Her page is filled with amazing images she’s captured at my family’s cabin, at the barn where she rides horses, and even in her own backyard.
Her true love is horses, and she’d sleep in a barn if it meant she could ride them whenever she wanted. She’ll muck stalls in a heartbeat if that means someone gives her a chance to ride, and takes her riding lessons as seriously as NFL stars take their practices.
On top of all that, she’s funny as hell. She moves with none of the self-consciousness of most young teens, but instead carries herself a bit like Jim Carrey making one of his more absurd movies. She’s just got that kind of hilarious physical presence about her, without really trying.
She’ll be 14 in a few days. It is clear to me that she can be anything she wants to be. I don’t necessarily want her to follow me down the writer’s road, unless that’s what she wants to do. At this stage, she wants to be a photographer and a horse trainer. If those aren’t two careers you could blend together to build a wonderful life, then I don’t know what is.
But if she does continue to pursue her writing, I will be ever so proud and happy that it is a family legacy. And whatever path she chooses, I hope she always uses her love of the written word and her storytelling skills to keep her connected to her brilliant, funny, bright creative spirit.
If I could have one wish for my niece, it would be that she doesn’t do exactly as I did. Instead of saddling herself with responsibilities very young, at the expense of her creativity, I want her to take her risks and follow her dreams while she can still pick herself up and dust herself off without much fallout. I want her to ride her horses or capture the world with her camera or write her stories and to turn one or all of those things into a way to earn her keep rather than ever box herself into something “safe and secure.” Because it takes a long time, but most of us realize that unless we love what makes us “safe and secure,” it also sucks out some of our souls, and suddenly we don’t feel so safe anymore.
I want her to recognize young that she is unique and brilliant and beautiful, and use that knowledge to give back to the world rather than doubt herself and hide her shining light.
Finally, I want her to know that as much as everyone wants that for her, sometimes life has other ideas. I am living proof that we all don’t get to pursue our dreams right away if we also want a place to eat, sleep and take a crap. So my hope for her is also that if she does ever end up having to walk down my road for a while, she realizes from the get-go something that it took me far too long to learn.
It. Is. Never. Too. Late. To. Try.
Happy Birthday, Jordyn.