Big Granny’s Wishbook [Creative Nonfiction]

This brief story came about while working with one of my ghostwriting and story development clients. His project was a book about building positive, long-lasting relationships. It asks: “What do you wish for in a relationship?” And then details a practical means of achieving those wishes.

Once his book’s content (the narrative) was about 95% where he wanted it, he and I discussed moving beyond the working title. We knew—and had received feedback—that the original working title wasn’t appealing. I gave him my NGFS analogy. [Naval Gunfire Support means a ship’s shore bombardment to support ground operations, counter-battery fire, etc.] It proves true with every book or story I’ve worked on. I told him: “With titles and cover designs… it’s like gunfire support, where it’s not unusual to fire long… shoot short… then adjust to get on target and fire for effect.” Now working in the private sector, retired from the US Navy, he had formerly commanded a DDG (guided-missile destroyer). And he and I are surface warfare Navy veterans, so he understood what I meant. We knew we could get on target with the right title by working through iterations. We continued talking, leading to me reviewing my perception of the book’s central question and theme. That line of discussion became a train of thought that triggered a memory I shared with him. It went like this:

“When I was a young boy, I occasionally spent a weekend with my great-grandmother. I grew up relatively poor, and my great-grandmother had lived a hard-scrabble life. She had raised her kids and grandchildren through the Depression era. And still, to that day (in 1971), had little in the way of luxuries or even comforts that we today take for granted. To my knowledge, she had never owned a TV but had an old radio. In the evenings, she would sit, chew tobacco, rock in her chair with the radio dialed in on a country and western station at low volume, and read every night. Two things only: The Old Testament and the Montgomery Ward catalog.

“The Bible was big and heavy, black leather scuffed and scarred… it looked as old as she was (about 80-something then). I’d watch her from the old couch that smelled of dog—even though she didn’t own one—as I read my book. After about an hour, she’d glance at the side table at the catalog. After the third glance, she’d shut the Bible setting it on her lap (it would go with her when she grew too tired to read; when she slept, the Bible was kept on the small table next to her bed). And she’d pick up the catalog.

“Now, my Big Granny (we called her that though she was tiny, barely 5 feet tall and maybe 100 pounds at the most) never—ever—smiled. She was not mean; it was just that a harsh life had worn away any gentleness. She might not have laughed or smiled around me (or anyone), but when I stayed with her, I could always count on her cooking my favorite foods. Skillet-fried chicken and fresh biscuits with gravy, apple cobbler, and other good stuff. She had a cast-iron frypan bigger than a 1950s Cadillac hubcap. Though it seemed like it weighed 30 pounds, she’d handle it like nothing and could cook a complete meal with just it. A good meal was how she showed love.

“Anyway, the first few times seeing her with the catalog, I noticed her face would lose its tension after slowly turning several pages. The edges of her lips would curve slightly to form the barest hint of a smile. Sometimes she’d stop rocking and lean to hold the catalog open under the table light, her bone-thin, gnarled finger tracing something on the page. She’d squint at it, and sometimes the smile would grow. Marginally. Then, with the briefest head shake, she’d settle back and turn the page.

“I finally asked her: ‘Big Granny, what are you reading?’

“‘Not reading… looking.’ Her lips straightened. Big Granny wasn’t much of a talker; you had to go after—chase down—any conversation you hoped to have with her.

“‘Looking at what?’ I wanted to know what would make her face soften.

“She stopped rocking. ‘Come here, boy.’

“‘Yes’m.’ I hopped off the couch and, in three steps, stood beside her.

“‘This,’ she pointed to the catalog on her lap, ‘is my wish book.’

“I thought of the story of Aladdin and the Lamp (I’d read it from One Thousand and One Nights earlier that summer). ‘What’s a wish book?’

“She looked up at me, and for a moment, I thought she might give me that curt smile, but it didn’t take. ‘It’s got all the things I wish I had but never did… never will.’ I heard the slightest tinge of wistfulness in her voice.”

Now, that’s a memory I had forgotten, brought back by our discussion. As my stream of thought about it ran out and tapered off, my client stopped me. “Back up. What did you call it? Her wish book?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “It was her wish book.”

“Maybe that’s it,” he remarked. “That could be a great title.”

I mulled that over for a moment and agreed we should add to the shortlist. After we ended our call, I sat for a moment, thinking. Not of the client’s project. A wish of my own had come to me. She’s long passed on, but I wished that back then, I’d been able to give my Big Granny something from that catalog she looked through each night. I also realized she’d lived alone for a very long time. That made me think about how blessed I am to not want for things and how important it is to have someone by your side. Someone to share the ups and downs of life, the good and the bad. Someone to hold that wants you to hold them and embraces you in return. Someone to have fun with. Someone to grow old with. As the father of four daughters, it’s what I wish for my girls in their relationships.

Though they didn’t for my Big Granny, I know wishes and dreams can come true. But you have to work to make them. Before it’s too late.