The thirst began in childhood, when I’d hear stories from other kids about their grandparents. Trips to the zoo, hot chocolate at bedtime, funky old houses with secret passageways to explore, Christmas and Hanukkah parties were all part of others' family lore. I listened intently, hoping somehow I could find grandparents too.
My own had died before I could meet them, probably because my parents were well into middle age by the time I was born. Though my sister remembered our grandparents slightly, her faded memories did little to quench my thirst for real people I could adore. The thirst continued and then, just after college, I met friends who described their relationship with an older adult who was becoming like an adopted grandfather.
I couldn’t help but be curious, and invited them to bring him to dinner. My boyfriend and I slaved all day, cooking and cleaning, to make the evening perfect, and at last, the gentleman came, along with my friends.
They were definitely close and it was a fun evening, but it became clear within two minutes he wasn’t going to be my adopted grandfather—he already had a couple of "grand-kids" and that was enough for him.
I remember being despondent for days. My sister used to say all she wanted was a family, and I used to think that was crazy because we had one—mother, father, her and me. But when your family is small and busy, and you don’t have much interaction with each other (and/or it’s negative interaction), it can feel like you don’t have much of a family at all.
None of this is to say I didn’t love my mother and father or that they didn’t love me. It is to say that I grew up craving grandparents and still wish I’d gotten to know at least one of them. My father’s parents had colorful histories—a Klezmer musician with a dark, artistic, sensual face and a grandmother who was known for her beauty and gentleness and loved the movies (like her granddaughter).
My maternal grandmother Jenny (for whom I was named) was reputed to be an amazing cook who singlehandedly supported her family and kept them together after her husband died when my mother was about 13. My mom's father Louis was a foreman on an estate in Russia and rode a horse around his employer’s land there. What stories would I have learned if I’d known them?
Now, in The Beat on Ruby’s Street, I created a character without grandparents either, though she does know some of their tragic histories. Like me, Ruby is in search of a family, but she doesn’t really know it. The artists living around her who support each other’s work and create a community are the start of a family she’ll seek out for the rest of her life.
Writing that, I have to smile because it sounds so Freudian. At the same time, I think the best art comes out of thirst for what we want, and that thirst propels us forward into creating. So it’s probably not worth worrying about what Freud would say.
What I would say is if you’re looking for something (like grandparents, or anything else) and you haven’t found it, write a story about it. Paint something. Or write a song. Creation is thirsty—and that’s a good thing.
Whether or not you had grandparents, you can find some fun articles about them online:
Accidental New Yorkers: Grandparents Relocate by Ronnie Koenig