When I was young, my paternal grandmother took me to a room on the second floor of her house and showed me a stack of gifts she’d received over the years. They were still in their original packaging and she offered me one of them. I declined her offer as the gift she wanted to give me didn’t suit me. Now I understand that like her, I had no need for it and had I taken it home, I would have shoved it under my bed and forgotten about it. My siblings often teased me saying I looked like her. This wasn’t flattering. Not that she was a gargoyle or anything, she just didn’t tend to her appearance. She rarely did more than comb her hair. Her hairstyle resembled a steel gray helmet. When asked what my sister remembers about her, she will reply that Grandma wore heavy, black orthopedic shoes and her mashed potatoes had lumps - but she made a great ham. When she died, I looked at her in the coffin and thought how great she looked. They had done her hair and makeup. She was stunning.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was collecting character data. Like one of the seven dwarfs gathering diamonds from caves, I gathered personality traits. I would sometimes try them on for size, not knowing that I had my own. I didn’t know I was a writer. I just thought I was weird.
Character data is something all writers collect. We store it in a big filing cabinet somewhere in the back of our minds and while we write, we summon our muse to extract this one or that, mixing and matching them as suits the person we’re inventing. That’s the nice thing about writing - I can give people better memories of Grandma than that she wore big shoes and made lumpy mashed potatoes. In my stories, she has a chance to do something far more exciting than cook the Sunday ham.
My siblings will recognize my relatives in my books. I often use those who have passed away since they can’t be offended by my perceptions of them. Now that I am older, I see them differently, too. Their motivations are clearer. Their thwarted dreams and missed opportunities can be realized.
The interesting thing about character data is that you never stop collecting it. Some years after my grandmother died, my mother told my sister that Grandma had been great friends with her aunt. This may not be an earth shattering revelation to some, but to us, it was amazing. They had gone to the movies on Saturday nights. They had been together one evening when a family friend was shot right down the block from where they were walking. My sister and I were ecstatic. This added a whole new layer to Grandma. She hadn’t been locked away in that old house in Plainfield all her life. She’d gone out on Saturday nights and had a brush with an act of violence that took someone’s life. It made her a whole lot more interesting, let me tell you.
I regret that I was too young to ask her about that time. She died when I was fourteen. I was more interested in The Monkees than my father’s aged mother. I wonder what she could have told me about her life. I think I am more like her than I ever wanted to be when my siblings teased me about looking like her. Perhaps if she’d been born now, she would have been a writer, too.