What You Should Write

Grandma’s on her third glass of brandy for the evening. She drinks a lot these days, ever since grandpa died. Her mother was an alcoholic and grandma is touchy on the subject, so much so that she refuses to read books about characters who deal with alcoholism. Her own mother’s personality changed at night when she had her first drink and became cruel and wintry. Grandma is more than aware that alcohol can have these effects. She drinks anyway.

“You know what you _SHOULD_ write?” she asks.

I’m sitting on the living room rug in front of her easy chair. “What?” I ask, flatly.

“Travel memoirs,” she says. “That’s what I like to read.”

Then _YOU_ write it, I want to say, but don’t. “Mmm,” I say instead.

“I don’t know why anyone likes what you write,” she says.

I know that she means the subject of what I write, not the writing itself. She has long admired my prose. I don’t really care, though. What she’s said is offensive enough.

I hate discussing writing with drunks.

Grandma wanted to be a writer. When I was 11, she brought me to a writer’s group that she went to weekly. None of the women in it were published, which is fine as it goes, but when there was no real movement toward professionalism in that circle — well, why does it become my burden to be the repository for whatever dreams of a writing life grandma never really pursued in the first place?

“I wrote short stories,” she says. I know this, but my prior knowledge has ceased to be relevant to the conversation. Let’s be honest: _I’ve_ ceased to be relevant to the conversation.

She gets up, which is a trial for her these days since she’s on an oxygen machine that doesn’t quite solve the breathing problems she has from her emphezema. She pulls down a brown file folder. It’s filled with print-outs.

“I wrote poems, too,” she says.

She commences reading them. There’s a sentimental story about a housewife and mother who owns a dog. She wants to know what I think. I hate being put in that position. I tell her I like the specificity of detail. She pushes. I say that the ending strikes me as playing a bit on sentiment. That’s on purpose, she says.

I look at my mother and father. They’re busying themselves with not much in particular. There’s nothing they can do with this conversation anyway. Grandma has already picked on my mother, saying that my mother reminds her of her sister, because they’re both too bossy, and then looking shocked at my mother’s offense.

Oh, mom. The step-daughter from a generation where step-children were a shame to be closeted away, always trying to be dutiful because she knows that the woman who raised her doesn’t view her in quite the same light that she views her ‘natural’ children. If she loves this woman more, if she gives her as much as she can, if she does everything perfectly, then maybe she’ll get maternal love equal to her worth. Sure enough, there was a phone call a few years ago, an apology for treating my mother the way she did. But here’s mom, the only one of the children here after their father’s death, helping to pack away grandpa’s things, and all that generosity and dedication is swept away by brandy and thoughtlessness. They’re both too bossy.

Grandma takes out another print-out. This time it’s a poem. She reads it aloud in her creaking, oxygen-starved voice.

Oh. Oh, no. It’s a poem about me. A poem about me and my cousin who’s just a couple months older. A poem comparing us. Oh. Oh, no. It’s about how everyone fussed over me because I was cheerful and intelligent and performed for company, but grandma, she could see how all that was surface, how all that was nothing, she could see what everyone was overlooking, the tender shyness of the child that everyone should really be fussing over. My cousin. The one who’s really good.

My heart is pounding, or slowing, or something. Something wrong. I look at my mother. Well, here it is again. Natural family versus step-family. It doesn’t matter what we do. If we come to help her in her time of need, then we’re bossy. If we’re successful writers, we write the wrong thing. If people celebrate us, then it’s taking attention away from the really worthy ones.

That poem is about me when I was three years old.

Already wrong in her eyes. Already stealing resources that should have gone elsewhere.

I think of how much I loved this woman when I was a child, how I cradled her gently in my heart during the years when I didn’t often see her, how I’d treasured her, and thought she’d treasured me. But what was going on in my head wasn’t going on in hers. She’s given me glimpses of that before. Loud conversation at Thanksgiving dinner about what a weird child I was. How unfriendly I was. How I would never stop reading. I’ve taken that pain already, and I’ve been stashing it in my stomach, full of thorns and prickles. I try to forget it. It nettles my skin and I remember.

But this? That she already disdained me when I was three years old?

She’s stopped reading. She’s looking at me over the edge of the paper. Her gaze is expectant. Oh. Oh, no.

It’s not enough that I’ve listened. She wants my criticism of the poem now. The poem about me. My criticism as a _writer._

“It’s… very vivid,” I say. I pull myself up. I clutch my arms, looking cold, only half as an artifice that will give me an excuse to go get my sweatshirt. I leave the room, leaving them behind me, my parents on the couch, my grandmother in her easy chair, breathing heavily with the hiss of her oxygen machine.

“I think I’m going to take a walk,” I say, stepping back into the room for a moment as I shrug the sweatshirt on. Grandma isn’t looking at me anymore. Mom looks up and smiles and waves. She’s bossy. I’m attention-seeking. How long have these narratives defined us in this woman’s mind? Since before we were three years old?

I push open the front door and walk outside into the dark chill. All around are identical tract homes, cars neatly parked in the driveways. No one can park on the street here after dark. It’s illegal to deviate like that in this neighborhood. I choose a path between wide lawns and palm trees and darkened bay windows illuminated by the flash of television screens. I try to walk away.

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14 Responses to What You Should Write

  1. 1
    Lilian Nattel says:

    I’m sorry your grandmother treated you and your mother like that. Children should be cherished, all of them. I’m sorry she didn’t.

  2. 2
    RonF says:

    I had the misfortune of being the child of my grandmother’s only daughter, the sibling that moved off the family farm and married someone that Grandma didn’t approve of. But Grandma never lived with us, she stayed on the farm with her sons and daughters-in-law, so I never faced the kind of thing you are facing except in small occasional doses. A constant diet of it has got to be tough on you. It would be tough on anyone.

  3. 3
    Renee says:

    I am so sorry that you were treated like that. Often times it’s the ones that are closest to us that have the ability to hurt us the most. As hard as it is sometimes we need to acknowledge that just because someone is family does not mean that the relationship is healthy for us. I hope that you can find a way to heal.

  4. 4
    nojojojo says:

    Wow. Shit. This hurt to read; I can’t imagine how much it hurt to experience, and write.

  5. 5
    PG says:


    What nojojo said — but also, very well written.

    I can imagine having had that be my experience of grandparents, had my dad’s parents been the ones we were geographically close to. Luckily, it was my mother’s widowed mother who came to live with us when my parents immigrated, and as much as she can drive us crazy, she’s always completely supportive. (Even when I rejected years of her brainwashing attempts by failing to go to med school, or when I brought home a tall skinny white dude.) This has reminded me to be a little more patient when she’s formulating her next plot to get my sister married off — at least she’s infuriating us with only the best of loving intentions.

    Your mom might feel like she owes a debt of gratitude, and perhaps you should support your mom when she’s paying that debt, but don’t feel independently obligated to your grandmother herself if she doesn’t deserve it.

  6. Mandolin,

    It’s hard to know what say about this, except that it is beautifully written, and sad, and I feel for you, and that you have courage to write what you want in the face of that kind of dynamic. (And even if you think, Well, what else could I write? that doesn’t mean it doesn’t take courage to do so.) I am sure this is not unique to writers, but I am glad I am now old enough and well-established enough as a writer that I can just smile with tolerance at the ways in which people in my family project their own agendas onto the fact that I am a writer, from deciding what my writing must mean, to telling me I should not write what I write, to completely dismissing it as anything relevant to anything that really matters in the world, to thinking that it only matters once it’s published in a book. (They don’t think they should read the book, mind you; but once it’s in a book, suddenly I am a real writer.) But to have that kind of agenda projected on you by someone bitter with not having been the writer she wanted to be is a particular kind of projection and pressure that is very difficult to have to live with.

  7. 7
    Falyne says:

    I’m at a loss for words except: OUCH.


  8. 8
    allison says:

    Beautifully written and heartbreaking.

    I have a mother who drinks. Sometimes words come spilling out of her that hurt beyond description. Sometimes I am 10 years old and being told, yet again, that I am too dramatic and too loud and too MUCH. Sometimes I am the sister who lived instead of the sister who died and she rants against the demands of love I placed on her when she was mourning her loss. And the spectre of the child she sees haunts my life; am I? Am I too much? Can anyone love such a demanding, needy person? Can I?

    I do and so do others. But the doubt is ingrained in me; a gift from a mother who also gave me laughter and cooking and music and travel.

  9. 9
    sanabituranima says:


    I am sorry.

    At least you have “permission” to stop blaming yourself.

  10. 10
    Elena Perez says:

    If my step-grandmother were to have been a writer, she would likely have written something very similar comparing me and my half-sister (her flesh and blood).

    Which is to say that this piece really hit home for me, and I’ll probably be thinking about it for quite a while, and maybe doing some writing of my own.

    Thanks for sharing this, and ouch.

  11. 11
    Julie says:

    I say that the ending strikes me as playing a bit on sentiment. That’s on purpose, she says.

    Ugh, I’ve been there.

    I’m so sorry this happened to you. At least you’re aware of the narrative, though – a lot of the time, we aren’t even able to get that far.

  12. 12
    Maia says:

    Mandolin – this is really powerful, thanks so much for posting it.

    I really like the title in particular, and how that plays with the subject matter. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about writing and what we should write, and this is a great answer to those questions.

  13. 13
    DaisyDeadhead says:

    Good stuff, Mandolin.

    (I hated my stepmother… I was totally elated when she died, in spite of myself.)

  14. 14
    Christina says:

    Gah. I truly identified with the mother in this story. BTDT. And, I’m sad to say, I’ve seen my own daughter get targeted in much the same way I’m targeted and have said…nothing. I lectured my daughter on not challenging her grandmother instead.