Gramma’s Moment to Shine

06/29/2017 at 11:48 pm (Author Updates, Novel Excerpts)

One of the gratifying parts of the editing process is finding ways to boil scenes and sometimes chapters down to the clear and straightforward essence of meaning and dramatic tension, which helps move the story along at a brisker pace. Now, The Bear is by no means a fast-paced, plot-driven novel in any traditional sense – it’s a slower, character-driven novel about thoughts, feelings, behavior and, ultimately, actions. With most of the scenes, or parts of scenes, that I excised from later drafts in order to bring my novel to just under 400 pages, there was a twinge of melancholy at losing them, but overall it was my sense that I was doing service to the book as a whole.

With the longish scene I cut where Gramma takes Steve and Demian to her church – during their stay in Fremont while Rose and Ken run off to Santa Cruz for a week away from the kids and their responsibilities – I felt that the stay with the grandparents was too long. My intention for the “trip to Gramma and Grampa’s” was to show a stark contrast to the unstructured, unsupervised life the boys live in Berkeley. It was also designed to give some insight into the childhood that Rose was still running away from, and provide a bit of reasoning for why her parenting style and approach to motherhood was the way it was. So with this scene cut, I felt the chapter accomplished what I wanted, without too much extraneous scene work or detours that weren’t entirely necessary.

This is a long way of saying that while I do think I made the right choice cutting out that section of the chapter, it’s a scene I still really like.

So here is that scene, in its excised entirety, which focuses on one of my favorite characters from the novel – 57-year-old Fanny Vivian Templeton Baxter, better known to Steve and Demian as “Gramma.” I hope you enjoy it.


From Chapter 10:

With Grampa off to work, she had plans for us. I showered and Demian told Gramma he wanted to take a bath after dinner. We had unpacked the night before, the two top drawers belonging to me and all of Demian’s clothes fitting into the bottom drawer. I was already dressed when Gramma came into our room. Demian removed his nightshirt while he decided between a striped shirt and the hand-me down “Free to Be You and Me” T-shirt that I always thought looked stupid yet he adored.

“Why, you’re barely skin and bones, dear.” We both looked up, but clearly she was talking to Demian. “You need some healthy meat on you or you’ll be able to fit pretty snugly into that drawer there before long.”

“I could fit,” Demian said, then started to climb on top of his folded clothes. She pulled him gently back, and he looked up at her with genuine surprise. “Don’t you want me to, Gramma?”

“I want you to do whatever your heart desires … within reason. But right now I want you to get dressed so we can go on a little field trip.” She removed my old shirt from Demian’s hand and dropped it into the open drawer, then helped him into the striped one. “We’re going to visit some friends of Gramma’s, down at the church. Do you remember when I took you both there? Was it last year?”

“Are there gonna be any other kids?” Demian sat on the carpet and forced his bare feet into socks that were too small for him. Gramma seemed to take notice of this, staring down at the floor until he’d tied his shoes.

“Well,” she closed the bottom drawer and then ran a few fingers through his hair, “there just might be. Some of the grandmothers are as lucky as me to have grandsons and granddaughters visiting them for the summer, and there’s a good chance they’ll tag along. Just like you boys.”

There weren’t any kids when we arrived, and when we left two hours later, we were still the only non-adults in the stuffy, airless room down in the church basement. We busied ourselves as Gramma and her friends discussed plans for a community bake sale and various other activities that the pastor’s wife read off a mounted chalkboard. Demian leafed through the hardcover picture books about Joseph and Moses and Job, while I entertained myself with a leather-bound New Testament Bible that had psalms underlined in pen all throughout the book. There were also unreadable scribbles in the small margins, some written with such fervor or haste that small holes and rips appeared in many of the pages. When my head began to hurt from the small type of the book, combined with all the marked up pages and biblical language that read like a foreign language at times, I nibbled on a few butter cookies set up on a card table and listened to the women.

They sat at a round table, all eyes on the only woman standing, Pastor Phil’s wife Sandy. She held a long pointer, like a pool stick but skinnier and with a fat, Hubba-Bubba-sized chunk of white plastic stuck to the end of it. Whenever a new topic was announced by the wrinkled, stooped-over woman with the school-like binder perched under her big Mr. Peabody glasses, Sandy whacked the blackboard, the end of it landing close to a numbered subject drawn in chalk. The sound echoed around the tiny room for a few seconds, and Demian leaned over slightly—as if he’d been asleep—the first two or three times Sandy swung her pointer against the board.

Gramma headed up the committee for a food program she said was designed for “the elderly and infirm,” and each time she used that phrase, the wrinkly woman they all referred to as The Secretary raised her thumbs up high before shaking them in her general direction. I watched my grandmother command the attention of the other women. I listened to her voice, so familiar yet with a difference in its tone. She had always been a confident, direct person—what Mom called “no-nonsense” as if it was the worst thing you could be—but surrounded by these women, her age and some much older, I was struck at how imposing and impressive she seemed. It felt strange, like I was eavesdropping on a private moment, stealing a glimpse into a world that was truly Gramma, but separate somehow.

I thought about the way I spoke around Mom and Gramma, and then the way I spoke around Demian, and around my friends at school. It was different with each of them, not just what I said but how I said it, even though I was always me. I didn’t feel like it was an act, a show I was putting on with all the people around me, but I knew that I was somehow different depending on who I was around. I tried to remember exactly how I acted around Seneca, who I was when we were together, and wondered if that was my best self, or something close to it. I didn’t necessarily think I was seeing Gramma’s “best”—I was convinced she saved that for Demian, me and Grampa—but I felt I was seeing another side of her bestness. It made me feel special that I could see her like this, that I knew a little more about her than I had known before this day.

Church Parking

photo by Justin McFarr


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