In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father’s parents are barely mentioned. They live miles away in Iowa, for one thing, and, for another, whatever they do is light years away from his contented life in her mother’s close-knit extended family.
As a purely literary challenge, trying to fit any more characters into a five-generation tale runs the risk of adding confusion for the reader. But then, by my eighth and ninth revisions, I stumbled upon a simple tweak that allowed me to acknowledge his parents more fully — the simple names of Grandpa and Grandma Mac would do. Just how much of a picture do you get from just that much?
For the most part, they’re a sharp contrast to Cassia’s experiences of home. She and her brothers never feel comfortable in their childhood visits to their Iowa grandparents. But somewhere in my later revisions, an episode developed that changes her understanding and then allows a relationship, however tenuous, to develop. Can I admit being rather fond of the insertion? For one thing, it allows me to quickly sketch another kind of American family little known to the general public — one that faced earlier pressures not all that different from Cassia’s Greek-American lineage much later. For another, well, it’s closer to my own roots, even when I look at hers with some envy.
In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, the voice and direction of the story changed greatly. For one thing, it became much more Cassia’s own.
To my surprise, some of the material about Cassia’s father lost its urgency or importance. Here was one passage that would be refocused and condensed as she began to appreciate Grandpa and Grandma Mac:
As I saw from visiting my grandparents and cousins in Davenport, his upbringing was quite different. The bland, dusky, straight-talk Protestant church was so unlike the colorful, mysterious Eastern Orthodox where we worshiped when we could. Thea Nita says he was ultimately put off by its dead vibes and an underlying hypocrisy. And then, at Sunday dinner, what I kept asking myself was, where are the herbs for cooking? What’s with the Jell-O salad? Just what’s quivering within its orange blob? Who’d want to eat a lava lamp, for that matter? And I was never much for checkers.
I usually saw little of Grandpa Mac. His job at John Deere meant he was away from the family much of the time, unlike my experience of working side-by-side with all of the family. Well, Aunt Harper sometimes filled in at her husband’s car dealership, too, but I had nothing in common with their kids. Nada. Look, I don’t even count them as cousins. Got it?
Only recently have I detected a glimmer of what that side had lost in only a couple of generations. Moving to town from the city, especially, took a toll.
My own genealogical research (presented on my blog, The Orphan George Chronicles) came into play far more than I’d anticipated in my reworking my novel What’s Left. Some of the techniques she applies in her search to know her father more fully are ones I used to learn about my own father’s ancestors. As I explain there, old photos can reveal a lot.
I’ll be candid, though — for years I had no interest in my mother’s ancestry. A few years ago, when I finally delved in, I could see why. Their values, unlike my dad’s side, were alien to mine or even offensive.
Do you prefer one side of your family over another? Why? Or why not?