My grandma, Alice Brady, passed away yesterday. She was by far the strongest person I've ever known. She survived poverty, domestic violence, and a literal tornado. She raised five kids and cleaned houses and worked her fingers to the bone on the family farm. But though her hardships and her resilience in the face of them are a part of her story, they in no way define it. My grandma was hysterically funny, often in a morbid way. She used to put odd names she found in the obituaries onto the return addresses of letters she sent. And she loved to laugh. When I was a kid I'd go to her trailer on weekends and perform endless, ridiculous cabarets for her, and when I sang "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No" from Oklahoma! she'd laugh until tears streamed down her face. She was unfailingly thoughtful, always asking how I was doing and remembering the details in my life, even on the days she was in unbearable physical pain. She was feminine and saucy - a real flirt (her personal heart throb was Pavarotti, and she'd make you blush when she talked about him. And she always referred to my husband as "that handsome husband of yours.") She was an avid consumer of politics. If she'd been born in another time when her economic status and womanhood wouldn't have been the impossible barriers they were in her era, she says she would have gone into journalism. She was deeply empathetic and always considered how others would be hurt by any policy. Her heart and intellect were enormous.
My grandma and I shared some of the most precious memories of my life. We scoured the bins at Good Will for the best deals, she taught me how to care for the dozens of cats she took in over the years, and she made me the most delicious pudding parfaits imaginable.
She also taught me to love stories. She told me countless tales about growing up on the farm (her pet chickens, the mean roosters), and recounted family squabbles as if they were telenovelas or epic trilogies. I see a direct link between her storytelling and my eventual career as a writer. Listening to her spin a yarn was the best part of the weekend overnights we shared together. I can picture it perfectly even now: me, cuddled up in her arms at night, listening with rapt attention as she introduced the characters (often my aunts or grandpa), the conflict (usually an untamed creature or a financial worry) and the resolution. In the cultural tradition of the Irish, she had a flair for slight exaggeration as well as tangents of whimsy and philosophizing. Watching her take a bit of truth and dress it up as something more dramatic taught me a lot about watching the world around me, distilling what I see, and heightening it to create a lively, structured story. Further, beyond her own storytelling abilities, my grandma knew how to listen. Her curiosity was boundless, and she not only wanted to know all about my life, but she asked pointed questions about my friends' lives as well. She'd get personal details out of strangers, and remember tales that had been told to her by casual acquaintances long ago. As a writer, I try to emulate my grandma's skill for listening, for asking questions, and for letting people's answers touch my heart and stay there. In all these ways, she was probably my first real writing teacher, exemplifying how to live day-to-day in touch with the profundity and importance of stories.
Alice Brady lived 90 years and filled them with grit, humor, sass and love. I'll miss her as long as I live.