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April 30, 2021

The Most Valuable Legacy

Elizabeth Brundage is the author of five novels, including the literary thrillers ALL THINGS CEASE TO APPEAR (the basis for the new Netflix film Things Heard & Seen) and THE VANISHING POINT, which releases on May 18th. With Mother’s Day just around the corner, Elizabeth reflects on the two people in her life who helped influence her to become a writer by nurturing her creative soul at a very young age. As she points out in her wonderful blog post, “Both my mother and my grandmother instilled in me the importance of reading and sharing stories --- funny ones, sad ones, tales of woe and struggle. Because, from the beginning of time, storytelling is how we learn about who we are.”



My mother and grandmother didn’t know it, but they were the nurturers of my creative soul as a young child, and I credit their influence on my becoming a writer.

I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, a charming town about 20 miles from Manhattan. Along with its quaint village street and capacious park, it had a wonderful library where we spent many a Saturday afternoon. As early as kindergarten, I had my very own library card, which slid into a tidy pocket-sized manila envelope. While my mother went off to peruse the adult stacks, I’d run into the children’s room to play with the dollhouse, which, if memory serves, was made of wood with little red shutters on the windows. I loved making up stories about the little doll family who inhabited it. Eventually, I’d get around to choosing my own books, an agency of empowerment even at that age, then proudly present the pile to the librarian at the check-out desk, the mysterious officiator of a procedure called “borrowing,” sustained by an unspoken bond of trust.

When I was in grade school, we’d spend the summer in Connecticut at my grandparents’ cottage on the Long Island Sound. On the last day of school, my mother hurried my brother and me into the car so we could beat the rush hour traffic. I can still remember dozing in the “way back” of the station wagon (in those days we didn’t wear seatbelts) as we rambled up the Garden State Parkway. When we finally pulled into Clinton, passing the old brick library on Main Street, I knew the summer had begun. In those days it was a rustic little house. We had a washing machine in the kitchen with a very noisy spin cycle; by the time the load was finished, the machine would be halfway across the floor, and our only shower was in a dank little room off the back porch, the size of a phone booth. We had a television set, but my mother was not one for letting us sit around. We were always nudged outside, where my brother usually found trouble, and I roamed around barefoot with my girlfriends.

One rainy Saturday, a very kind librarian who I would come to know well over the next several years handed me a copy of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s beloved book, THE BOXCAR CHILDREN. It changed my life, not only for its wondrous cast of characters, but because it was the first chapter book, to my recollection, that I ever read from start to finish --- a feat that, as a slow reader, made me immeasurably proud.

My grandmother, Hannah, was a reader. I rarely saw her without a library book on her lap.  She loved biographies of famous people and had great admiration for movie stars and celebrities. As a younger woman she’d been beautiful, and her blue eyes sparkled with intelligence. She rarely left the house without her lipstick on. This was the late ’60s, a very different time for women, a time when personal realities were kept quiet. Hannah was a countrywoman, a tobacco farmer’s wife. She and my grandfather lived in Ellington, Connecticut, in an 1890s farmhouse on the 250 acres of shade tobacco that comprised The Silverherz Farm.

Like other Jewish farmers in the area, my grandfather’s family had relocated from Brooklyn in the 1920s during Prohibition. As a young woman, Hannah had left a somewhat fraught family situation in her hometown of Wilkes-Barre, PA, to find her destiny in New York City. She worked and studied at Barnard and had a naïve and unrequited love affair with an older man who ended up marrying someone else. When a friend fixed her up with my grandfather, an eccentric, diamond-in-the-rough farmer, she had her doubts. But he was a true original, with a few highly unusual skills: he could twirl a rope while standing on the back of a horse like someone in the circus. He loved opera, and although he’d only graduated high school, he was one of the smartest people I ever knew, always with a stack of books on his nightstand. But it wasn’t easy for Hannah being a farmer’s wife, living out in the country. She used to say, “You can’t talk to the trees,” and I suppose to compensate for sometimes being a little lonely, she read books, lots of them. Like so many of us, books were her friends.

Both my mother and my grandmother instilled in me the importance of reading and sharing stories --- funny ones, sad ones, tales of woe and struggle. Because, from the beginning of time, storytelling is how we learn about who we are. The process of reading gently teaches us empathy, how to step into somebody else’s shoes for a couple hundred pages and see what it’s like. It teaches us how to use our words to communicate how we feel, instead of relying on other forms of weaponry. And there is nothing more satisfying than turning the final page of a wonderful novel, the story of a life well told, and the feeling you have inside of you --- a sort of reaffirmation that life is good, and people are good, and there is goodness right here on this earth. Amen.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us mothers, who nurture the creative souls of our children, so that they can grow up and do the same for theirs.