BY SARAH MADGES
When my grandfather died a few years ago, I realized I didn't know how to process the loss because I hardly knew the person I was losing — I hadn't gotten to know him in his lifetime. With one remaining grandparent, I decided I needed to make sure I got to hear her story before I was forced to hear it from someone else. I wrote her a letter asking if she would share her life story with me, in as much detail, and whatever order she felt most comfortable with. I didn't expect her to respond so quickly, or at such length — even less did I expect her to keep sending letters once I stopped writing her back with specific prompts and encouragement.
As I gave her so few guidelines — tell me your story — it was interesting to see the way she segmented her life into chronological bits with titles corresponding to the content, like "Childhood Years," or "War Years." It was also fascinating the details she would include, recalling them in such vivid language — the white snakeskin tennis skirt she wore — while other sections she'd leap past, moving from her first date with her husband Clarence to marriage in a matter of paragraphs.
What's more, I was struck by her handwriting. As I read letter after letter, I came to see her in the handwriting — the bodily trace pointing to the human body, my grandmother, herself. I was reading Susan Howe's That This, whose cut-up quotes from manuscripts overlap to create beautiful excised art-meets-poetry, when I realized that's exactly how I wanted to preserve my grandmother's penmanship. I decided to create a visual art piece splicing her handwritten account of her life with my own handwritten account of my life. A life she knows as much about as I knew of hers before the letters. In one sitting, I wrote a truncated autobiography on a legal pad, demarcating sections the way my grandmother had but with alternate titles (there's no war for me to tell a personal account of). I scanned and printed everything, and began cutting out phrases, creating a redacted work in the spirit of blackout poetry that I then arranged and pasted onto card stock.
Braiding together our lives in this way brought me closer to her, and helped me contextualize my own life in its comparatively short run. As I keep working through our letters in sequence, the project grows in size and scope, and I can sense that the true subject will find itself in the process.