“Hey! Look who’s here!” Grandpa Jack’s round face beamed over the edge of the balcony as I climbed the stairs. “Tillie’s writing,” he said more quietly. “But come in!” A bear hug — I’d reached the landing. “Great to see you! I need to go shave my big hairy face, make yourself at home.”
The door to Grandma Tillie’s office was shut.
I waited in the living room, unsure what to do. I had only a few hours to help her before my mom picked me up. I’d just graduated high school. In the fall, I’d head off to N.Y.U. to study acting; for now I was fighting depression and working early mornings at a local donut shop. I still hate donuts.
It was 1978, and Tillie’s manuscript for Silences, a book of essays about women writers’ “unnatural silences,” was long overdue, her publisher’s deadlines extended to the maximum. For several weekends I’d worked with her, rechecking her research. I’d sliced her typed pages of footnotes into strips with scissors and scotch-taped them to the bottom of each pale blue manuscript page.
From inside Grandma Tillie’s office, the clacking of the typewriter, ninety words a minute. Tillie actually writing… well, that was good, because it came so hard to her.
I waited. Bookshelves lined the living room on one side, a long couch stood on the other. Glass doors on the far side led to a small balcony overlooking St. Francis Square, looking west toward the Pacific, the Bekins Storage sign high on the hill near the Sears building. Many editions and translations of Tillie’s two works of fiction, Tell Me a Riddle (1956) and Yonnondio: From the Thirties (1973) stretched wide across the wall. Stacks of my grandfather’s periodicals piled on each end table. Manuscripts and galleys waited for Tillie’s blurbs on the low bookshelf near the door.
Tillie’s office was also full of books, floor to ceiling. Yellowing scotch tape held black-and-white photographs of famous writers on the edges of the shelves. Quotes from those writers hung near each photo, written on pale blue paper in her miniscule handwriting (her pens the thinnest calligraphy pens made). Split and polished crystal geodes; a collection of small toy irons; her typewriter; boxes of papers; old calendars kept for the art.
When I was little, I’d stand in her office and ask, “Grandma, can you give me something?” and she’d press a smooth stone, a bottle of bubbles, a basket carved from a peach pit into my hand.
Typing, then silence, then another burst.
When I was eight — angry about her leaving me to go to the MacDowell Colony to write — I asked, “When you write, what are you writing, Grandma?”
“Oh, well, dear, I’m writing a book.”
“But what’s it about?”
“If I could tell you what it was about quickly, there would be no need to write it.”
“But can you tell me a little?”
“Oh, my dear,” she flushed and stammered, then said fiercely, “Never, ever ask a writer what she’s working on.”
I never asked her that question again.
I waited a long time, listening to the bursts of typewriting and the silences between. Tillie finally came out of her office, eyes far away, “Oh! Ericka dear! I didn’t realize, where does the time go? Well, dear, you don’t have much time either, so here’s a list of things for today, choose one or two or maybe three… please go to the post office and get me a roll of Emily Dickinson stamps. And stop at the Japanese market for nectarines, but only if they’re really ready to eat, the large ones, the small ones don’t have much flavor. Take some money, I have some here somewhere…”
But the post office was out of Emily Dickinson stamps, and I didn’t know if she needed the stamps more than she needed Emily Dickinson on them, so I didn’t buy any. At the market, the nectarines were small and hard. I stood shaking in the bright lights of the produce section, unsure what to do, returning empty-handed, dreading her dismay.
“Oh dear; oh my. Well, I’ll just have to find time somehow to go to the main post office tomorrow, what a disaster. I have two navel oranges for our breakfast, or maybe Jacky can shop if he has time.” And she set me to work sorting her postcard collection into women, children, places, musical instruments, every moment of her attention to me hacking at her writing time (my stomach knotting in anxiety for her).
The doorbell buzzed: “I’ll be right down, Mom!”
“Let me find some money to pay you for your time, dear.”
“No, it’s okay, I didn’t get anything done, Grandma.”
“Ericka dear, you worked, so you get paid.” Sorting through pockets in her jacket for a tiny Japanese change purse, checking the tightly folded bills inside and pressing the entire purse into my hand, “Do you have a tiny little change purse like this? Here, here, keep it. It’s for you. And I’m so sorry, dear. When you come next week I promise I’ll be more ready for you, and oh oh oh dear, I’m never going to get it all done, what a disaster…” her eyes brimmed.
I gathered my stuff. Kisses, many kisses all over my face from Tillie, a hug from Jack, the door closed behind me, and I stood on the landing feeling inept, helpless.
Silences, published in 1979, is about the unnatural silencing of women’s voices because of motherhood and circumstance.
I think. Actually, I’ve never read it.
I’ve tried, but my guilt over being part of the reason Tillie struggled to write — the circumstances behind her own silence — still gnaws at me. I can’t read Silences because my heart beats fast and I am eight again (“Never ever ask a writer what she is working on”), or I am seventeen again, quivering over unripe nectarines while my beloved grandmother freaks out over a long missed deadline. I can’t read her book about not writing without feeling the slice of scissors through pale blue paper as I cut the footnotes to tape to the bottom of galleys. “Tillie’s big excuse,” somebody in my family used to call that book. (Was it my father, was it an uncle?)
No, no, no. World fame, being part of “the canon,” and Nobel Prize nominations be damned, there has got to be another way to be a writer. The misery, the deadlines missed, the stress, the writer’s block, the tiptoeing family.
Decades later, I’m a professional writer, too, but so different from my grandmother. Not famous, for one thing; a workhorse, not a race horse. I talk publicly about what I’m working on and turn in material early, just as in my daily life I pay my bills on time. I’m not a diva. I hate histrionics. Motherhood, rather than being a silencer, has been an inspiration and a boon to my career.
Like Tillie, I often do my best work alone. But too often my grandmother communicated that her powerful love for me — and for the rest of our family — overwhelmed and diminished her creative output, her closed door a defiant accusation: “I love you but you sap my strength.”
So I try to keep my own door open. Sometimes I park my computer in the living room and write while my daughter does her homework. “What are you writing, Mommy?” she asks, and I tell her bits and pieces. I never want her to feel that writing is a dangerous mystery that only happens, panicked, behind closed doors.