Chapter 1

My grandmother was a saint. That’s what I grew up believing. She was selfless, generous, gentle, and thoughtful. She gave new meaning to the word “soft-spoken.” Her voice was not just quiet; it had a quaver to it, as if she were always on the verge of tears. Her laugh had a little song inside it. She’d cling to your forearm as if this laughter, however restrained with each melodic inhale, would bowl her over. She was easily moved by the gentler emotions. Love. Pride. Sadness. Joy. Compassion. I never saw her angry. 

Anger, or anything like it, was my grandfather’s purview. I remember how he used to yell her name from the bedroom as we all visited in the kitchen: “Pattie!” — a startling mix between a bellow and a growl. He’d had a stroke years earlier and rarely left his recliner, watching sports all day, muting the commercials (perhaps his most charming trait), smoking a sweet-smelling pipe and drinking sweet iced tea. Before the stroke he’d been an alcoholic. After the stroke, he could neither drive nor walk to the store for beer, and Pattie refused to buy him any, so he dried out. 

I think I knew that much about it at the time of those weekend visits. Or maybe I didn’t learn about my grandfather’s alcoholism until I was in high school and those visits became a little more rare, and my dad thought I was old enough to know that sort of thing. 

I also can’t place exactly when in the chronology I learned that Grammy — that’s what we grandkids called her — had actually left Grampy, renting an apartment for three entire years prior to his stroke. She moved back in to take care of him, knowing that booze would no longer be an issue. Much later, my dad described this period by saying, “When all else failed, she summoned the courage to start a new life on her own, and then summoned even more to go back and save the life of the one who needed her most.” 

She’d gotten to the point where she could no longer live with herself as the wife of an alcoholic. But the wife of a man who’d suffered a stroke? She could work with that.

So when Grampy needed anything he’d yell her name with gravel urgency and she’d sweetly call “Yes, dear?” and hurry (with grace) to see what the matter was. Eventually they switched to a bell system. So he wouldn’t have to yell like that. There may have also been a Walkie-Talkie/intercom period.

Along with being at her husband’s beck and call, Grammy was active in her church and the community at large. When I was thirteen I attended a dinner and ceremony in Grammy’s honor. September 23rd, 1995, was Pattie Simpson Appreciation Day. The Town of Tarboro, N.C., wanted to acknowledge all she’d done over the decades to help those less fortunate. She may have been what my dad called a Jesus freak — always trying to win people over to the Lord in every card, every letter, every God-themed gift — but she certainly walked the walk when it came to altruism. 

Also contributing to Grammy’s saintliness was her tendency to feel guilty, which I thought at the time was an honest Christian way to be. For as far back as I can recall, my grandmother’s guilt complex was a known quantity in the Simpson family. The example that always comes to mind is my baptism, which took place when I was eight years old. (I suspect my step-dad at the time had something to do with it.) Our church didn’t have its own building yet, so we’d gathered in the faded, aging courtyard of an elementary school, flanked by classroom trailers. Grammy and other family members stood close as the minister touched my forehead with two wet fingers and said words that meant very little to me.

Five years later, I received a letter from Grammy (she wrote all of her grandchildren regularly), saying how sorry she was about her behavior at my baptism. She said at one point in the ceremony I had looked up at her, and she could sense I wanted her to look down, but she hadn’t looked down, and why hadn’t she looked down, and she should have been there for me in that moment, that very special moment, and she was so, so sorry! I had no recollection of looking up at her, let alone being hurt by her lack of response.

But those sorts of worries ate her alive. There was always something she’d done wrong.

While my grandmother is still the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever known, I now see that an actual saint probably wouldn’t have so much ego invested in every little interaction. And in reading her diaries and talking to her children — all of them now rockstars in my mind for having been raised by her — I’ve learned that she had not always been the most considerate person. Even as a grandmother, she used to shame my cousin Katie for being overweight. “The body is a temple…” And Katie’s mother before her had been made to run laps around the back yard to shed pounds that her father found excessive. Grampy would get especially sadistic right after the Miss America competition aired on TV. This mandated exercise may not have been Grammy’s idea, but she did nothing to stop it. 

As for my dad, her second-born, I know Grammy’s religious beliefs had tested his patience and then some. As so often happens with the children of believers, Dad grew into a skeptic. Not lacking in faith altogether, but in what he called “depth of faith.” He’d seen how religion had affected his mother’s ability to love herself when there was so much there to love, and he wanted no part of it. He was going to be happy. His soul did not need saving. Neither did his brother’s.

But Grammy believed that hers did. Not even her third baptism, when I was twenty-five and she must have been about eighty-three, could convince her otherwise. The ceremony took place in the evening, in an old church in my hometown of Cary, N.C. Grammy had moved there from Tarboro a few years prior, a few years after Grampy died and she started to display symptoms of what my dad called “the dwindles.” She now needed someone to take care of her, and three of her children lived in Cary, so it made sense for her to join them. Dad, my uncle Kenny, his wife Druscie, and my aunt Wendy all took turns spending nights with her until Wendy, the youngest, eventually moved in permanently. Her husband and two adolescent children moved in, too, all of them putting their own lives on indefinite hold to ensure Grammy’s comfort and safety. 

Slowly, then more quickly, she changed. Her medication and lack of exercise caused her to gain weight. All my life she’d been remarkably thin. So thin I felt the ribs in her back when we embraced, and I never squeezed too hard for fear of breaking her. She seemed the type for whom weight gain was impossible. And while it’s not as if she became obese, I never quite got used to her comparatively plump face, arms and belly. Definitely not to the vaguely searching look in her eye when I spoke to her. 

A woman who’d forever been beside herself in joy to see me and hear me talk about my life now had to search the dusty catalogues of memory to find my face there, to attach it to a name. “Oh, Sarah, dear!” as the recognition flashed, and she’d chuckle sweetly to herself. After awhile she didn’t seem to recognize me at all, and if she did she’d lost the verbal ability to convey it. Every day drew her farther away until the day she disappeared, leaving only her body behind. The vehicle through which her soul had rejoiced. Soon enough I would learn just how much rejoicing she had done.

Grammy died on September 14th, 2013. Her memorial service took place the following week, when I was supposed to be in Vermont for my graduate school residency at Goddard College, where I was earning a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I could have gotten to campus a couple days late — I had a valid reason — but I didn’t want to miss a second of it. I only had two residencies a year and spent the rest of that time looking forward to them. So even though it killed me a little, I didn’t attend the memorial. My cousin Tom was touring with his band at the time and didn’t go, either, so at least I wasn’t the only one.

Small consolation now. Given a do-over, I would miss half a residency in order to stand in a church surrounded by people who knew and loved my grandmother. I would sit on a pew with my sisters and watch as our father approached the podium, as his brother established himself standing tall and bearded behind him. I would hear my dad clear his throat and say, “As I stand up here and look out at you all, the term ‘preaching to the choir’ comes to mind. Everyone here knows what a kind, sweet, caring, loving, self-doubting, humble, shy, and beautiful person my mother was. But please indulge me while we celebrate her remarkable life, even as we mourn her leaving us…” 

And after listening to my dad praise Grammy for being a nurturing mother, devoted wife, friend to the elderly, the homeless, and the incarcerated, a comforting angel to the sick, a Girl Scout leader, a talented pianist, a prodigious and tireless correspondent, I would wait for him to tell the other truth about his mother, the one that really broke his heart.

“The greatest tragedy of my mother’s life,” he’d say, “is that, of all the love she bestowed on so many people, she loved herself the least. She was ever down on herself, guilt-ridden, not feeling the self-worth she so obviously possessed…” And he’d tell my baptism story as an example. Then he would go on to share a “fictional vignette, set in the now not too distant future, which was written to commemorate Pattie Simpson Appreciation Day.” This charming tale takes place on February 15th, 2043 — my father’s 90th birthday, which he is spending with his 6-year-old great-granddaughter, Pattie Anne. She loves to sit in Great-Grampy Mark’s lap and hear stories about her namesake. And my ancient future-father is happy to oblige. He tells little Pattie Anne that her great-great-grandmother was the most wonderful person he ever knew. “I love myself,” he says, “and think of myself as a good person because of her love for me…”

After reading his vignette, Dad would finally succeed in reducing me to sobs with his closing remarks, wherein he’d share the last words Grammy said to him: “Mom’s speech became nearly incomprehensible towards the end,” he’d say. “She tried to talk, but it was mostly gibberish. But nine days before she died she produced five intelligible words which absolutely and truly summarize who she was, to the core. Those words were ‘I love you’ and ‘thank you.’”

And then I would have imagined the sound of my grandmother’s voice and the look in her eye as she gazed up at her beautiful son and said those words, and no force known to man could have stopped my tears. 

But I did not go to the memorial service. 

Instead I read my father’s words a few days later, after residency. My sister Emily gave me a printed copy of his speech, set up the whole visual scene — “It was like Kenny literally had his back!” — and left me alone to read it in her living room. I did so and wept. I wept for obvious reasons, but also because I wanted something I could never have. A daughter. I wanted to name her Pattie Anne, for myself and for my father. But the doctors had all said I couldn’t. Nor was I interested in IVF or adoption. So I wept.

Three years passed. 

In November of 2016, I was sitting in my uncle’s living room amongst my fellow Simpsons, having just eaten my third Thanksgiving dinner of the week. (Divorced parents means multiple holidays.) My aunt Druscie occupied the couch cushion to my left. She and my uncle Kenny, since retired, both worked for decades in the North Carolina State Archives. Druscie’s natural fascination with history and the artifacts that comprise it, and her love for Kenny, and her love for my grandmother (whom she’d come to know very well over the years) is, I assume, what drives her interest in the Simpson-Watkins family history. The extent to which Grammy and her mother before her had preserved family documents and photos is an archivist’s dream. There are letters and journals dating back to the era of my great-great-grandparents, with pictures to accompany them. All upstairs in Tom’s old room. 

Somehow we’d gotten on the topic of Grammy, and Druscie asked me if I’d like to go up there and see a box of her diaries. 

I uttered an ironic “um…”, a totally earnest “yeah,” and Druscie led me to the treasure trove. Metal shelves bearing gray Hollinger boxes lined the back wall of my cousin’s former bedroom. Notebooks, folders, and loose papers filled each flip-top container, each one organized by date and numbered accordingly. 

Druscie showed me a love letter written from my great-great-grandfather to my great-great-grandmother, pointing out at that it was in fact two letters. To save paper during the war, they’d written directly over their old script. Ghostly stuff to decipher. 

There were binders filled with old photographs. Here was Grammy as a four-year-old, standing next to little George McClure in the front yard. Even then she had those Grammy eyes. So much life and fire.

But I was most interested in the diaries. Druscie said I could take my pick, whichever box appealed to me most. Just to borrow, of course. The one labeled “1944-1977” caught my eye. 

“How old was she in ’44?”

Druscie did the math. “Twenty?”

“I’ll take this one.”

Even now, two years later, I open the box with reverence. I lift the first journal free. Hard grey cover. Soft canvas spine. Across the front, “RECORD” cuts a diagonal in hollow block letters. Even now I open it and nothing is quite the same thereafter.