Writing Roots: Learning to Listen

Christina Katz By Christina Katz

My father’s mother was “Granny” to me. She stands out in my memory as the wise elder who invited me into the sacred circle of storytellers. How did she invite me in? By asking me to listen. And she was such a great storyteller that she never had to ask twice.

My Granny was a substantial woman, a sturdy, first-generation American with Polish and Austrian heritage. She was strong-willed, opinionated, and fiercely loving. Intermittently throughout my fairly typical middle-class childhood, my substantial Granny and her slight sidekick, Gramps, would arrive at our home, usually for a holiday or family milestone. The trunk of their boat-like Buick would be stuffed with dime-store toys from a Woolworth’s in Orange, New Jersey. I would squirm with giddiness and jostle my older brother waiting for our invitation to “help bring in the luggage.”

Later on in the evenings, after the excitement of company arriving, a home-cooked meal, and gluttonous gift consumption had exhausted us (and we’d come down from the last kick of sugared soda we weren’t usually allowed to drink), my brother and I would collapse at Granny’s feet in front of the fire to listen to her stories. I realize that this sounds like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, but the difference is that Granny didn’t censor or discriminate when it came to storytelling. She told dramatic tales about her own childhood, as well as everyone else’s in our extended clan, including my own business-suit-wearing, briefcase-toting father.

“Well…” Granny would always begin, her mouth opening wider than most folks’ would in conversation—so wide you could see all of her perfectly capped molars. She’d lean forward with the intention of delivering a story and then rock back with the pleasure of her own tales.

“Well” was the equivalent of “once upon a time” for her. “Well” was also used to punctuate a story with Granny’s “Can you believe that?” commentary as she went along. And when she popped out a “Well!” with lots of air behind it, you knew a climax in the story was coming, sometimes accompanied by both her hands flying up in the air.

No matter how many times I heard the same stories, I never tired of them. There was the time Granny’s older sister threw the butcher knife at her head and she heard it whizzing by her ear, and the time she and her two siblings raised such a ruckus that they knocked over the china cabinet just before their mother (my Nana) returned home from shopping. There was the story of my young father who, despite being dragged across the gravel lot by the school bully, came home mysteriously smiling.

No doubt about it. My grandmother had a quicksilver tongue and she knew how to use it. Telling us stories and showing us how to engage an audience like a pro was my grandmother’s gift to me. She left those behind like an inheritance that money could never rival. When I landed in graduate school for fiction writing back in 1992, I knew that I was simply picking up with my own stories where Granny’s had left off.

Thanks, Granny.

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Christina Katz, author of Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids, is working on her second book for Writer’s Digest Books, Get Known Before the Book Deal, Use Your Personal Strengths to Grow an Author Platform. She has also written over two hundred articles for magazines, newspapers, and online publications and has appeared on “Good Morning America.” Christina is a popular writing instructor who has taught hundreds of writers over the past seven years. She blogs daily at The Writer Mama Riffs and is publisher and editor of two zines, Writers on the Rise and The Writer Mama. More at http://www.thewritermama.com/.

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2 Responses to “Writing Roots: Learning to Listen”


  1. 1 Eileen February 13, 2008 at 5:48 am

    Delightful story about your grandmother. Her Polish-Austrian heritage is of special interest to me. You mentioned that she was first-generation American. So she was born in the good ol’ US of A, right? Happens that I’ve had the chance to spend some time in Poland (like a month while waiting for a visa) and the same in Austria. But I have new respect for those Polish folk. They are a strong bunch. I’d say we can credit them for shaking The Wall of Communism 10 years before the Berlin Wall came down. I’d say that Eastern Europe owes a lot to the Poles. Anyway, interesting that all that is at least part of her heritage and yours too. Again, great post. Can absolutely see grandmother opening her mouth extra wide to tell stories. Take care, E

  2. 2 damyantig February 17, 2008 at 12:47 pm

    Fantastic post. Touched me even more because my granny had the same gift, and I would like to think she passed on some of it to me.

    http://amloki.blogspot.com
    http://damyantiwrites.wordpress.com


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