For a number of years, I had been working on a collection of stories about my maternal grandmother, whom all of us grandkids called “Nonnie.” She was strong-willed and independent; and, it would have been easier to stop a freight train than to stop Nonnie when she made up her mind to do something.
The story of how she decided at seventy-five years of age to learn to drive, pursue a South Carolina driver’s license, and buy a car all on her own, has become family lore. It is the kind of story that could make a good chapter or two in a Southern novel. I had fantasized that I would someday develop a fictional character based on Nonnie’s life and circumstance and, after publishing my memoir, Retirement: A Journey not a Destination, in 2013, I decided it was time to turn that fantasy into reality.
All of the stories I had written thus far were drawn from Nonnie’s elder years, when she had developed into a quirky and colorful character not unlike that of Mattie Rigsby, in Clyde Edgerton’s Walking Across Egypt, or Tolitha, in Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.
We grandkids all had our favorite “Nonnie stories” which we shared with one another every time our families gathered–and still do, for that matter. As an example, one of us would tell of the time when Nonnie took us to the Waffle House and after she was served, called the waitress over and said,
“Could you please put this waffle back in the waffle iron. It’s just not quite crisp enough for me.”
The perplexed waitress replied,”I don’t think so, m’am. You have already put butter and syrup all over it.”
The laughter that followed would often draw Nonnie over to listen in. Nobody appreciated a good story more than she did. She would give us all a big hug, throw back her head, and laugh as hard as any of us, even when the story was on her.
We can look back now and see what was imperceptible to us then–that the onset of dementia was beginning to cloud her judgment and wear down her inhibitions.The process was a gradual one but in the end, it robbed her of her vitality and took from us the strong and independent woman who had once been our grandmother.
I did not want to start my novel with Nonnie’s decline. Maybe someday I will be ready to write on the theme of aging and the impact of Alzheimer’s, either from the point of view of the character who is experiencing it, or from the view of a character who is the caretaker. That could be a compelling story, and one that is of great interest to me. (I admire Julianne Moore for her recent portrayal of a professor dealing with early onset Alzheimer’s, in Still Alice, although I can’t yet bring myself to see the movie). But that’s a book for another day.
Instead, I wanted to model my protagonist after Nonnie in her formative years, as a young college graduate and beginning teacher. I wanted to explore how a woman like Nonnie could come of age and find her place in the male-dominated society of her day, a society that neither valued nor encouraged determination and opinion in its female counterparts. I wanted to understand how the traits of determination, self-confidence, and strength were so deeply rooted in her core that they continued to emerge as her dementia progressed, albeit in the quirky and colorful behavior that became the substance of our “Nonnie stories.”
The fact that I knew only skeletal details about Nonnie’s young adulthood proved to be an advantage, in that it forced me to fill in the story with my own imagination and kept me from blurring the lines between fiction and memoir.
Hattie Robinson, the young woman conjured from my imagination to play the role of the main character in my first novel, is inspired by Mattie B. Kendrick, otherwise known as Nonnie. In time and setting and tone, her life parallels that of Nonnie. But, like Nonnie, she is unique and independent, and she is absolutely her own woman.