Friday, February 01, 2008

Goodnight, GM . . . Wherever you are

from James Grippando

Today I’d like you to meet Eleanor Rayner – a/k/a “GM.”

I started calling Eleanor “GM” on the day we met. I went by the house to pick up Tiffany (now my wife) for our second date. Eleanor politely pulled me aside and told me that Tiffany had started calling her GM as a little girl. It stood for “grandmommy.” I was feeling pretty foolish for a thirty-four year old man.

“But that’s all right,” she said to me, “you can call me GM.”

So I did—for the next sixteen years.

That same night, GM also told me that her favorite author was a guy named John Grisham. I was still a fulltime lawyer, hoping to become a writer. Little did we know what a sensation Grisham would become. Little did I know that GM would end up being my own unofficial editor for fifteen novels.

Eleanor loved books and celebrated the written word. People talk a lot these days about trees and oil and resources that are not being replaced. Eleanor saw readers as one of those evaporating resources. That's why she spent so much of her time working through P.E.O. (only members know what it stands for) to find college scholarships for young women. Her commitment to education was something she demonstrated even in death: when it came time to choose between cremation or burial, she chose neither, instead donating her body to Emory medical school in the hope that it might somehow make a difference in the fight against Parkinson’s disease. Eleanor herself never went to college, but she was one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met. She read mostly fiction, tearing through as many as four and five novels a week.

Eleanor read every one of my books in manuscript—even the first one, which was never published. If you check the acknowledgments to any of my novels, you will see her name. When she read my scripts, they would come back with line by line edits and a carefully prepared list of corrections. This last book, however, was different.

“Oh, Jim,” she told me in her quaking voice, “this is such a difficult book for me.”

It had nothing to do with the fact that she was 86 years old and in declining health. It was the emotional toll. I had written the story of a young woman killed in a car accident. Surely it dredged up her own painful memories of the loss of her daughter more than thirty years ago. Patsy was killed in a car accident not far from their home in Coral Gables at the age of seventeen, just days after her high school graduation. But GM was a pro, and at 86 years of age she slugged through the rest of that book—much in the way, I suspect, that she slugged through the rest of her life after Patsy was gone.

She took her role as editor very seriously. She was a tough critic, and when she was finished, it always made me feel good to see her shuffle across the room with the dog-eared manuscript in hand and that little smile on her face. “You did it again,” she’d tell me, “this one was even better than the last one.”

Her opinion mattered to me. What she thought, what she said, mattered to everyone who knew her—from the very first day, till the day she died. She mattered.

I was thinking about GM when we put up our decorations this past Christmas. Over the years, she needle-pointed stockings for Tiffany, Kaylee, Ryan and me. With her failing health I knew she would never finish the one she was making one for our two-year-old daughter Ainsley, but these are the most beautiful Christmas stockings I’ve ever seen, each one unique, each a work of art. It would take her a full year to make just one of them. I know that in the coming years when we unpack the boxes and decorate the house, hanging those stockings on the mantle will be one of my favorite things about the Christmas season.

Those two images stay with me now that GM is gone. GM, going line by line, page by page, through my manuscripts. GM, going stitch by stitch, hour after hour, week after week, making those beautiful stockings. I think to myself: that’s exactly the way she touched our lives. The little things, the day-to-day things. There were times when I read her comments to my manuscript and said, “Well, come on, GM. That’s really picky.” But nine times out of ten I ended up making the change. She made me a better writer. I think all of the people she cared about can say the same thing. Yeah, at times it seemed picky. But in the end, she made us better.

These are subtle things I’m talking about. In many ways, her love for us was subtle. But there was nothing subtle about the way she loved children. She loved kids. She especially loved my kids—her great grandchildren. It gives me goosebumps to see my own daughter curled up in bed with a novel, begging me to let her stay up “just a little longer, please, just one more chapter, Daddy.” I know where she got the gene.

So once upon a time, GM was in to Grisham. I don’t know if I ever replaced him as her favorite writer. But she was without question my favorite reader. I’ll miss her. Each of us, in our own way, will miss her.

All the best, James

P.S. Jackie will be naked next week in her regular spot.

5 comments:

  1. patty smiley2/01/2008 10:23 AM

    James, so sorry for your loss but what a moving tribute to GM. How lucky you were to have her in your life.

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  2. That is a beautiful remembrance. I think I know to whom you'll be dedicating the next book.

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  3. Thanks for sharing that story. She sounds like she was a remakable woman.

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  4. Hi, james - just arrived home and went straight to NA to read your post. What a wonderful tribute to a woman for whom the word "Grace" seems to have been invented. We need more people like your GM (and the fact that "GM" is akin to "gem" seems so appropriate).

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  5. What they all said, James: lovely tribute to a lovely human being.

    Tom, T.O.

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