When you’re holding Goodbye to Grandma, you’re holding a much younger version of my heart. Yet, 20 years after its first draft, I still feel everything Hailey feels, and I still cry at multiple places in the story every time I read them. What may read for some as simple and unsophisticated in places is actually the faithful recording of my experiences at a time in my life when I myself was a bit simpler and less sophisticated.
Goodbye to Grandma is the most directly autobiographical of my books. All my stories contain autobiographical bits, whether I want them to or not. Whatever emotion I have a need to express at the time usually works its way in to my fiction, even if I don’t recognize it. That’s a big part of what makes fiction writing so satisfying and cathartic. Also, risky.
I’ve never blasted giant robot bees out of the sky whilst piloting a jetpack (alas) or even owned a pair of rollerblades (I’d fall and break things for sure). But my grandmother died when I was in the sixth grade and I could not cry at her funeral. I actually lived a version of the funeral scenes right down to touching my grandma’s lips and being attacked by a bee at her burial and yes, laughing hysterically in a way that the whole funeral parlor heard. I also played Nick Bottom in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mr. Laurence in a production of Little Women.
I suspect part of my motivation in choosing a female protagonist for this story was to throw off the reader’s suspicions that the character is me. Also, I really do remember being so flippant as to think “my last book, Jim’s Monster, stared a boy so this one should star a girl.” 20 years later, I’m okay with Esteemed Reader knowing I had so much trouble processing my grandmother’s death, but I’m rather attached to Hailey. I have an older sister and there’s quite a bit of me in Barry as well.
The Smith family Christmas is a good-ish approximation of a Kent family Christmas circa 1992 and Grandma Smith isn’t a character. When I see her in my mind, I still see Francis Kent, who came to our house every Christmas morning and most Saturday mornings with doughnuts. She really did let me watch rated-R movies and even took me to the theater to watch A Few Good Men at age 11 and I still clearly remember her face about an hour in as the gratuitous profanity dropped, yet the movie was so good we didn’t leave.
My grandmother’s love is one of my fondest childhood memories and I’ve carried it with me these many years. If there is an afterlife, at present, she’s the one I’m most looking forward to seeing. And her dying as I was in middle school and going through puberty is the clearest marker in my mind of the end of my childhood. I never again experienced Christmas as the same holiday it was when she was alive and I’ve missed her every Christmas since.
It’s good that I first wrote this novel 20 years ago when my memories of all my feelings from her funeral and from being in the sixth grade were still fresh in my head. That’s not the version published as I’ve rewritten this story many, many, MANY times over the years. But those core experiences have survived the many drafts, preserving what I wanted to express about grief then and what I still feel is worth expressing now. This is also the book that gained me representation by a literary agent and was very nearly my debut novel with a couple publishers, so I haven’t set out to do much rewriting now as not to fix what isn’t broken.
The reason I’ve revisited this story now, like checking in on an old friend, and the reason I decided to publish it 20 years later is that the secondary plot of Hailey’s evolving relationship with Grandma Richmond strikes me as more relevant now than it did when I first wrote it. I had another grandmother type in my life, though she wasn’t a biological relative, but Grandma Richmond is actually an amalgamation of some other relatives of mine who were openly racist. I’m a heterosexual white male from a mostly all-white Indiana town who grew up in the 1980s and 90s, but who thankfully had a library card and kept growing up after I left that town.
I have family members whom—as of the writing of this afterword—I have not spoken to since the presidency of Donald Trump. I was tempted to give Grandma Richmond a MAGA hat, but I didn’t because I don’t want to overshadow my beloved story with the existence of that heinous villain some of y’all felt fit to vote for as president. I mention him here only because two years after his presidency, I still can’t forgive his supporters.
I’ve heard all the reasons why people supported that terrible man and I understand some of them on an intellectual level, like, “if I were an uniformed person who thought television shows were real, I guess I would believe the guy from The Apprentice was good at business in spite of all the evidence he's just a born-rich criminal.” But no matter how hard I try to bend my mind, I just can’t see how it was possible to have supported that man without having also been a racist or at the very least, comfortable enough with racism to still be an enemy to my family. And I can’t accept the excuse, “I’m not a racist. I don’t personally hate anybody. I just want to support others who hate on my behalf.”
Goodbye to Grandma takes no explicit stance on religion or politics. I’m not comfortable writing explicitly about religion for children. They’re still figuring out their own views as to the nature of God and as someone who was successfully brainwashed (for a time) in my youth, I’m careful not to do the same to my young readers.
On the other hand, full disclosure: I'm only alive to publish this book as a month ago I should've definitely, absolutely died and didn't due to a set of circumstances I can only attribute to divine intervention. The number of coincidences I'd have to explain away becomes too improbable for serious consideration. And it's my third miraculous experience, though I imagine there've been far more that were simply less obvious. Suffice it to say, I'm done flirting with atheism.
I hope it’s possible to read this book as a believer or an atheist without either view being challenged. Hailey’s story is about loss and grief and that’s universal, whatever you believe happens or doesn’t happen after death. When Hailey’s father tells her that her dead neighbor’s soul is on its way to Heaven, it’s because that’s what my father told me, it’s what a lot of Indiana parents tell their children, and it’s a nice thought. Not to acknowledge the reality of religious culture in the story’s setting would be too great an omission, I think. But when my grandmother died, all the thoughts of her in Heaven didn’t stop me from wanting her here and they didn’t help me to process the loss any differently. Gone is gone.
Hailey doesn’t care about politics and neither does this story. The issue is racism. I’m not in favor of it, of course (see the Banneker Bones trilogy), nor do I feel it should be condoned. But I was raised to hate the sin and love the sinner and I still feel that’s mostly a good idea.
I don’t think Grandma Richmond is necessarily rehabilitated in this story in a lasting way and I don’t think the Roosevelt family will be present for her next party. But I can see Grandma Richmond is trying, and that’s not nothing. I don’t know, since the story ends before we get there, that Hailey and Grandma Richmond are going to have a lasting relationship (that’s a question for Esteemed Reader to resolve). I know only that Hailey is doing her best to be open to such a relationship because that’s what her Grandma Smith taught her and one of the ways in which Grandma Smith lives on.
And that, whatever else may come to pass, is beautiful and worthy of celebration.
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