The Topic At Hand: Seconds

A writing teacher once gave this assignment:  on seven different index cards, write the seven most important stories of your life.  I tried.  I took it seriously because I really liked this teacher and really liked the class, but all I could come up with was a fuzzy vision of my grandmother teaching me to baste a turkey and a few gruesome scenes from Oliver Stone war movies. Everyone else in the class was listing and scribbling and misting and I was pretty sure it wasn’t about the time they clipped their big toenail and it shot into their eye.  I think I’ve always had a problem with neurons and trying too hard.

Then there is the issue of index-cards.  Perfectly 3 x 5 and upright in their box, they promise efficiency and organization but have never paid off for me in any real way. I’ve had the same black plastic index-card holder since the mid-nineties and, for the past two years, the cards have been blank except one.  Still, the box sits on my desk and reminds me of many things, including the failed assignment.

Once, using low-key blue-lined paper instead of scary index cards, I was able to complete one line in the Most Important Stories assignment.  It came out like this:


2. That time I got my tongue slapped while trying to sneak Communion.






It happened back when Catholics knelt in a line at the altar, back when priests placed the Eucharist on waiting tongues, back when I was four and hadn’t yet received my First Communion. Even though I was aware that by putting my tongue out there I was pulling a fast one on God, I was desperate to taste that pale little wafer.  Four years later, when I was legal in my white dress and veil, I had pretty much lost all interest.  Is that what earned it the second most important slot — something about shame and guilt and maybe an original crack in faith?  Or was it how Jesus, with his nailed-in hands and feet, stared down at me like he was ready to weep?  And had he looked like that before?

Then there was the question of second:  If this was the first story to actually make the list, why did it get designated to number two spot?  Staring at the blue-lined paper I realized there was probably an important story in that answer, even if it only warranted slot number six or seven — probably something about being second born or feeling most comfortable with second place in any type of race or getting anxious when asked to name my number one favorite book or movie.  So when my neurons twitched over to the tub of Cool Whip I once ate when I was twelve and babysitting, I was happy to put the list away.  It came back, the way certain things do, a few years later; I was sitting with my grandmother.

My grandmother, Grace Crotty, the one who taught me to baste a turkey, was a great storyteller. Raised on a farm during the Depression and the eldest of nine, her father dropped dead of a six-egg a day heart attack when she was in her teens, leaving her second in charge to my great-grandmother, also a storyteller.  I spent a lot of time in my grandparents’ home when I was a kid, and the stories I loved best were about her childhood on that farm:  riding horses across the field and storing corncobs in the basement, washing clothes on a washboard and getting an orange in her stocking at Christmas.  Early mornings were our time together, before anyone else was awake, and to this day, when I think of it, I smell toast.

Right out of college and for nearly a year, I lived with my grandparents, working lunch-shift in a fancy fish restaurant while looking for a real job.  I didn’t know anyone in the city and my nights were too free. The pictures on walls of my grandparents’ house were mostly of Jesus, some with Mary, all with dried palms and colorful rosaries tucked behind their frames. My grandparents said the rosary every night at eight, and if I stayed upstairs in my room my grandfather would call out for me, like maybe I’d forgotten the time.  To them, saying the rosary was something to look forward to, to enjoy, a circle of prayer, the story of Jesus and Mary told over and over and over again.

By then, a series of strokes had damaged my grandmother’s memory:  she was still a great storyteller, but her list was getting smaller and beginning to loop like a pre-recorded message. The loop included my uncle’s divorce, the seventy-year old neighbor lady who gardened in a yellow bikini, the craziness of Bo and Vicki from One Life To Live, and my little cousin who didn’t like socks.  Occasionally a new story would pop up and disrupt the loop, letting us know that her memories, the important moments of her amazing life, were still there, mysteriously stored.

Slowly, eventually, the loop of stories shortened — down to four, then three, then two.  The very last story was told only with her hands as they fluttered in front of her, smoothing and folding an unending pile of clothes and towels and sheets that only she could see. In the end, as hard as you try to categorize your stories, choosing and sorting and keeping them in order is not always something you can control.

But there is this:  When she’d lost nearly everything, my grandmother’s face would still light up when any one of us walked into her room.  “Oh, hello!” she’d say with delighted recognition. She didn’t know exactly who we were, but she knew that we belonged, and that somehow, the most important stories of her life were absolutely connected to ours.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, which stories you end up with; maybe, like six degrees of separation, one story will ultimately lead to another until you get to the heart of what you were trying to discover in telling them.  If that’s even close to being true, then the second most important story of my life – with its perfect mix of desire, hope, mystery, faith, love, betrayal, pain, shame and ultimate redemption — might be enough.  Especially since it also has a white dress, a crown of thorns, and even some tongue.


  • Share
votes for this contribution.

Subscribe to Revolving Floor via RSS or email

15 responses to “The 2nd Most Important Story Of My Life”

  1. My 90 year-old grandmother is doing the folding of the imaginary sheets thing too, except with a tablecloth, but she is definitely shaping and arranging it. I wonder if, for that generation of women, the act of folding, arranging, mending, (and making?) clothes is such a central part of life that it just naturally becomes the thing to fall back on when they're not sure what else to do.

    Also makes me think of the recent Mad Men episode, where the grandfather (in 1964) wakes up in the middle of the night and pours all his son-in-law's alcohol down the drain… he thinks he's back in prohibition. Another time he's up late peeling potatoes, because he thinks he's in the army on KP duty.

    I was always jealous of Catholics, and how they had all these sacred physical objects, all these rituals full of real things you could touch and consume that were directly endowed with supernatural powers.

  2. Sarah Conradt says:

    wow. just – absolutely wow. this eloquent journey you just took me on.

  3. Sarah Conradt says:

    wow. just – absolutely wow. this eloquent journey you just took me on.

  4. Tara says:

    Your story made me sad. I'm glad your grandmother had people to listen to her stories, and I guess that some day your filled out index card could be very precious to somebody.

    I think I took communion once. Somehow I didn't get that that the communion at the midnight Christmas mass at the ski chalet wasn't for the Jewish kids, even if you did have Quebecois family. Now they sell communion wafers at the grocery stores in Montreal, called “hosties.”

  5. Eric Eicher says:

    There's a lot to like here, writing-wise, sad as some of the story is, and I was especially impressed with the way that you use the would-be list of seven things with only number 2 filled in. It really works well.

  6. amandaemerson says:

    What a great essay. Brings to mind my attending Saturday night mass as a child with my grandmother. I was raised Methodist, but I remember going with my Catholic grandma to her to services. I loved–still love–evening mass with its dim lights, candles, kneeling at row's end, making the sign of the cross, the chanting of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. It seemed a wonderful and mysterious thing.

    Most of all, though, I remember what must have been the first time: I remember very clearly the feeling of hurt and humiliation (I am weirdly prone to these) when my grandmother told me to stay put, that I could not go to the front and receive communion with her and the others. Later, she made it up to me. Kentucky Fried Chicken, probably. She never got old enough to lose her stories. I miss her.

  7. Sara Nickerson says:

    I know – I usually had to sit in the pew and wait. I think that's why I saw this as my one chance. And to be fair, the slapee tells a different story: it was a gentle covering of the tongue to let the priest know I wasn't ready (which it probably was). But those feelings of hurt and humiliation… that's exactly it. And it's funny because I now go to First Communions of nieces and nephews and I wait in the pew through communion. And even though it's my choice, I still feel completely isolated and lost at that moment. Maybe next time I'll treat myself to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

  8. etemp says:

    That was an excellently woven story. I must say one thing which I've also been working on recently: Don't make an ending. Just stop writing. If you cut the last paragraph it's much more poignant.

    But really beautiful essay nonetheless.

  9. Rachel B says:

    I don't really agree that this is a sad story. Getting old isn't sad–it's an inevitability. But the joy of recognizing the interwoven stories; the tremendous nuance contained in the line, “oh, hello,” the irrelevance of numbers and prioritization in the qualitative analysis of our lives–those are signs of triumph and wise exploration.

    This is a perfectly sliced piece of beauty and essential mystery.

  10. SusanSfarra says:

    I related to this on a few levels. I too am second born and tend to feel more comfortable with a second slot position than the glaring spotlight of position number one. It is not something my grandmother changed in me no matter how hard she tried, not that she was overly pushy, but as is the case with a certain generation of grandparent, she had that irresistible urge to push her grandchildren as she had pushed her children to be front and center. I harbor less resentment over this than my mother. There is something about the bond between children and grandparents, their second parents, that allows each to feel less critical of and less disappointed in the other. My grandmother too was a great storyteller, possibly again as is the case with a certain generation of grandparent. She was also Catholic. As grandmothers, grandparents in general, do she provided a connection to the past and to my origins, which if you are Catholic includes an epic saga of guilt. The guilt over not wanting to put myself front and center, in the first position, has long since subsided. I think placing an entry in the number two position as a first entry in a list about the most important stories in your life makes sense in a way, to me it does. I make lists every day, which at the end of the day are crossed through and updated and carried over to other lists. My lists are ever changing lists. I’d probably keep that number one spot open in my important stories list as well. Perhaps a bit hopeful, with the thought there are lots of other important stories still to come.

  11. danika says:

    this is fabulous. i always enjoy your work, Sara, and the way you tell it like you're just talkin' to me. 🙂

  12. Karrie says:

    This brought back precious memories of mother in law, Grace, your grandmother—and tears too. Beautiful, Sara. Thank you.

  13. Karrie says:

    You write beautifully about your grandmother and my mother in law, Grace. It brought me memories, smiles and tears. Thank you Sara.

Leave a Reply to Tara Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Author

Sara Nickerson

Sara Nickerson is a freelance writer for television and film. She also writes novels. Her first, How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found (HarperCollins), was a Book Sense Pick, ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, Scholastic Book Club Selection, Bedfordshire Children’s Book of the Year nominee, and winner of the Tatoulu Literary Prize in France. Those last two still puzzle her.

Other contributions on this theme: