A Family Haunting
I was a teenager when my grandmother, aka “Nana”, moved in with us after showing early signs of dementia. My adolescent self sometimes found her forgetfulness irritating, but I was utterly transfixed when she would cry out to an empty corner: Is that you, Papa? Come get us, please! Heartbreaking as those ‘Ghost Papa’ episodes were, they also exposed an intriguing chapter of family history I’d never known, and which later became the seed of this novel.
By all accounts, Papa adored his family. But after losing his arm in a gruesome accident, felt compelled to seek work in newly-booming Houston, 300 miles away. Though he promised to send for his family after he’d settled, they soon stopped hearing from him and rumors circulated he’d been killed in a street fight.
Papa’s absence pushed my grandmother’s family deeper into poverty, and also threatened her dreams of attending college. After her mother, Sudie, died in the 1919 ‘boomerang’ Influenza epidemic, Nana’s callous grandfather—who, as it turned out, had a sinister hidden role in Papa’s departure—sent them to an orphanage across the state. Even though this new situation held many challenges, it also presented new opportunities, including a much better high school than the one Nana had attended in her tiny rural hometown. (And, yes, she did eventually attend college.)
All along, Nana hoped the rumors about Papa weren’t true, that he was alive and would eventually reclaim them…except he never did, with lifelong repercussions for his kids. Only decades later did she discover the devastating truth about her father, a seeming betrayal she kept buried, hardly speaking of Papa until, in old age, that grief resurfaced with a vengeance.
Write what you know, people advise, but I’ve always thought of it as, Write what haunts you. After completing one novel and starting others, this was the tale I returned to time and again. It contained all the elements of a good story—rich historical setting, family mystery, adversity tempered by triumph. Best of all, new information I discovered about Papa, along with a real life twist of fate, helped me imagine a better resolution to the story, one my grandmother never quite had but that I like to believe could be true.