When I was writing the poems that would become my first book, I took a road trip to Springfield, Illinois, the town where my paternal grandmother lived, and where she is buried. I hadn’t known this woman, but I thought it would be a nice idea to visit her in the place she called home. I went to her gravesite. I located her childhood home and also the home in which she raised her two sons. I visited their high school, a brick behemoth that must have seemed old even when my grandmother attended in the early decades of the 20th century. They had a copy of her yearbook and I purchased it (families of deceased alumni return yearbooks to high schools who then resell them to history buffs like me). I found her yearbook photo and marveled at it quite some time. I had never seen my grandmother so young. The only other picture I knew of her was taken at her wedding. I learned from her grave marker that she was over 30 when she married. I’d never asked my father how old his mother was at landmark moments in her life. It was not information I had ever bothered to deduce on my own, and it was not information he’d felt compelled to volunteer. Why, and why all of a sudden, would I care about that sort of thing?
I cared because I was trying to record an accurate history in my poems. All I knew of this woman was recollected from a few meetings when I was younger than eleven. My ideas were romantic, melodramatic, one-sided, and sometimes just wrong. I was like that poor medical student, working toward a diagnosis but relying on old charts and misinformation. This grandmother was one half of a love story with an unhappy ending, and because I knew more about one player than I did about the other, I might have been inclined to write my own version of their story with considerable bias, negatively skewed against her. Learning she was over 30 at the time of her first marriage, and nearly 35 by the time she gave birth to her second son, this changed my understanding of her life completely. She was a professional woman who delayed marriage and family significantly longer than most women of her time, and these delays, or the temperament that caused them, shaped her life’s path. My ability to treat her character with appropriate compassion was significantly enhanced once I had an accurate account of her age. The recovery of this disregarded omission in the family lore was fundamental to my ability to accurately render a life in my poems.