by Thomas Wolfe
I was saved from what fate I shall never know when a woman came to live with us when I was ten years old. She was my maternal grandmother. “Nana” was what we knew her name to be. It was ordained by others in the family long before I came into being. She was not in my orbit for the first ten years save for the very few times she and her husband, my maternal grandfather came to visit us in Illinois or we fled our father in another break up between our parents in those chaotic years my sisters and I faced precedent to her arrival. When our grandfather died my mother was heartbroken. But she also had other problems. She needed to provide for us three as she and our father were on the skids. Nana must have arrived via airplane in that she didn’t drive an automobile. Not ever. She was born in New York City in 1896. Chelsea. She was an extremely bright child who grew up during the age of vaudeville. In fact her father was an early ‘show business’ agent representing, so I am told, the likes of Al Jolson for a time. I believed every word Nana ever told me after we came to know and trust each other very, very deeply. It wasn’t easy. Our father and mother had a tempestuous relationship and even though they were separated we only lived two blocks from him. He remained living in the original home I was born in. We landed in what was a place built to be a ‘summer cottage’ and didn’t have nearly the heat nor insulation to handle the brutal winters of Lake County, Illinois. But with reading one can overcome many of the shortcomings of the physical world. Nana was a reader. And she loved me for I was a reader too. Her one son, Norman, died at the age of 24 from a kidney disease. It was, quite naturally, devastating to the family all around. I think my mother got her amazing strength from surviving that loss. While Norman was alive her too was a reader. One day Nana opened up a box of books she had secreted away in her closet somewhere. I imagine that it was simply too painful for her to look at them. They were books her Norman had bought and read before his way too soon death. One of them, “Look Homeward Angel” was the first one of his she pressed into my hands. With tears in her eyes she handed me the world of Thomas Wolfe. And it changed me.
For a while I walked in the world Wolfe created. Some feel his books are too much. Too gargantuan. Too wordy. Too innocent. I’ll tell you what. They were the keys to a kingdom for the young man I was and Nana… without a word of insistence… taught me how to see a bigger world around me. The world of Eugene Gant.