Things I've Learned from my Grandpa and Novels

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the structure of stories and novels. How they focus on one important event (for a short story), or several events (for novels)….but they never do really mirror life because they’re so, well, tidy. I guess maybe that’s why I love writing short stories and novels. You can focus in on characters and problems they encounter, put the characters on a journey, witness how they change, and then you’re left with, ultimately, a feeling of order.

Real life isn’t like that. Moments in life can feel that way, but it’s sort of like one story blending in with a novel and just as that novel is coming to an end, another novel starts on top of it. Sometimes you have three or four different novels going at the same time, each in a different spot, each with different characters… Well. You get the metaphor I’m going for here.

Why am I rambling about this? Last week I was posting my wedding pictures on Facebook and I got a call that my grandfather (Robert Hotaling) had passed away. He was 93 and died suddenly. Just the week before he had written me a letter inviting Kealoha and I to lunch so he could meet him. So while I’m posting the pictures of our wedding, I found out that he had passed away and it was that moment where you go “Ah. This is how life is. The start of things. The end of things.” But unlike a novel, it’s all at the same time.

I’m juggling a lot right now: classes, audio narration, kids, homework, writing, reading, research, trying to rewrite things and getting an agent, dealing with family issues, with the past, with the future, with unknowns. Will I have a job next year? Will Kealoha and I sell his house? Will I ever have time to finish the books I want to finish? Will I ever get that publishing contract? Will the kids do better now that we have a new schedule?

Throw in holiday planning and looking to July for our belated honeymoon and going to a funeral tomorrow…and that’s a sense of how life is. It isn’t tidy that’s for sure. And it also isn’t boring.

My grandpa wrote a few letters to me in the last couple of years. I was working so much (since starting over) and getting to visit him was difficult. At first it was hard to just emotionally manage the trip there to explain what had happened to my marriage. I wrote to him instead. My grandpa was beyond understanding. He told me that he had been blessed with a rich life. In fact, he wasn’t even my biological grandpa. He was my grandma’s second husband, but all my life he treated me like I was his natural granddaughter, and I think, to him, I was.

He taught me how strong love is. That you can have expectations in life, but life will surprise you and you must go with it, accept it, embrace it. He was in WWII, I think, but I never talked to him much about that. He worked as an urban planner. He was always busy. He started out with very rigid ideas about life, but over time, he became open and accepting of change. His children married people of different colors and cultures. There have been struggles with mental illness in the family. There has been despair. There have been children and broken marriages, and then there has been starting over again. Some of us have strong relationships. Some of us have troubled ones.

One day I went to lunch with my grandparents (grandma died shortly after this). They told me when they met they had both been hurt in their previous relationships. They came from marriages where there was abuse and mental instability. Grandpa saw grandma in church. She was wearing a colorful hat and he knew he had to talk to her. (Later, he said it wasn’t actually the hat he had noticed, but really just the woman wearing it.) They eventually fell in love, got married, blended their families. This was back in the 50s and 60s so that was a really big thing.

He loved my grandma. Adored her…and when she died he later married a friend of hers. I think that was a great honor. Both of them were widowed and they needed each other. See…life teaches you that you just keep going on. That’s what he did. He looked at change, was afraid of it, but went with it anyway. He loved his ever-changing family.

Grandpa taught me that life is not tidy nor should it be. It’s complex, layered, and never goes the way you think it will….but that’s the surprise and beauty of it. In that way, real life is so much better than a novel.