Your truth is my fiction, my grandmother, who raised me, whispered to me after she sang me a lullaby before bed and tucked me in. I was always on the edge of my consciousness when she said it, and I wonder now whether she timed it perfectly or whether I imagined it, a recurring nightmare of a dream. Maybe my truth was fiction, period, at least when it came to her.
It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I found out what she meant, or maybe that’s when I fabricated the notion of her whispering things to me at all. By then I was living with a different, more distant relative, a second or third degree cousin who only took me in because my grandmother stipulated in the will that he would only get the big chunk of change she left him if he became my legal guardian until I graduated high school. She’d died when I was twelve, right after my first period. It was as if she’d seen the blood on my underwear and realized that she could die safely now, knowing – assuming – that I’d be able to carry on her lineage.
The other thing that was discovered in her will, but that neither the cousin I lived with nor I discovered until after my sixteenth birthday, when we were at each other’s throats, was that my grandmother had written a long series of children’s books that had been accepted for publication long before her death but that she’d mandated wouldn’t come out until she passed away. How she got anyone to agree with this, I don’t know, but maybe the nature of the posthumous novelty, as it were, made some editor or publicist perk up enough to dole out large advances with the agreement of zero royalties. This would seem like a somewhat fair exchange, I thought. The first book, the news report said, was slated to be published in the spring, with a famous British actress doing the audiobook version and a famous American actress traveling around the country doing readings, with the proceeds of her speaking engagement going to children’s charities.
My guardian and I paused in our bickering over changing the channel when the news report naming a woman who was unmistakably the relative we had in common – her photograph also came up – and we grinned at each other in disbelief, then glee. We were related to the dead woman who was becoming famous! This was good news! We would surely be able to capitalize somehow! This was before we found out about the advance in exchange for royalties bit, of course.
Our smiles dropped – or mine did, anyway – when it became clear what the books were about. They were a series of eight chapter books, coming out twice a year for the next four years, and chronicled a girl who looked suspiciously like an illustrated version of me. She had my first and middle names, flipped, and she was – I began to either remember or fabricate the memory of my grandmother’s whispers – living with her grandmother in an apartment in the inner city that was painted a cheerful yellow. The girl would go through first to fourth grade over the course of the books, growing up with the children she was to entertain, the books becoming more complex per grade level.
When the first book came out, the publishers didn’t even send my cousin or me a complimentary copy, though we did try to contact them. We were labeled as crazy and put on a no-transfer list of some sort, since whenever we tried to call after a certain point, the various people in charge were invariably in meetings, out to lunch, or home sick. Us not being involved must have been part of the contract too. So when the blasted thing came out, I went to the bookstore and bought it, waiting for the clerk to see the similarity between me and the illustrated girl on the cover, but I was apparently the only one who saw it so clearly.
At home, I read the simply, first-grade-oriented chapter book. She described the cut I got when I was six, in first grade, trying to peel glue off my finger long after it had come off and accidentally tearing some of skin, fainting from the blood, and being very brave at the nurse. She described the little red bike I had that got stolen. She had the happy ending staged the day I got my first report card and was excited to see all the stars on it. My little girlhood friends were in the book too.
I wondered if they would sue or if they, like the rest of the world, would find the whole thing adorable.
As for me, I’m now signed to write a memoir on the traumatizing experience of having your grandmother steal the life right out of your little body.My