Last month, I sent a note out to a handful of my writer-friends, asking them if they’d be interested in providing a guest post for my blog. All I gave them was a prompt. Write, I told them, about a book (or story, or poem) that changed your life.
The pieces I have so far received have surpassed my hopes and expectations, and I’d like to take a second (and a sentence) to thank these gracious, generous writers for not only sharing their stories with me, but for allowing me to share them with you, too.
Today I am excited to post the first piece in what I hope will be a long-ongoing series. It is by the multitalented Ashley Leath, keeper of one of my favorite blogs on all of the Internet. Enjoy the piece, and then learn more about Ashley and her wonderful work below.
Take it away, Ashley.
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A Book That Changed My Life
The book came in the mail, packaged with care and addressed to me. Receiving a gift in the mail is enjoyable at any age, but at 12, it’s akin to Christmas arriving in July. It was a gift from my grandfather, my mother’s father, a man I barely knew. We lived in San Diego at the time and he in North Carolina, worlds away from one another. I understood only that we both loved to read. Everything else about him was a mystery.
At 12, I was voracious reader. The more obtuse the subject matter, the better. I spent hours lying on my stomach in the sunshine, reading passages over and over again until I grasped their meanings. So it was with a shred of disappointment that I unwrapped the paperback my grandfather had sent.
The cover was nondescript. A girl about my age with soft reddish hair in an old-fashioned-looking dress sitting in a field of flowers. The title was a single word: Katie. It looked like something I’d find in the free bin at the library. I was anything but enticed.
And yet, it was a gift, and my grandfather would eventually ask me what I’d thought of it. With little interest, I began to read.
Katie is the story of a young girl whose father walks out one day and never returns. Her mother, a spitfire made of steel, holds her family together with sheer willpower. They move from one place to the next, constantly in motion, as the children grow into adulthood. The novel focuses on the eponymous character and youngest child of the family, Katie, and we see the hardships the family endures through her ever-watchful gaze. Together, Katie and her mother never lose hope that her father will return one day, even after the rest of the family gives up.
I put the book down a few times before I finished it. I wasn’t hooked. It felt old and sleepy, and I couldn’t relate to the story. And then, one day, I tried again, and that’s when I reached the point in which Katie’s father leaves.
There are people who speak of “seeing themselves” within the pages of a novel. Finding solace in a character and his or her struggles. I had never before experienced this. And then I read Katie.
I am the daughter of a missing father. My mother was married for many years to her first husband, Tom—until she discovered she was pregnant and he threw her out (he didn’t want children). My grandfather is the only person who came to see my mom and me at my birth. When I was three, my mom remarried to a man who I grew up calling “Dad.” He raised me as his own, and I love him to this day. And yet, his love did not keep my curiosity at bay.
Who was this mysterious man who didn’t want me?
Why did he not want to be in my life?
How could he have known that with such certainty before I had even been born?
I had never met anyone with a story even remotely similar to my own. Everyone I knew had both of their parents in their lives. Even if they were divorced, their parents still visited them, still attended their sporting events and student-teacher meetings. Where my friends had a presence and someone to talk to and see themselves in, I had nothing but unanswered questions.
Until I had Katie. Within those pages was finally someone with whom I could relate. As Katie struggled with her father’s absence and the questions that plagued her, so too did I. Where had her father gone? Why had he gone? Would he come back? I needed to know these things. I needed Katie to find her solution, because I needed to see that it could be done. That perhaps somewhere out there was the solution that I longed for.
At the end of the novel, Katie finds out that her father has remarried and has another family. He never returned to her mother or contacted them. It is a moment of profound grief and release. After so many years of wondering, there is an answer where there once was none. It may not have been the answer Katie wanted, but she survived the truth as it shattered down around her, and I knew that if she could, then one day, when the time was right, I could do the same.
For the remainder of my childhood, I read Katie every year. The cover eventually fell off, and I used clear packing tape to adhere it back to the spine. At some point one of my siblings stamped Lion King images across the inside of the front cover. My family moved and moved, and moved again. We sold almost all our belongings and flew cross-country to the East Coast, and I packed Katie in the bag that traveled with me. Next to my dog and tattered copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it was my most prized possession. But it was not until many years later that I finally understood why my grandfather had given me this book in particular.
When I was five, Tom sent my mother a letter explaining that he didn’t think he was my father and wanted nothing more to do with me. It was the last I ever heard from him. Then one day, when I was 29, my grandfather called me out of the blue. He had been sick and hospitalized for pneumonia, and yet he made the effort to call me that day. When I answered the phone, he was in tears. It was hard to understand him, but through the sobs I made out a single sentence: “He’s not your real father.”
I tried as best I could to calm him. I repeated over and over again that I knew the man who’d raised me wasn’t my biological father. Mom had explained it all to me. I knew everything. But he was adamant, finally blurting out that he’d tried in recent days to get both my mother and my uncle to speak to me about this, but that my mom had refused and my uncle considered it my mother’s place, not his, to confess our family’s oldest secret to me.
I could not be Tom’s daughter, my grandfather explained. Tom was sterile.
I still remember where I was when those words poured through the phone. I sank to my knees in front of the glass doors on the carpet of my apartment. It was late, and all I could see was my reflection in the glass surrounded by darkness. When Katie had found out the truth about her father, she’d gone to the roof of her apartment at night, giving up her grief to the stars and welcoming the calming balm of the truth. Now I sat before the glass and stared out at the sky, my grandfather’s raspy sobs tumbling across the miles of space that separated us, and looked for the stars as the weight of the words filled me.
After all this time, I did not know who I was after all.
The truth was that my mother had had an affair during her marriage. She believed, and still does, that Tom was and is my biological father, and so she raised me with this truth. The truth she believes with every ounce of her being.
And yet, she has just this year admitted to me that Tom was in fact sterile and she does not know which man, Tom or the man she had an affair with, is my true father. She believes that Tom’s sterility came after her pregnancy, not before, and there is no way for me to know. The ending of my story is not the same as Katie’s, but it is similar. We both searched for a truth we couldn’t find, only to learn a truth we never anticipated. We both made our peace with a fate we couldn’t control, and found ourselves in spite of the mystery surrounding our lives. In Katie I found a girl who needed what I needed: answers to unfathomable questions. And in Katie I learned that I, too, would survive the day that the truth shattered down around me.
My grandfather had decided to break the silence, defy my mother’s wishes, and tell me the truth because he believed that “everyone deserves to know where they came from.” He died three days later. These were the last words he ever spoke to me.
I wish now that I could ask him about Katie. That he could tell me if he had known all along about my burning curiosity about my biological father. Had he sent me this book so that I would know that I was not alone? So that I would find a companion in the story of a young girl wishing desperately to understand a man who had abandoned her? How did he know? I will never get to ask him how he found this book, my beloved copy, obviously used even when I’d received it. And this will always sadden me.
I have tried for some time to find information about Katie online. I have searched the Library of Congress’ online database with no results. I have combed Google and Barnes and Noble. I cannot find a single mention of it. I cannot remember the author’s name, and I have tragically lost my copy, a fact I only learned after sitting down to write this and discovering that my copy was not, as I had thought, sitting on my bookshelf. But I cannot forget Katie. She is the friend I never had. The girl who lit my way long before I had to walk it. Katie is one reason I am a writer now. And perhaps one day, a young girl will be gifted a tattered copy of something I’ve written, flip through the yellowed pages, and find the solace she seeks in my words.
Note: A few days after submitting this post to Jarrett, my husband stumbled upon my copy of Katie while rummaging through a box in the attic. It had been tucked away, no doubt in a place where I thought it’d be safe and sound—and then completely forgotten about. Written by Margaret Graham, the book is out of print, but there are a few copies available on ABE and Amazon, for those interested in the story of a Depression-era family’s journey. I am beyond thankful to have my copy, battered spine and all. Thanks to my husband for finding it, and to Jarrett for the opportunity to write about a little-known book that influenced me so greatly.
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Ashley Leath spends her days as a food editor—writing, editing, and tasting from sun up to sun down. At night, she writes Young Adult fiction and runs a boutique letterpress company, printing greeting cards by hand on her antique printing press from 1884. In 2013, her step-dad suffered a debilitating stroke and woke with no memories of his life before that day. Ashley’s blog, The Memory Letters, is an ongoing memoir project in which she writes to him about their life together, so that he may remember all that he has forgotten. You can find her online here:
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Want to tell the world about a book (or story, or poem) that changed your life? Comment below or contact me on Twitter to find out more about contributing a guest post.