After being bequeathed a name like Beth Barrett by my two Grandmothers, how could I help being a writer? With Grandma Beth publishing my first poem in her magazine when I was in the seventh grade, and Grandma Barrett living in a house built to host the library of beloved books she and Grandpa had collected, that fate became sealed. By eighth grade I was already reading literary classics like War and Peace, which I found as I browsed the built-in shelves in the bright, warm living room of her house. I found great literary works intermingled with books on various subjects like gardening and architecture and wood carving. Many days, I would wander into the other rooms of their house, following the path of shelves that nestled just under the ceiling. Those shelves meandered through their house like a model train track. That track carried me to many places through its train car books.
Grandpa had the entire Mark Twain collection on those shelves, but they did not interest me as much as the books by women writers. I found Mark Twain’s niece, Jean Webster, who wrote delightfully humorous satire. Another book I remember finding in my wanderings was called Tempest and Sunshine. That book by Mary Jane Holmes fascinated me. When I looked for it later to reread it, it had disappeared. Perhaps Grandma Barrett had decided that book with its depictions of family strife was too old for me.
Grandma Barrett tried her best to slow my reading. “Don’t rush through books. Read a bit, and then savor the words.” When I continued to devour her books and return for more, she made a new rule: “You can only read my books at my house, a chapter a day. After that, we will discuss what you read.” I don’t think I made it through the first book under that rule.
Instead, I made my way to the bigger depot of the public library. I found more women writers there. I still remember finding the book The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman and its epigraph, “A tall woman casts a long shadow.” There was The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow. There were other women writers, such as Madeleine L’Engle, L. M. Montgomery, and Louisa May Alcott. When I learned in history that Eleanor of Aquitaine had impacted the way men talked to women and taken part in the spread of chivalry by her patronage of writers, I decided that writing was a good way for a tall woman to cast a long shadow. Elizabeth Barrett Browning herself demonstrated that by her writing on social justice issues such as abolition and women’s rights.
What made me wait so long to do more than dabble and store up ideas? A tall woman cannot cast a long shadow if she stays in the shadows. I still remember holding Grandma Beth’s magazine excitedly and opening it to the table of contents. There I saw my poem listed with its page number. I remember opening to that page and seeing my name in print beneath my poem, except it was not my poem. Yes, the poem was there, but Grandma Beth had changed it, added to it without telling me. It hadn’t been good enough.
That day in seventh grade, my poetry and play writing began to taper away. I started writing down ideas which I planned to write into books later, when I was good enough. I had a box full of my plans: a powerful sentence here, a detailed plot there. Nothing more. After I graduated from college, I began to write my first book. I bought a notebook and began to work. I was proud of my work and proudly read my chapters to my fiancé and some other friends, but then disaster happened. That notebook disappeared. All my hard work was gone.
The wedding happened. The children came. Life marched on. The loss remained unhealed. Then “me too” began. All my buried losses broke through the walls I had built and demanded notice. They would not let go until I agreed to bless them with a voice. Thus, I returned to writing. I do not claim to measure up to the fullness of my famous namesake, but neither will I allow her name to intimidate me and keep me from my heritage. I have a responsibility to these ideas clambering for voice within me, and only I can give them that voice.