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December 21, 2009

Lynne Hinton on the Makings of a Writer

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Lynne Hinton --- author of THE THINGS I KNOW BEST, FRIENDSHIP CAKE, and the newly released CHRISTMAS CAKE --- revisits childhood memories of her grandfather, and the literary legacy he'd bequeathed to her after his passing.

I knew my grandfather kept diaries because I had seen him write in them when I was a child. I’d be sitting at the kitchen table finishing breakfast when he’d come in from the farm, wash his hands at the sink, reach for a pencil or pen in a drawer by the phone and pull down a small leather bound black book from the tall kitchen cabinet, the one I couldn’t reach, and jot notes, items of receipts, matters of what I presumed to be a personal nature. Every morning when I would see him come into the house, making his way in my direction, and open that cabinet, I had a sense that what he was doing was sacred, that this daily ritual he participated in was important, that it mattered a great deal to him.

My grandfather lived in eastern North Carolina, grew up poor but made a good living farming cotton and more importantly, buying and selling what turned out to be valuable real estate property. Because of his family’s meager income, Granddaddy Hinton only finished fourth grade, forced to leave school and work as a sharecropper like his father. Because of what he didn’t receive, he always stressed the importance of finishing school to his children and grandchildren. He valued education more than going to church and my grandfather valued going to church, serving as a deacon in the Baptist Church for most of his adult life.

While he was alive I never read his diaries; of course, nobody did. But I imagined the things he would note, the details of his work, the events he wanted to remember. One day I asked him about his records, how long he had kept them, and he lifted me from the floor, placed me on the counter, and opened that sacred cabinet. I could see stacks and stacks of those small black books and he replied that he had kept a diary ever since he was able to buy his first cow. And then, without pulling one out to show me, he lifted me off the counter and placed me on the floor. “What grade are you in?” he asked. “Fourth,” I answered. “Well then, maybe it’s time for you to get your own diary.” and he drove me into town to the stationary shop and bought me my own small black leather bound diary. It became the first of many.

Granddaddy Hinton died when I was nineteen. I was sophomore in college and his funeral was during the Christmas break. After a very melancholy Christmas family gathering when all of my aunts and uncles, cousins, and siblings had left and I was staying on a few days with my grandmother, she walked me into the kitchen, explaining that she had a special gift she had saved for me --- one she knew my grandfather would want me to have. She opened that tall forbidden cabinet and took out a stack of my grandfather’s diaries. “Pick a few,” she said, “and the others I will hang onto.”

For an entire afternoon and evening, I read those diaries, watching the days of my grandfather pass by. The daily entries were short, not very informative, details of a sale or a note of a visit from a child or grandchild, certainly nothing intimate or confidential, nothing like the things I imagined were in there, nothing like the things I wrote in my diaries. But as I read my grandfather’s words, many of them spelled incorrectly, the grammar all wrong, I realized that more than just a need to make record of the significant events, my grandfather, whose spelling was atrocious and who could hardly make a sentence, was a person who loved words. I realized from my grandfather’s diaries, covering a span of fifty years, that he was the first writer in the family. He was the one who taught me the importance of getting the story down on a paper.

Following my grandmother’s instructions, I picked four diaries to keep, his first, two from the middle years when he was buying up the land that he had farmed but never owned, and his last, one that spoke of his battle of cancer. Short sentences, brief simple words naming his triumphs and his suffering. When I showed my choices to my grandmother, still sick from grief, she nodded and smiled, “I think he always wanted to be a writer,” she said. “Maybe his diaries will help make a writer out of you.”

And funny thing, maybe they did.

-- Lynne Hinton

Tomorrow, Barbara Delinsky recalls the one time she'd broken her self-established rule on gifting copies of her own works.