I Feel Safer When You Hold My Hand

Our granddaughter has been visiting for a couple of weeks, and now that she’s back home, I miss her.  She’ll soon be eleven – smart, clever, and equipped with one of the most vivid imaginations I’ve seen in a person of any age.  She’s into Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and she makes up stories in those genres herself.  When we go to the swimming pool, we act them out.  She will one day be a movie director.

I look out for her, as grandfathers should.  When we cross a street or a parking lot, I say, “I feel so much safer when you hold my hand.”  And she does.  And we pass safely.  I’m reassured, and I believe she is too.

Both of my grandfathers were gone by the time I came along, but I had a grandmother who held my hand.  Nell Cooper was the family matriarch of our large, rowdy small town southern family.  I was the oldest of twelve grandchildren.  I could do no wrong.  That feeling has been a great comfort to me all of my life, knowing that I was extra-special in the eyes of one very special person.  It’s something worth living up to.

My grandmother and I took summer vacations together – nothing exotic, like Acapulco or the Canadian Rockies.  Instead, we got in her old Chevrolet and drove about forty miles out in the country to the crossroads home of my great-aunt, Mama Cooper’s sister.  And there we stayed for a week, sometimes two.  Just this one little snotty-nosed kid and two older women who doted on him.  Aunt Mayme, our hostess, told great smutty jokes, which had mostly to do with bathroom stuff.  The kid laughed his butt off.  When we returned home, I was rife with rottenness.

Sometimes, other sisters showed up (there was, at one time, nine of them) and they would visit as women do and tell stories and I would just sit there and listen and soak it all in.  They were daughters of a Methodist minister, and they had grown up in times of camp meetings and revivals and moving from one parsonage to another.  They were full of life (and sometimes mischief) and the tales they told to and about one another were better than any Star Wars or Indiana Jones.  

I truly believe those women made me a storyteller.  Every person who wants to write stories should have such a storehouse of material, delivered in person by people who represent their past, their legacy, their baggage.  That kind of material goes into a special place in the mind and heart to be doled out later as the need arises.

If I had one wish, it would be for every grandchild to have a grandparent who thinks the kid is extra special, who isn’t afraid to act silly and have adventures large and small, who feels safer when the kid is holding his or her hand.  I’m sure glad I had mine.

The Music of Writing

            My grandmother was a piano teacher.  Widowed in middle age with four children, she made her living by sharing her love for music with several generations of young folks, me included.  The popular book for beginners back then was “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” which is about an apt a title for any book I can imagine.  Thousands of little fingers stumbled across the keys of her Story and Clark upright piano, and many became proficient, a few truly talented.  I fell somewhere just shy of the middle.

teaching little fingers.jpg

            I wish I had stayed with those piano lessons longer, but at a point in junior high school I got a job and discovered girls, and left the lessons behind.  Still, there are things about my hours at the keyboard of that Story and Clark that have stayed with me.  I can read music, I understand harmony, I have a good feel for rhythm.  The basics.

            Music has always been an important part of my life.  I sang in the high school glee club and church choir.  I became a teenaged disc jockey and worked my way through college spinning records for stations in Tuscaloosa.  I came over time to an appreciation for just about any musical genre  you can imagine – rock, pop, country, bluegrass, classical, jazz.  I retained enough of those basics of composition to write the songs, music and lyrics, for two stage musicals.  I hear music in my head, and some of it is new stuff.  I know enough to put it in a lead sheet and then turn it over to my music professor friend, Dr. Bill Harbinson, who arranges it into what I call “real music.”


            Music informs my storytelling.  I figured out early on in my playwriting career – from studying the work of talented people like Rodgers and Hammerstein – that a song in a play should illuminate character, advance the plot, or (hopefully) both.  The songs should be an integral and seamless part of the story.

            Music and lyrics are woven into my novels.  In Old Dogs and Children, Dorsey Bascombe plays the trombone, and he tells his small daughter Bright that “a trombone is the sound of God breathing.”  In my new book, The Governor’s Lady, a bluegrass band “makes the air dance with their fiddles and guitars and banjos.”  And Pickett Lanier, later to become a governor and presidential candidate, writes and sings a song for his new wife Cooper:

            If I was a three-legged dog, two legs front and one leg rear,
            I’d rouse myself in the evening time, get my three old legs in gear;
            Leave my place in the cool, cool shade, drink my fill of Gatorade,
            And hippity-hop to you, my dear.

            It says a lot about Pickett, and not for the better, that he puts aside his guitar and turns to politics.

            Music has also given me a sense of the rhythm of a story, especially one played out over the length of a book.  To me, a good story has an ebb and flow to it.  It can’t go at break-neck speed all the time.  It needs moments to pause in the cool, cool shade and ponder.  Those are important moments to me in discovering who my characters are and why.

            So it started there on the bench of my grandmother’s Story and Clark upright as she patiently taught my little fingers to play.  Now, when I write, she’s always at my elbow.

Robert Inman’s previously-published novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, and Captain Saturday – are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo in e-book format.