Grandma's beer straws

writing about people through objects

My Grandma Hall lived in Salt Lake City in a house with swinging saloon doors between the kitchen and the living room. Her back patio had a yellow corrugated plastic roof, so the light was amber-colored as an ashtray, the air stale with smoke even after she traded cigarettes for R2D2, the oxygen tank that followed her from room to room. If you wanted to find Grandma, you followed the tube. If you didn’t want to suffocate Grandma, you didn’t step on the tube.

She was not even as tall as I am, which is not tall, but kept her cereal in the cupboard above the stove. She got the boxes down with a barbecue skewer. Each box had twin holes. She drank her weak Utah Natty Ice like the water it almost was. She drank it out of a coozie, with a straw.

She could sew anything. She read everything, kept up with the poets of her generation, loved the Bard. For many years what I knew of her was the tape she made of herself reading Little Golden Books and nursery rhymes, those bad little kittens who lost their mittens, that righteous red hen, the morals indisputable, the delivery flawless. Between stories, she’d stop to tell us about the cookies she was taking out of the oven.

Every Christmas came a package of intricate, hand-knit, often too small, acrylic sweaters and eclectic office products — sticky notes and double-sided Scotch tape, she had stock in 3M — stinking like cigarettes. The cheerful packages sat on the porch to air first, then under the tree.

When my grandma died, I inherited three things: her sewing bust, adjusted to her dimensions; Naked Poetry, an old collection of free verse poetry by Sylvia Plath, James Wright and other poets who were my grandma’s contemporaries, still fresh-faced and bushy-bearded in the book’s photographs; and her beer straws. We used the last straw up this summer, drinking smoothies.

A portrait through objects:

Here, I’ve told you about my grandma, not through describing her personality, but through the objects that remind me of her. This portrait says more about me and our relationship than it sums her up, of course, but what writing doesn’t have its slant?

I love writing about people through writing about objects, and my students do too. This is one of those old reliable prompts that never does me wrong.

Writing Object Portrait Poems:

Think of someone you know well.

Brainstorm all the objects that remind you of them. Be detailed. Say white 1993 Camry, not car.

What places do you think of, when you think of them? Be specific.

What can you hear them say in your mind?

Now take your notes and write a poem (or some prose) about them, using the objects to paint a portrait of them.

Credit where credit is due:

I got this exercise from the totally fabulous book Poetry Everywhere, which is an energizing and keep-you-up-at-night inspiring collection of great creative writing prompts and poems by schoolkids in rural Idaho.

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