Those who have followed the poetry scene in Southern California know about FrancEyE (aka Frances Dean Smith). She has been reading and publishing her poetry since the 1960s and until recently, lived in Ocean Park.
FrancEyE wrote Grandma Stories for her grandson, Nikhil Henry Bukowski Sahoo. Like all grandparents, she told stories, in this case, stories about her early life. To make things simpler, she called herself “Baby Grandma” and in somewhat later incarnations, “First Grade Grandma,” “Soldier Grandma” (when she was in the WACs during WW II), and “Poet Grandma.”
This lovely little book, Grandma Stories, contains a collection of some of FrancEyE’s stories about her childhood and other key incidents in her life. The subjects of her stories often touch on very adult themes – the conflicts of her parents, illness, prejudice, and death. What is breathtaking about these seemingly simple tales is how well the innocent voice is used to describe the difficult, and sometimes scary, aspects of human existence.
The book begins with “Born,” describing “Baby Grandma’s” birth in 1922, “in a little hospital run by nuns. There has been a terrible automobile accident in the icy weather and the nuns are very busy. They have Baby Grandma’s Mama folding bandages while she waits for Baby Grandma to be born.”
During the ensuing years, “Baby Grandma” experiences frequent moves to different locales. She learns the hard way that early physical experimentation with the very young boy next door is not allowed, and that a man who “looks like a clown” is actually the Chinese laundryman. One understands from these accounts the meaning of FrancEyE’s pen name. It takes a frankness, a complete purity of intent, to tell stories about childhood sexuality and misunderstanding about racial characteristics. Because FrancEyE is honest and gentle in her storytelling, the incidents do not come across as crude or insensitive.
Grandma, as she moves through the stages of school that cause her to be First-Grade, Second-Grade, and Third-Grade Grandma, has to deal with other hardships – anemia, a death in the family, being told she can’t play with a friend who is Irish. She learns how it is to be lonely and decides that, “she will get along without friends. She does not know that this is something that no one can do, so she tries.” Her friends, she concludes, for much of the rest of her life, will be friends found in books.
There may have been more stories about “Teen Grandma” than are represented here–but then again, those stories may be waiting for FrancEyE’s grandson to reach the appropriate age.
But the last story realizes the solution to a special challenge: what if your grandfather is Charles Bukowski, a rough-and-ready writer and poet, known for his hard life and hard drinking habits? How do you tell a child how he came to be because Grandma had a child (Nikhil’s mother) with Bukowski?
“Poet Grandma was lonesome,” FrancEyE writes. “So she wrote a letter to the world’s greatest poet and told him she would like to meet him.” The result was a love affair that yielded a daughter and also helped “Poet Grandma” find her own writer’s voice.
There are only tiny pictures – actually one picture at the end of each brief chapter of Baby Grandma. But the book reads like the ultimate picture book for both adults and children, a tale of a unique life and of learning about life. And it is a fitting analog to the treasure-trove of poetry by this woman who found her voice and used it.Baby Grandma by FrancEyE, 48 pages, $14.00 published by Conflux Press, Box 12218, Prescott AZ,86304, confluxpress.com.