|The author at age 2 with her grandmother,
sharing the love of literature
Author J. Ivanel Johnson shares here the inspiration bestowed upon her by her grandmother through many decades ~ and how a death-bed promise she made to her 30 years ago has finally been kept. She explains how keeping promises made to a passing loved one keeps them close, and may help alleviate any guilt felt at the time of their death.
Grief is a monster. It comes for you when you think you’ve slain the dragon. It hunts you down in what might have begun a peaceful dream, one from which you think you might find some solace, deep in your mid-nights.Sometimes it’s worse than excruciating physical pain. But a death-bed promise—especially when there’s some guilt attached to a loved one’s passing (and hey, isn’t there almost always?)—once kept, can help you find a safe and monster-free fortress in which to lodge.
My paternal grandmother was my best friend. I was lucky enough to know not only all four of my grandparents well, but even to have memories of my two great-grandmothers. As in the traditions of old, my sister and I grew up in the same house that my grandparents had built decades prior, and while they lived separately on a lower floor, I spent more time with my Grandma Johnson than any other person on earth. I had few friends at school, was often at battle with my sister and one or both of my parents as I progressed into my teens and, while I respected my grandfather, it was Grandma who was truly my best friend. She listened patiently every day while I outlined details of all the joys and sorrows I’d experienced in the hours since I’d seen her last. She played games and set treasure hunts and puzzles for my sister and me, or we would do the same for her and she’d pretend to be mystified by our ‘clues’. She would sit and watch my favourite television programs on a Friday or Saturday night and would seem just as enthralled with the plots and storylines as I was.
Perhaps most important of all, though, was that she was my chief inspiration all through my pre-teen and teen years. On many mornings I would wake to the sound of her typing enthusiastically below. For my grandmother, Victoria Ivanel Johnson, was a prolific novelist who never published. After WWII, she began banging out many a mystery or romantic suspense plot, 80,000 words in each of her manuscripts. But early on, she sent one of her manuscripts to a publisher and was advised to write more ‘boudoir’ scenes (even then, ‘sex sells’!). She did not wish to do this, nor did she like the feeling of that first rejection. So from that time on, all through to the mid 1970s when she stopped writing, she only ever wrote for herself. I always felt her disappointment, however, and was saddened by her unrewarded efforts. And I always promised her in a rather breezy, off-hand way, that someday I would ensure her work was published and her name would be on a front cover of a book.
When I was twelve, she gave me my first typewriter. I proceeded to write a family newsletter for several years, full of anecdotes, ‘interviews’, fun verses, and little illustrations. Grandma often helped with these. I was first published by a Toronto press when I was thirteen and Grandma was ecstatic. Then, for decades, into my early thirties, I had my own short stories, poetry and articles published under my given name, and Grandma was always quietly supportive of each and every one, never mentioning her own work—bundles of unread manuscripts stacked in a huge hump-backed trunk in her bedroom closet.
I had actually always made two promises to my best friend. One was that someday I’d see her work published. The other was that she would never, ever have to endure the horrors (for her) of being placed in a nursing home. As I am today, she was a recluse. She had a few close friends, but mostly just enjoyed her quiet time alone, writing, going for walks on our rural property, talking to us, and playing daily Scrabble with Grandpa. And, like so many of her generation, she was also extremely proud and never wanted anyone to know if she had the least hardship or pain, never mind someone actually helping her with said impediment. So the thought of a nursing home with its gossipy chatter, constant housekeeping noises, little privacy and someone having to help her get dressed and bathe— or worse!—was so completely abhorrent to her that we all feared she might commit suicide in order to avoid going to such a facility.
Thus, when I was in my mid-twenties and just newly-married, whilst starting a home business on yet another rural property with my husband, the time came to keep my first promise. Grandma had found herself in the time of life when she could no longer completely care for herself, her own son (my father) had predeceased her, and her husband and only sibling had also passed away, all within a few short years. And her physical health was failing, not to mention her mental health. So my husband and I renovated a granny suite for her at our farmhouse and she moved in with us and stayed, fairly content, for three years.
However—and here’s where my stomach-knotting guilt comes in, even thirty years later—because my new husband and I were making so many fast-changing adjustments to our lives, and with the stresses of a new business in a time of recession, we fought. A lot. And Grandma would of course hear us. And naturally, like times of old, I would still go to her with all my own problems and discuss them with her, which would probably eat at her insides. On top of which, because she didn’t want me to help bathe her, she was developing sores and osteoarthritis-related formations that should have been attended to by a doctor. Whenever I saw her in pain and asked if she’d like me to take her to one, she of course refused. And I was too young and busy and narcissistic to insist. I think in three years I managed to take her twice, but she never wanted to go through with the suggested battery of tests. Probably because she was thinking of me and my time, as well as her own pride.
So after three years, it was apparent she hadn’t long to live. We took her to the hospital when the pain was too much, and they began the essential morphine drip. My sister flew in to say her goodbyes. And at one point, holding Grandma’s hand and before she became too doped-up, I leaned over and whispered in her ear a final time that I would absolutely stick to my promise to see her name on a book cover one day, with some of her own ideas and words between those covers. She gave me a half-smile and a near wink and I could see that she knew I would do my utmost.
It’s taken thirty years. Thirty years exactly. But having worked very hard, off and on for decades, on one of her murder-mystery manuscripts (rewriting it almost completely, but leaving just enough of the plot, some characters and yes, even a few of her own sentences here and there), then updating it to 1971 instead of being set in 1947 when she’d started it, and with many rounds of revisions and submissions, Just A STILL LIFE will be out in September of this year. (Black Rose Writing, Castroville TX)
Through the first series of pre-launch promotions, I have talked about Victoria Ivanel Johnson a good deal. And since adopting part of her name as my pen name, “Ivanel Johnson” is already being seen in print, just as it will later appear on the cover of the novel. As promised.
And those monsters of both the Grief of losing my best friend and the Guilt of considering myself neglectful (as well as adding worry and stress to her last years) are starting to finally subside. Because I feel her with me every day again, through these last few years of committed work. She is beside me, encouraging me, nudging me forward (not for herself, of course, but for me, wholly unselfish as always). She is also above me, looking down, proud and excited about this project that she began seventy-five years ago.
It has been said that death-bed promises aren’t a wise thing to make. I can see why not, certainly. But I have the stubborn pride and determination of a host of ancestors who, when they made a promise, pact, or deal of any sort, KEPT it. And therefore, I highly recommend that if you are of a similar nature, and a descendent of similar strong-willed folk, you make peace with those about to pass by making promises you know will help them on their journey with a half-smile and a near wink.
© 2022 by J. Ivanel Johnson
About the Author: J. Ivanel Johnson is the pen name for a disabled author who now lives in the Appalachians of NewBrunswick, Canada, with her mother and husband ~ on a small farm overlooking inspirational views of nature. Striving always to write about marginalized and culturally-diverse characters (many based on people from the First Nation reservations or inner cities where she has taught), her imagination nonetheless has most soared whilst living “Out and Up” – in the highlands of Scotland, the moors of Yorkshire, and the Rockies of Montana and the Yukon. She has published many short stories, articles, and poems in a variety of magazines, literary journals, and anthologies through the course of 45 years, including the Prix Aurora-nominated Nothing Without Us by Renaissance Press of Ottawa. Although her writing trunk is full of her grandmother’s old manuscripts as well as four completed books of her own, her debut murder-mystery novel is finally being released in September 2022, the first in the JUST(e)STATE series. She is also developing her first full-length stage musical “Rough Notes”, written in 2018-2019. Her website and other links are listed here: https://linktr.ee/j.ivanel