Lift Every Voice: My Grandparents' House

As a child, I loved to visit my grandparents. Their home was very different from ours. My grandmother had purchased it late in life with her own money, she would proudly say. In the house were cherry-wood end tables with scalloped edges and leather insets, beautiful ornate ceramic peacocks that stood proudly on the mantel like bookends, elegant knickknacks and figurines from around the world, and magnificent table lamps — wedding gifts from her dad.

My grandfather was disabled. Upon our arrival, my first stop was to his bedroom to say hello. Many weekends my siblings and I looked after him while my grandmother worked. We lit his cigarettes, helped feed him meals. It was different when our entire family visited. Then, after a quick chat with my grandfather we’d settle into the kitchen to talk and laugh, as the adults told stories and drank gin and we kids listened, goofed around, and ate our burgers. At some point, I would slip away. The house wasn’t very big, but I would find myself in another world.

In the dining-room breakfront, bluebirds sat next to delicate pink and green dishes in miniature. Ceramic figurines stood beside crystal glasses and dime-store pieces. (We were not to touch those things, but I did anyhow — and often. They had been to other places and seen things I hadn’t, but in my grandmother’s house they would have even more adventures — I made sure of that!) On an end table in the living room sat a set of male and female figurines who represented the Victorian era (I know that now), with big, puffy porcelain hair that reminded me of George Washington’s wigs, and pale white skin to match. One of the men held a violin. The women wore gowns. On my knees, I weaved tales as grand as the ones told by the adults in the kitchen — at least in my mind they were. I was partial to love stories, romance, though I had no experience myself, and many of the stories ended with the figurines kissing.

The adults in our world never let us disappear for long. So as not to be discovered, I would soon tiptoe back to the kitchen to make my presence known. As always, the grownups would be knee-deep in laughter — recalling stories they had told a million times before. These were no ordinary storytellers. Their tales included sound effects—feet stomped when they spoke of someone running off; finger guns and shots fired from lips delighted us as my uncle, the policeman, spoke of lawbreakers or rogue cops. Satisfied, I would return to the knickknacks and my own stories. To this day, a few of my grandmother’s knickknacks share my home with me.

I cannot point to one thing that led directly to my Coretta Scott King Author Award, but those days in my grandparents’ home certainly played a huge part. My parents, grandparents, uncle, and aunt are the biggest influence on my literary style and voice. They were working-class Americans who held onto their pride and dignity, regardless of what our nation tossed their way, and one way they did that was through story. Their tales reminded us, and them, of the significance of our family, cultural legacy, and history.

My family was tickled pink to learn I had won a CSK Award. They know the importance of telling our stories and passing them down through generations. In many ways this award allowed them to make a mark on the wider world without having to venture out of their neighborhoods. I will always be grateful to the CSK Committee for that, and so much more.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Sharon G. Flake

Sharon G. Flake won the 1999 John Steptoe New Talent Author Award for The Skin I'm In (Jump at the Sun), whose sequel will be released in 2020.

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